Trump’s Middle East peace plan and the recent Israel-Arab peace accords limit Chinese influence in the region. Countering this, China is advancing a collective security concept for the region based on the JCPOA. The US and Israel must stymie this Chinese gambit and reinforce the Abraham Accords.
The world was caught by surprise on August 13 when the United Arab Emirates (UAE) agreed to normalize relations with Israel within an American-brokered framework. More unexpected was the decision of Bahrain to follow suit. The subsequent “Abraham Accords,” referencing the common patriarch of Jews and Moslems, were signed in September.
Meanwhile, at a virtual BRICS forum for foreign ministers held on September 4, Chinese State Counselor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi attempted to form an international consensus against Gulf state normalization with Israel and, perhaps, to discourage additional Gulf countries from moving towards America and Israel. His alternative was a collective security concept, based on the JCPOA.
According to Wang, this would involve: 1. Bringing back the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA). 2. Opening a regional forum for dialogue and consultation among Gulf countries to foster consensus on regional issues. 3. Injection of “positive energy” into Gulf peace while preserving multilateralism and international order.
The three proposals were first made on September 27, 2019, when Wang attended the 74th Session of the UN General Assembly. In his address at the UN Security Council (UNSC) on October 20, 2020, Wang outlined three different proposals: 1. Adhering to international law and encouraging the position of the UN and regional organizations as mediators. 2. Upholding good neighborliness and finding common ground. 3. Promoting fairness and justice to contribute to stability without the intervention of biased non-Gulf players.
In his October address, not only did Wang reject the American-led vision, he also failed to mention that Russia was, in fact, the first country to put forward a proposal for “collective security” in the Gulf back in July 23, 2019; a proposal that China endorsed.
Likewise, US representative to the UNSC, Ambassador Kelly Craft, dismissed the Chinese proposal and turned down the Russian proposal: “Respectfully, I think the solution is much easier. This council must simply muster the courage to hold Iran accountable to its existing international obligations,” she said.
It is unclear what was China’s motivation to make changes in its rhetoric between September and October. One possibility is that China’s “regional security” initiative was ill-received by China’s Gulf partners. Another possibility is that given Bahrain’s accession to the Abraham Accords by October, Beijing realized that few countries were likely to adopt the Chinese (and Russian) proposals.
Instead, China backtracked to the vague calls for adherence to international law, good neighborliness, and justice. This at least prevented China from losing face, and still demonstrate to Gulf countries, Chinese citizens, and the international community a semblance of involvement in regional conflict mediation.
The Middle East has locked China into a catch-22 situation. It wishes to play a more proactive role at the expense of the US, while still pursuing a policy of non-alignment and yet enjoying the American security umbrella. Beijing has cordial relations with rival factions in the region and holds unparalleled resources that facilitate its Belt and Road Initiative and its concept of “peace through development.” In China’s mind, these conditions make it an ideal driver of conflict mediation for the Gulf; not America.
In an August 2020 article titled “China’s Participation in Security Affairs in the Middle East in the New Era: Conceptual Proposition and Practical Exploration,” Middle East scholar Sun Degang and senior political advisor and senior diplomat Wu Sike explained the divergence between a Western-led “Traditional Security Perception” and a China-led “Shared Security Perception.” They define the former as adhering only to the “law of the jungle” and pursuing unconditional security while suppressing the “enemy” by selling arms and establishing exclusive military alliances. By contrast, the Chinese approach calls for the abandonment of the “Cold War mentality and zero-sum games,” and advocates “shared security.” Only by “beating swords into plowshares” through a collective security framework can Middle East security be achieved.
According to Sun and Wu, this will first be accomplished through the promotion of a political dialogue between conflicting parties based on mutual respect, and mediated by China and the international community; and secondly, through diplomatic mediation based on fairness and justice. Here, China’s Middle East Special Envoys, who have been deployed in the region since 2002, must play a role in the mediation process. Thirdly, they call for strategic and policy coordination between the major powers in the Middle East and the establishment of multilateral mechanisms. Fourthly, China can provide the region with public goods, thousands of peacekeeping troops, security services and anti-piracy escorts; unlike Western powers that only establish military bases, cultivate proxies, and compete for spheres of influence. Finally, Sun and Wu contend that China promotes a collective security concept with humanitarian assistance; a manifestation of its philosophy of “seeking common ground while retaining differences.”
