Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

China's Challenges in the Middle East

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

China's Challenges in the Middle East

Article excerpt

The changes that took place in the Middle East in the first half of this year may have posed even greater problems of adaptation for China than they did for Western countries.

With a declared policy of non-interference in other countries' internal affairs, and no links with revolutionary parties or insurgent groups in the area since the end of the 1970s, Beijing has been able to build friendly ties with practically all countries in the region. Its view that non-interference extends to extreme restraint in criticizing other governments for human rights violations and not lending support or encouragement to opponents of established regimes was appreciated by those in power.

Its major interest in the recent past has been to expand economic ties and especially to gain an increased share of Middle Eastern oil and gas exports to meet its own rapidly expanding needs. Its main difficulty was that other countries and international energy companies had got there first. Longstanding trading partnerships that were working well for suppliers and buyers alike were not going to be abandoned to the advantage of a newcomer, so China had to be alert to new opportunities and ready to compete with other interested parties. It also went where others hesitated to go, either because of the dangers involved or because of the low international standing of a country's government.

Hence China's involvement in Sudan. Western states have been critical of the government of Omar al-Bashir for its actions toward the country's minorities. While the war between north and south was brought to an end by the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), signed by the Khartoum government and the southern-based Sudan People's Liberation Movement, the continued conflict in Darfur still brought al-Bashir a hostile media and governmental criticism in the West.

Beijing occasionally criticized the Sudanese government and urged action to end the Darfur conflict, while acting diplomatically to restrain action against Sudan at the United Nations. It concentrated on developing economic relations while Western companies acted warily. China became the largest buyer of Sudanese oil exports and Chinese firms gained a strong presence in the country.

A complication for China was that most of the oil was in the south. Despite its official policy of non-interference, Sudanese oppositionists saw Beijing supplying arms to the government and sending Chinese workers into southern Sudan to work in developing oil extraction-which they certainly regarded as taking sides. However, China moved nimbly to defend its interests after the CPA was signed.

The CPA provided for oil revenues to be shared between the northern and southern administrations. It called for a period of peace followed by a referendum in southern Sudan to decide whether the South would remain part of a single Sudanese state or become independent. In January 2011, the South voted 98.83 percent in favor of independence, and the world's newest state was declared on July 9.

China was prepared. It discussed the future of its ties with Khartoum and welcomed al-Bashir to Beijing on June 26, despite the International Criminal Court having declared him wanted on charges of genocide and war crimes in Darfur. Meanwhile, it held talks with southern representatives, receiving David Deng Athorbei, a southern envoy, in April. It immediately recognized South Sudan when it became independent and supported its admission to the United Nations, at the same time calling for the international community to normalize relations with Sudan. …

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