Entangling the dragon in Middle-Eastern quicksands

The quicksands of the Arabian Desert are notorious for swallowing up anyone trying to control the area. Historically, that’s what happened to Turkey, Britain, France, Russia and the US. Sooner or later, all discovered that instead of dominating the Middle East, they ended up being dominated by the region’s never-ending problems.

And that may also be the fate of China, the latest power to be lured by the idea that it has to engage in Middle-Eastern diplomacy. Unless decision-makers in Beijing are thoroughly prepared for what awaits, they will also find that the region can absorb all their energies, and usually for no practical effect.

Traditionally, the Chinese have tended to avoid high-profile global diplomatic efforts. That proved to be a clever strategy in the Middle East, where China did exactly what it wanted while avoiding giving offence. It bought Israeli weapons but claimed to be the Palestinians’ most ardent supporter. China identified Islamic extremism as its biggest domestic threat, but maintained cordial links with the Middle East’s most radical Islamic movements. Beijing also embraced Arab monarchs while remaining close to Iran, their mortal enemy.

For decades the Chinese remained free-riders in the Middle East, mouthing cliches about “peaceful solutions”, “harmonious outcomes” or “win-win strategies”, while leaving others to do the diplomatic heavy-lifting. As seen from Beijing, the Middle East was about oil, gas and troubles, in that order; the first two could be bought with cash, troubles could be ignored.

All this is changing. In one of his last foreign policy initiatives before retiring, Chinese premier Wen Jiabao warned Iran “not to even think” about interfering with oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz. It was the kind threatening language previously only the Americans used in the region.

Full article: Entangling the dragon in Middle-Eastern quicksands (The Nation)

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