Two recent op-eds by Chinese diplomats, Ambassador Li Minggang (posted in Kuwait), and Guo Wei, Director of the Chinese Office for the Palestinian Authority, illustrate Chinese attempts to dabble in Persian Gulf affairs. Writing in Arabic in popular local publications, these articles repeated Wang Yi’s three proposals for a safe and stable Gulf and expressed covert criticism of the Abraham Accords.
Given that Chinese diplomats must stick to rigid talking points prescribed by higher levels of the foreign affairs apparatus, it is interesting note the variations between op-ed articles written for local audiences by other Chinese ambassadors in the region. For instance, whereas Ambassador Li insisted that adherence to the JCPOA was a crucial prerequisite for a regional dialogue, Director Guo did not mention it.
Meanwhile, Chinese ambassadors to the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan have not published anything on the Chinese Gulf proposals. Nor has the usually prolific Chinese ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Chen Weiqing, commented. This is understandable since Riyadh clearly gave its tacit blessings to the Abraham Accords. Media in Iraq, Yemen and Oman also lack any reference to the Chinese view or its collective security proposals.
The Chinese Ambassador to Iran, Chang Hua, does not shy away from discussing in interviews the most contentious of topics, including the US-China-Iran triangle, US sanctions, Taiwan, Xinjiang and the JCPOA. Nevertheless, as of November, he has not broached Chinese ideas for Gulf security. Perhaps advocating for the nuclear deal and challenging the Abraham Accords would have been perceived by Iran’s rivals and China’s other regional partners (such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE), as siding too definitively with Tehran.
However, in Qatar, as was the case in Kuwait, and the PA (outspoken opponents of Arab normalization with Israel), Chinese ambassador Zhou Jian reiterated Wang’s proposals in an interview to the local media. He outlined the multilateral dialogue mechanism in the region that would be sustained by the JCPOA, and he added veiled criticism of US policy.
In sum, Chinese ambassadors have been careful not to mention the Chinese proposals in countries that support normalization or are not directly linked to it. Conversely, in Kuwait, Qatar, and the PA, Chinese ambassadors addressed their country’s Gulf proposals in depth. Iran was an exception, as it might have been interpreted by Arab parties to the Abraham Accords and the KSA as taking Iran’s side.
China views Trump’s vision for peace in the Middle East and the recent breakthroughs in the Gulf as limiting China’s influence. When the “Deal of the Century” seemed to founder, Chinese state media chortled with schadenfreude. When the UAE subsequently announced peace with Israel, taking China by surprise, Foreign Minister Wang Yi sought to counter and block American diplomatic advances – first with his “collective security” concept, and later with vague proposals calling for commitment to international law, good neighborliness, fairness, and justice.
Nevertheless, the Chinese initiatives should not be ignored. China seeks a multi-polar alternative that challenges the Western-led “traditional security concept” enabled by “American hegemony”; and to replace it with a Chinese-led “shared security concept.”
Specifically, Beijing continues to support the JCPOA and reject sanctions against Iran. China is expected to encourage the incoming Biden administration to rejoin the nuclear deal and end Trump’s strategy of “maximum pressure” on Iran.
For China, a US military presence is necessary for keeping the Gulf calm, but the new administration’s skepticism of Egypt and Saudi Arabia (relating mainly to human rights) could force these countries to extend cooperation with their “comprehensive strategic partner,” China, in fields other than economy and trade. In fact, Cairo and Riyadh’s economic plans called “Vision 2030” (similarly named, but unrelated) are highly compatible with China’s “Belt and Road Initiative.”
Israel must do everything in its power to raise its concerns with the new administration in this regard. It would be a mistake to engage Iran at the expense of American regional security partners. Doing so would boost China’s foray into the region and undermine the positive momentum of the Abraham Accords.
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