‘Negative Peace’? China’s Approach to the Middle East


What is China up to in the Middle East? What are its intentions, and do they constitute a threat to the predominant U.S. order there? And will there soon be a transformation in its approach to regional conflict, especially through the emerging concept and practice of “peace through development”?

For decades, the regional order has been a U.S.-designed and U.S.-managed one, in which there were clear differences between allies and rivals. By contrast, on the surface China looks to have rejected this model and to have prepared to work with all countries across the U.S. ally/rival divide, including Israel, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.

In Israel, the U.S. administration expressed its displeasure at a Chinese firm’s managing Haifa port, which could prove sensitive for the U.S. Sixth Fleet, which sometimes docks there. Washington was also unhappy that Huawei was potentially in the running to develop Israel’s 5G network, which would put security and intelligence cooperation with the United States at risk. At this stage, it looks as though Huawei will be excluded from consideration.



Then, in July, the New York Times reported that Washington’s “maximum pressure” strategy to isolate Iran and force the collapse of the 2015 nuclear deal was being undermined by a major deal between Iran and China. The 18-page draft agreement suggested that China and Iran were planning a 25-year project in which China would have access to cheaper oil while investing up to $400 billion in upgrading Iran’s transport and energy infrastructure and telecommunications sectors. Finally, in early August it emerged that China was helping Saudi Arabia with the development of its nuclear program. Although the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump was initially untroubled, senators from both sides of the aisle subsequently expressed concern, believing that this development could disrupt the region.

Although China has worked with different regimes across the Middle East, that does not mean that the prevailing regional order is under severe challenge yet. To understand the situation, it is important to recognize the role of established and rising powers — the United States and China, respectively — and the behaviors they exhibit.

As I set out in my new book, China and Middle East Conflicts, the United States has long been the hegemonic power in the Middle East and, therefore, its security provider. In fulfilling this role, it has worked closely with allies while containing and confronting its rivals. But, as Mehran Kamrava at Georgetown University Qatar has pointed out, the regional order is fragmenting. U.S. dominance has waned, giving space to regional and extraregional actors to push for greater influence, including China. But because China’s interests are primarily commercial, it wants to minimize business risk and price fluctuations. That means that China’s regional preferences are for order and stability — much like the United States’.

What differentiates the U.S. and Chinese positions are their respective places in the international system. As the established power, the United States has shaped and maintains the security structure. As an emerging, or rising, power, China has had less involvement in that process. It therefore has greater flexibility in realizing its goals. The result is that it has been able to adopt one or more of several different roles in dealing with the region’s contentious politics and the need for security:  “supporter,” “spoiler,” or “shirker.”

What shapes China’s response depends on two factors: the state of its economic relations and the surrounding political context. Where China’s economic interests have been strong, it has taken a closer interest in security issues. But where someone else — such as the United States — provides security and its economic interests are fewer, China has shirked involvement in security provision.

Chinese “shirking” has been evident in its response to Iraq after 2003, the 2017 Gulf dispute, and the Palestine-Israel conflict. In Iraq, Chinese firms gained considerably from Saddam Hussein’s ouster, and many became major players in developing the country’s energy sector. They did so despite the absence of Chinese assistance with security efforts, which largely fell to the United States and its military occupation. The imbalance so frustrated then-President Barack Obama that he accused the Chinese of free riding.

U.S. preponderance was also a factor in the Gulf dispute between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on one side and Qatar on the other. The rivalry between the two sides is deep and systemic, with Saudi Arabia long the dominant Arab power in the Gulf and Qatar — through its recent wealth as a natural-gas-producing superpower — behaving as a challenger. Over the past decade, the two have been on opposing sides of the Arab uprisings that began in 2011 and their aftermath. Broadly, Qatar was sympathetic toward the protestors, while Saudi Arabia opposed some of the emerging political Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia was also deeply unhappy about the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera’s sympathetic reporting about the protests. Saudi Arabia and Qatar played out their differences in proxy conflicts, including the Syrian war and the Egyptian coup in 2013. In 2014 Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar, but differences were patched over by the end of the year. However, the underlying tensions never went away, resulting in another diplomatic and economic boycott in June 2017. Trump’s visit to the region was judged to be the catalyst, with the Saudis and Emiratis persuading the United States of Qatari radicalism and unreliability.

The Chinese were surprised when the boycott began, because they were in the process of negotiating a free trade agreement with the Gulf Cooperation Council. The Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Hua Chunying, encouraged the two sides to talk to each other, but she stopped short of suggesting that China might take a more active role. Partly this was the result of China’s prioritization of economic considerations over political choices, but it was also because the United States remained the Arab Gulf states’ principal ally. In short, the path to resolution lay through Washington, not Beijing.

Chinese unwillingness to take on a more active role has also been evident in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Although China has regularly voiced support for the goal of a negotiated peace agreement between the two, its practical efforts have been more modest. At the last meeting between Israeli and Palestinian delegations in Beijing, in December 2017, it struggled to get the two sides to agree a nonbinding declaration.

