Question marks over China’s next big Mideast peacemaking efforts

    WORLD  11 June 2023 - 05:00

    Beijing will need to make more political and security commitments if it is serious about deeper engagement with the Middle East and solving some of the region’s long-standing problems, according to observers.

    In an online discussion organised by the think tank the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Thursday, analysts said that while countries in the region had responded positively to China’s recent engagement, there was still a question mark about how big a role Beijing could play, South China Morning Post reports.

    In March, China helped broker a landmark peace deal between regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran, with Tehran and Riyadh restoring diplomatic relations for the first time in seven years. President Xi Jinping was reportedly directly involved in realising the agreement.

    A month later, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang said Beijing was ready to help with peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

    The engagement came after Xi attended two inaugural summits with Arab states and the Gulf Cooperation Council in Saudi Arabia late last year.

    For many, the agreement was a clear sign of China’s growing influence in a region where the United States has been the main external player.

    But analysts on the Carnegie forum’s panel said it was still unclear how committed Beijing was to handling security issues, and whether it had the resources needed for the Middle East.

    Yu Jie, a senior research fellow in the Asia-Pacific programme at Chatham House, said China’s pool of Middle East expertise was smaller than its reserves of US foreign policy or European studies specialists.

    “So even though China has the intention of playing a much bigger role, you still need the capability and capacity to sustain that level of ambition,” Yu said.

    The panel also questioned how committed China was to enforcing the terms of the Saudi-Iran deal.

    One of the main terms was that all parties agreed in principle to non-interference in each other’s affairs. But Saudi Arabia and Iran have used proxy forces against each other, such as the civil war in Yemen.

    “Should either party renege … what China will do is not very clear,” said Maha Yahya, the director of the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Centre.

    “I don’t see China at this point moving in for security [purposes].

    “That’s not its usual MO, and despite the shift in its foreign policy it doesn’t have the hardware in the region to do this.”

    Participants also raised doubts about how effective China could be in brokering an acceptable peace solution between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

    Yahya said that unlike the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the balance of power between the Israelis and Palestinians was “asymmetrical”, and would require China to deploy “significant political capital” to force the two sides to negotiate.

    “I have not seen any moves by China to move in that direction,” she said.

    But China does benefit from a lack of “historical baggage” in the Middle East, according to panellist Benjamin Ho, an assistant professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies’ China programme in Singapore.

    Ho said China did not have any disagreements such as territorial disputes in the region, giving it a “neutral slate” for engagement.

    “[But] they recognise the Middle East is a far more complicated region, with history that spans thousands of years,” Ho said.

    “So I don’t think the Chinese are under any illusions that they’re going there in a big way and to sort of change the regional architecture or the situation.”

    Caliber.Az

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