China's most dramatic 21st century Middle Eastern political move so far was its decision on February 4, 2012, to join Russia in vetoing an exceptionally mild and toothless UN Security Council resolution condemning Syria's Assad regime for its ongoing repression of the Syrian people. It was an action made China look like a weak follower of Putin's Russia. The veto aroused the hostility of a growing alliance of traditional Arab regimes, led by Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and the Islamist regimes that emerged from the so-called "Arab spring" revolutions of 2011, and confirmed the Western image of the Beijing government as a friend and supporter of some of the worst regimes on the planet.
It is inevitable that a rising world power such as China will find itself embroiled in the Middle East: not only does China need access to Persian Gulf oil, but due to its commercial and geopolitical stature, China should pay attention to the world's most volatile region. While the chances of a major war beginning in the Middle East are possibly not as high as they were during the Cold War with the former Soviet Union -- when it often seemed that a single incident between the US Navy and the Soviet Navy in the Straight of Hormuz or the Red Sea might ignite a global nuclear war -- the area cannot exactly be described as peaceful.
The Middle East as the heartland of Islam is China's far west -- Xinjiang province, sometimes known as East Turkistan, is home to the large Muslim Uigur population which includes an extremely disgruntled minority. Political and ethnic violence has been slowly increasing. China's drive for regional influence in Central Asia is mostly motivated by Beijing's perceived need to insure that none these states provides support or tolerates a base for Uigur insurgents.
Last November in "American Foreign Policy Interests" magazine, Stephen Blank wrote, "Therefore many, if not most, analysts observe that suppressing the threat of Islamic unrest, whether it manifests itself as terrorism (as Beijing see it), agitation for reforms in the heavily Muslim border province of Xinjiang, expressions of religious or ethno-national protest (which though different seem to be the same thing to Chinese analysts) is the foundation of China's external policies towards Central Asia." In spite of China's successful efforts in building powerful political and economic networks in Central Asia, this may not be enough to tamp down the ongoing unrest in Xinjiang.
China's problems with the Uigurs are not dissimilar to Russia's problems with the Chechen's and with other Muslim ethnicities in the Caucasus region. The Chechens can draw on a worldwide network of Islamist supporters mostly based near the Persian Gulf, who provide cash and volunteers to keep the Jihad alive. China, like Russia, has a strong interest in pushing nations such as Saudi Arabia to stop their citizens from providing aid to these Muslim insurgencies. As long as China is seen as supporting Iran and Syria, whom the Saudis see as a threat to their Kingdom, however, the Saudis, and the rest of the informal anti-Iranian coalition, have no motivation to pressure their own citizens on China's behalf.
China sees the pressure for regime change in the Middle East (or anywhere else) as a long-term threat to the supremacy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The leadership in Beijing also sees the tribal fracturing of places such as Libya, Yemen and Syria as setting a bad example for Uigurs, Tibetans and other ethnic minorities.
Compared to the failed and failing nation states of the Middle East, China has integrated its minorities into its national life in a far better, though still unsatisfactory, fashion. Imperial China had centuries of experience in absorbing and pacifying the powerful tribal coalitions that roamed Central Asia. Sometimes these tribal coalitions, like the Mongols and the Manchus, were able to take control of the empire, but in the end they were always transformed and tamed by China.
Does the Beijing leader's current nervousness about instability in the Middle East indicate a lack of confidence in China's traditional ability to cope with its ethnic and religious minorities? Chinese civilization has long had a power to attract and fascinate foreigners. This aspect of China's "Soft Power" should not be underestimated, but if, by their behavior, Beijing's leaders show that they doubt their nation's ability to exercise this power, then perhaps China's position is shakier than it appears.
It will be difficult for China's diplomats to reconcile their desire for good relations with the Arab Gulf states, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the Emirates and the rest, with the policy of providing support for Syria and Iran. Whatever the political strategy, China will inevitably choose to engage with the Middle East independently of the West. From Washington's point of view this is neither a positive nor a negative development, it is merely a fact of life.
China's diplomatic dance in the Middle East may be delicate, but not impossible. After all, US diplomats have managed to force both the Israelis and the Arabs to accept that America has interests and obligations on both sides of that conflict. China's leaders may be able to force Syria and Iran, as well as Saudi Arabia and its friends, to live with its policy of 'friendship' with all sides. As Americans know all too well, however,reconciling contradictory national interests is not easy, especially in the Middle East.