A Pax Sinica in the Middle East? Some Conjectures
One doesn't hear Chinese leaders talk of "an end to evil," as Richard Perle and David Frum entitled their neo-con manifesto of ten years ago; China's atittude to the world beyond its borders is governed by self-interest, which mainly means arrangements conducive to the flow of trade. By "borders," to be sure, the Chinese mean their historic territory, including Tibet and Taiwan. Outside of that, the Chinese have no wish to become imperial masters. They do not particularly like other cultures and other peoples, believing their own to be the best and most virtuous, and do not wish upon themselves the trouble of ruling them. China's economy, though, has a limitless appetite for raw materials and a burgeoning need for higher-value-added exports. In private conversation, Chinese officials insist that they are content to follow the American lead in such matters as Iran's nuclear program. They do not envy America its position of world policeman.
American fecklessness, though, might conceivably push China to take a more active role. That will not be a simple decision for China to make, if ever it does, but it is not out of the question. That is why Isreali President Shimon Peres' April 9 comment in Beijing about China's prospective role in containing Iran's nuclear ambitions is so striking:
(JNS.org) During his state visit to China, Israeli President Shimon Peres said Tuesday that China is a key to preventing a nuclear Iran. “China has a central role in the efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb. Iran is the center of terror in the world. Iran funds terrorism and exports it across the entire Middle East and beyond,” said Peres, whose trip was the first to China by an Israeli president in 10 years.
One can only speculate, as I did in the Oct. 28, 2013 Asia Times essay reprinted below. The facts on the ground, though, are suggestive. China is Saudi Arabia's biggest rading partner and will depend on Saudi oil indefinitely. It buys hydrocarbons from Iran, but far less. It is by far the most important investor in Pakistan, and is likely to become a major presence in the economic and military life of Turkey, as it builds high-speed rail across Asia to Istanbul, and possibly provides Turkey with an air defense system. Faced with an assertive Russia on the Black Sea and in Syria, where Turkey is deeply committed to the opposite side, Turkey could use a friend to the east. Its gigantic foreign indebtedness, moreover, begs the question of where it will find adequate foreign investment. China has more to lose from regional instability than any other country, given its energy dependency, and its influence in the region is growing. If it wished to put pressure on Iran, it surely could, by a number of means.
Perhaps President Peres knows something that the rest of us do not; perhaps he merely gave voice to wishful thinking. But it is a reasonable supposition that the vacuum left by the implosion of American influence in the region may be filled much faster than we might have expected.
English-language media completely ignored a noteworthy statement that led Der Spiegel's German-language website October 12, a call for China to "take on responsibility as a world power" in the Middle East. Penned by Bernhard Zand, the German news organization's Beijing correspondent, it is terse and to the point: now that China imports more oil from the Middle East than any other country in the world, it must answer for the region's security. "America's interest in the Middle East diminishes day by day" as it heads towards energy self-sufficiency, wrote Zand, adding:
China's interest in a peaceful Middle East is enormous, by contrast. Beijing is not only the biggest customer of precisely those oil powers who presently are fanning the flames of conflict in Syria; as a VIP customer, Beijing has growing political influence, which it should use openly. The word of the Chinese foreign minister has just as much weight in Tehran and Riyadh as that of his American counterpart.
China's situation, Zand continues, is rather like Germany's after reunification: a state whose economic power is growing will eventually be asked what it puts on the table politically. He concludes:
The time when American could be counted on to secure Beijing's supply lines soon will come to an end - America's budget deficit will take care of that by itself. Whoever wants to be a world power must take on responsibilities.
I have no idea how China envisions its future role in the Middle East. Americans will learn the intentions of the powers who gradually fill the vacuum left by Washington's withdrawal from the world "well after the fact, if ever", as I wrote on September 16 (See US plays Monopoly, Russia plays chess, Asia Times Online). That is why I have retired from foreign policy analysis. It is helpful, though, to take note of what the rest of the world is saying, particularly when not a single English-language source made reference to it. Der Spiegel's public call for China to assume a leading geopolitical role in the Middle East, though, did not appear out of context.
American commentators have regarded China as a spoiler, the source of Pakistan's nuclear weapons technology, Iran's ballistic missiles, and other alarming instances of proliferation. It is worth considering a radically different view of China's interests in the lands between the Himalayas and the Mediterranean: no world power has more to lose from instability than does China.
Iran's nuclear weapons program poses the greatest risk to the region, and China has been viewed as uncooperative in the extreme by Western diplomats trying to tighten the economic screws on Tehran. Chinese companies, moreover, have helped Iran bypass trade sanctions, but at great cost, and with a complex result. The New York Times on September 30 profiled the problems of Iran's economy under the sanctions, and took note of the country's dependence on China:
One economist, Mohammad Sadegh Jahansefat, said the government had been taken hostage by countries benefiting from the sanctions - particularly China, which he called the worst business partner Iran had ever had.
"China has monopolized our trade - we are subsidizing their goods, which we are forced to import," he said, adding of its work in the energy industry, "They destroy local production and leave oil and gas projects unfinished so that no one can work with them." 
China's capacity to exert pressure on the Iranian regime is considerable. Apart from its interest in avoiding nuclear proliferation in the Persian Gulf, China has a number of points of conflict with Iran, well summarized in an October 17 survey by Zachary Keck in The Diplomat.  The one that should keep Tehran on its toes is the Islamic Republic's border with Pakistan. Iran announced October 26 that it had hanged 16 alleged Sunni rebels in Baluchistan province on the Pakistani border, the latest in a long series of violent incidents.
"With a population of 170 million, Pakistan has 20 million men of military age, as many as Iran and Turkey combined; by 2035 it will have half again as many," I observed in 2009 (see Hedgehogs and flamingos in Tehran, Asia Times Online, June 16, 2009). It also has nuclear weapons.
Iran sits between two Sunni powers -Turkey and Pakistan - that depend to a great extent on Saudi financing, and that also have excellent relations with China. Turkey's still-disputed agreement to buy a Chinese air defense system represented a revolution in Chinese-Turkish relations, motivated by a Chinese promise to transfer the whole package of relevant technology to Turkey and to help the Turks to manufacture the systems, a more generous offer than ever Ankara got from the West. Turkey is the logical terminus for the "New Silk Road" of road, rail, pipelines and broadband that China has proposed to build in Central Asia.
China, it might be added, also has excellent relations with Israel, whose premier technical university just was offered a US$130 million grant from Hong Kong magnate Li Ka-shing to fund part of the costs of building a branch in China. Chinese provincial and local governments will contribute another $147 million. The seamless interchange of ideas and personnel between Israel's military, universities and tech entrepreneurs is a success story in miniature that China hopes to reproduce in scale. As Singapore-based political scientist Michael Raska reports, China's military modernization envisions the spread of dual-use technologies to private industry.
Without attributing any geopolitical intention to Beijing, the visible facts make clear that China has the capacity to exercise strategic influence in the Middle East, and it has an unambiguous interest in maintaining stability. What China might choose to do, Washington will learn after the fact, if ever. If China wished to influence Iran, for example, it has considerable means to do so, and a great deal else besides.
1. Iran Staggers as Sanctions Hit Economy, New York Times, September 30, 2013.
2. China and Iran: Destined to Clash?, The Diplomat, October 17, 2013.