Almost two decades ago, China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping issued a series of instructions regarding the orientation of Chinese foreign policy in which he emphasized the need for Beijing to keep a low profile and never take the lead. Up until a few years ago, China has for the most part maintained this strategy, going along with a majority in the United Nations, rarely exercising its veto power in the Security Council and by and large not assuming a position of leadership except where the question of Taiwan was concerned.
However, the Gaza crisis reflects China’s much more active diplomacy in recent years. In part, this reflects China’s larger involvement around the world and its interest in maintaining stability in the Middle East to ensure its supplies of oil and gas from that part of the world.
But, to a large extent, it also reflects Beijing’s desire to be seen as a responsible country, willing to play its part in the resolution of international issues. Beijing’s influence in the Middle East is still small, especially when compared to that of the United States and former colonial powers such as Britain and France.
Indeed, other permanent members of the Security Council have, if anything, been more active than China. That goes without saying for the U.S., Israel’s biggest supporter. In addition, the ceasefire resolution itself was drafted by Britain. France and Egypt have jointly proposed a truce, including the opening of safe corridors for relief supplies into Gaza. And the Russian Federation has offered itself as a go-between for Israel and Hamas.
In a sense, China is playing catch-up as it works hard to increase its influence in this crucial region, where it is a relative newcomer. Thus, last week, China voted with the majority in the Security Council for a resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. Ironically, the U.S. abstained and explained that it did not want to stand in the way of the resolution’s passage.
This is the course of action that China had taken in the past. For example, in 1990, it abstained on a resolution authorizing the use of force to expel Iraqi troops from Kuwait in order not to stand in the way of the U.S.
China’s interest in expanding its worldwide influence was explained by Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi in a yearend review. “As China’s national strength further grows, we can contribute even more to world peace and development,” he said. “This is what we should do. It also helps with our international image.”
In recent years, China has sought to increase its involvement in Middle Eastern diplomacy. In 2002, Beijing set up the post of special envoy on the Middle East. In the days leading up to the U.N. vote, the current occupant of the post, Sun Bigan, held meetings with Arab envoys as well as with representatives of the European Union Troika (the Czech Republic, Sweden and the European Commission) on the Gaza situation.
On Jan. 8, the day of the vote in New York, Sun called on “parties concerned in the conflict to exercise restraint, cease military action and armed conflict and create conditions for peaceful talks and political settlement.” In a meeting with the media, he stressed China’s deep concern over the ongoing turmoil in the region and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. China, he said, would “join hands with the international community to make relentless efforts in order to achieve the goals of ceasefire, stability and resumption of peace talks.”
The day after the vote, Foreign Minister Yang spoke on the telephone with his Iranian counterpart, Manouchehr Mottaki. Iran is widely viewed as the biggest supporter behind the scenes of Hamas, the militant Palestinian group that controls the Gaza Strip. On Sunday, Foreign Minister Yang discussed the situation with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon. And on Monday, the Foreign Ministry announced that due to the Chinese government’s grave concern “about the growing escalation of tension in Gaza,” its special envoy would travel to Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian territories in an effort “to relieve the situation.”
This flurry of diplomatic activity reflects China’s keen desire to be taken seriously as a player in the Middle East. In this effort, China does have a couple of advantages. For one thing, it has good relations with key countries such as Iran, with which the U.S. does not even have diplomatic relations. Moreover, it may have more credibility because, unlike virtually all Western countries, it was never a colonial power.
Frank Ching is a journalist and commentator.