The reason that this author has not devoted much space in this column to discussions of the Middle East (M.E.) issues is not because of a lack of problems there; rather too many messy problems with no solutionsin sight to inspire meaningful discussions. The author subscribes to several newsletters and publications covering the M.E. issues and the U.S. involvement there. The nearly daily bombardments of 'hot news' on M.E. just add frustration, frustration and frustration. As a 'senior' columnist (serving American citizen’s duty to understand and interpret the U.S. foreign and domestic policies), the continuous evolving M.E. crises are just too complex to be written in short columns. The U.S. could not get a bi-partisan endorsed long-term M.E. strategy nor an all citizen supported U.S. military engagement there. Russia was just eager to counter the U.S. influence in the M.E. whether or not the U.S. plan was working.
In today's column, entitled, ‘Is China's Middle East Effort A Wishful Dream, Risky Investment or Genuine Peace Plan?’, is really triggered by China's recent string of actions (like in Chinese Wei Qi, a set of pieces strategically placed will eventually reveal the player's intent and likelihood of a winning pattern) that seem to shed a light of hope in resolving the complex M.E. issues. However, China's M.E. effort appears to be part of an ambitious plan, whose vision is exhibited by the One Belt and One Route initiative (OBOR, I prefer to translate the Chinese word '路' to ‘route’ not ‘road’ because I think the word 'route' is broader in scope involving strategic and directional planning than the word 'road'). But its hidden part, not yet so obvious, could be regarded as the M.E. Peace Plan. It is this plan the author wishes to discuss and analyze - whether China’s plan is just a wishful thinking, a risky investment or a real hopeful peace plan for solving the M.E. problems?
The problems in the M.E. should be first summarized in terms of key conflicts to set the background for our discussion on China’s M.E. Effort (Readers can review these conflicts in Wikipedia for details thus only brief summary is given here):
1. The M.E. problems in the past 100 years are due to oil resources and geopolitical interests, dictator/regime changes, Arab Springs, racial and religious conflicts and rise of terrorism.
2. The conflicts among UK-US and Russia in the M.E. (rooted in regional domination and regime control have created Israel-Palestine confrontation, the Gulf War and Iraq crisis, Iran regime change tilting to Islam fundamentalism, an Iranian nuclear threat and the Islamic State (ISIS).
3. Externally influenced Arab Spring had affected regime changes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya (Al-Qaddafi), and Yemen and forced Morocco and Jordan to amend constitution and government reform.
4. Arab Spring in Syria created Free Syrian Army and caused civil war with Russia supporting the regime and Saudi-US supporting the rebel.
5. The current M.E. problems are extensions of the past troubles accentuated by i). historical Arab-Israel conflict, ii). Racial Suuni-Shiite rivalry, and iii). threat of Islam in terms of intolerance and terrorism.
6. Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or Iraq and Levant (ISIL), a Sunni Jihadist group claiming religious authority over all Muslims, is savvy with social media for fundraising and recruitment resulting in its expansion, continued instability in the M.E. and a rise in terrorism.
The above problems produced M.E. turmoil, the spread of M.E. refugees to other countries and terrorist events throughout the world begging for solution but none exists. The new Administration of the U.S. is retreating from her past ineffective efforts of maintaining peace in the M.E. and now focusing on America First. China on the other hand seems to be stepping up to the challenges of solving the M.E. issues with new diplomatic and economic actions applied to the M.E. and Muslim countries. China has always paid attention to the problems in the Muslim world since she has a significant population of Muslim citizens of her own. During the Cold War, China was a poor developing country; her attention to her Muslim populated regions was more policies than grand projects due to limited resources. Post Cold War, China has maintained a high economic growth rate to eventually become the world’s second largest economy. Thus, China’s attention to her Muslim populated regions has been heightened with numerous infrastructure and economic developments in electrification, highway projects, high speed rail lines, water resources, mining, desert greening and numerous agriculture and industrialization programs. The 9-11-2001 terrorists attack on World Trade Center in New York might have alerted China about the rise of terrorism originated from the M.E. but the activities of Arab Spring a decade later perhaps really had stimulated China into developing a comprehensive strategy to deal with the Muslim world and the M.E.
The following developments (and achievements) in China’s foreign policy regarding Muslim countries and the M.E. lend strong evidence to China’s genuine attempt to develop a peace plan for the M.E. and for her own benefits:
1. China-Malaysia bilateral trade shows China being Malaysia’s second largest trading partner (2016, $23.7B versus $27.6B, Singapore 1st place, China being first place seven years prior) and Malaysia being China’s largest trading partners among ASEAN nations. China is also the largest trading partner of Indonesia (2016, $16.8B versus $16.2B, the U.S. 2nd place)
2. China published her Arab Policy Paper on January 13, 2016 prior to President Xi’s first M.E. trip (1/19-24/2016) visiting Saudi Arabia (elevating bilateral ties to comprehensive strategic partners, e.g. setting up Chinese drone manufacturing in Saudi Arabia, Saudi King visited China on 3/15-18/2017 witnessing $65B business deals), Egypt and Iran just days after UN’s nuclear-related sanctions on Iran were lifted following Teheran scaling back its nuclear program. Xi had timed the trip for an opportune time to broker a peace relationship between Riyadh and Teheran. His speech at the Arab League in Cairo stated clearly China’s honorable position: “instead of looking for a proxy, seeking any sphere of influence, and filling the vacuum, China will promote peace talks, call friends to join OBOR initiative and build a cooperative partnership network for win-win opportunities”.
3. China established her first foreign military base at Djbouti, located in the Horn of Africa. China and Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is a major initiative (2013) related to OBOR; its infrastructure, energy, Gwadar port and many other projects will not only benefit China and Pakistan but will also benefit Iran, Afghanistan, India and Central Asia. China opens OBOR to Saudi and Iran to reduce tension and create cooperation. China will build high-speed rail from Xinjiang to Tehran (Shiite) passing through Sunni Muslim Central Asia countries (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan). China also promotes Iran membership in Shanghai Cooperative Organization which other Muslim country members (Sunni) have joined.
4. China has always maintained supportive position regarding establishment of a Palestine state and a good economic, military and technological links with Israel. China had invited both Palestine and Israel leaders to visit China with the intent to play an honest broker role to achieve a peaceful solution between them.
From the above discussion, we can appreciate the complexity of the M.E. problems and China’s strategic effort in promoting peace for the M.E. China has made tremendous investments in the Muslim world. China’s approach of being “Friends to All” and “Enemy to None” may be a viable new alternative strategy to bring the M.E. to peace. The U.S. and Russia should welcome China’s effort and the world would benefit if China’s effort could succeed in the end.