Where Western political and economic influence has been slighter, China has adopted a more active “supporter” role in relation to conflict management. The most notable examples of this role concerned Darfur in Sudan from 2004 to 2006 and Iran’s nuclear program from 2013 to 2015. As a major commercial partner, China had the ears of the two governments. Its situation enabled it to act as a mediator, coaxing its regional partners to accommodate Western concerns while pushing back on Western demands for tougher sanctions.

Despite this trend toward greater involvement, China’s goals and outcomes as mediator elsewhere have generally remained modest, focused on achieving minimal agreement between the two sides. In Israel, its foreign minister reiterated China’s commitment to two states, including a fully independent Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital and based on the 1967 borders. But in practice, the Chinese-sponsored talks did little to address the fundamental grievances underpinning the conflict. Their result was a highly circumscribed form of conflict management in which the threat or practice of violence was reduced, rather than a resolution of grievances and their root causes: what Johan Galtung called “negative peace” and “positive peace,” respectively.

Negative peace also seems to be the principal goal of China’s response to the current “hot” wars taking place in the Middle East: in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. China’s limited goals and involvement in these conflicts may also reflect the more modest political and economic contacts it has at stake. Indeed, even before the start of the Arab uprisings, Chinese investment was less than $8 billion for the three countries.

In all three cases, Chinese officials have emphasized the importance of respecting national sovereignty, discouraging foreign intervention and persuading conflict parties to engage in political dialogue rather than armed conflict. To that end, they have supported international efforts, whether by regional organizations or international ones such as the United Nations. They have backed the internationally recognized authorities in Libya and Yemen, as well as the bloodied but undefeated Bashar al-Assad government in Syria.

Although the Chinese would see their stance as constructive, some Western observers have judged China as behaving like a “spoiler.” As early as February 2012, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized opponents of a U.N. resolution condemning Assad, which included China. Clinton said they would have to “bear responsibility for the horrors that are occurring on the ground.” Already the Chinese viewed Western claims skeptically, believing the West sought to remove Assad, using the new resolution just as its interpretation of Resolution 1973 had been used by NATO forces to target Moammar Gadhafi in Libya — a resolution on which China had abstained.

Until now, China’s roles as a supporter, spoiler, or shirker in relation to Middle East conflict have marked it out as a reactive force. But there are recent signs that its attitude may be changing and that it may pursue a more proactive role. Beijing is showing interest in becoming a “shaper” rather than simply a manager of conflicts, and resolving them and supporting post-conflict reconstruction through the notion of “peace through development.”

The “peace through development” concept has been explored outside official circles in recent years and received interest for three main reasons. One is that China’s global rise means that it is coming into closer and more regular contact with conflict-affected states and societies. Another is that its “Belt and Road” initiative — a project to build and upgrade transport and communications infrastructure across the Eurasian landmass, which began in 2013 — is becoming the vector through which China engages with such countries. A third is that China believes that its own experience of development can provide a model for other countries to emulate.

The result is a form of development that contrasts with the prevailing (and Western-associated) model of “liberal peace,” which emphasizes institution building, specifically democracy and markets. Instead, the Chinese alternative proposes state-led development over political reforms, stability over inclusion, and unconditional aid and investment.

Since then, efforts to apply the idea of peace through development in practice have gathered pace among some scholars and observers. Earlier this year, a Chinese-language article authored by Middle East scholar Sun Degang and China’s former Middle East envoy, Wu Sike, was posted on WeChat. Although not an official document, it encapsulates some of the comments and statements made by Sun as well as state officials in recent years. They argued that China has previously contributed to peacekeeping in the region but that now it was time to take part in peace building. They noted Chinese leaders’ comments from 2016 that much of the regional turmoil was due to its lack of development.

Sun and Wu criticized the American approach, which they summarized as the top-down imposition of democracy regardless of local conditions. Instead, they suggested, the Middle East would benefit more from a Chinese-supported, bottom-up and comprehensive approach, including “political reconciliation, economic development, social construction, and basic education.”

For now, “peace through development” remains largely on paper. Attempts to put it into practice have proved difficult. Last November, China hosted the Middle East Security Forum and hoped that participants would set aside their differences with each other and learn from Chinese experience. However, those hopes turned out to be too optimistic. Wang Jin at China’s Northwest University wrote that “China’s ‘new idea’ is still too idealized to be applied to the region.” Wang pointed out that the United States is still the regional hegemon and security provider and that the region is separated into two rival camps, with the Arab Gulf states, Egypt, and Israel on one side and Iran, Turkey, and Qatar on the other.

Looking ahead, then, it will prove challenging for China to apply its concept of peace through development in the region. But regardless of whether it works, the new tactic does herald a change in Chinese behavior in relation to conflict management and resolution. Instead of the more defensive, responsive actor it has been in the past, China appears set to become a more proactive participant. For that reason, U.S. and other Western policymakers should take note and respond accordingly. They can work with China to design and implement policies and projects that aim to deliver peace and development, by sharing knowledge, advice, and best practices. Alternately, they may conclude that China’s peace through development framework is too vague or does not resolve the underlying causes of conflict. In that case, the scope for cooperation may be limited. Either way, the emergence of a Chinese alternative highlights the need for current aid agencies and donors to review their own practices and acknowledge past limitations or failures. They should be prepared to deal with the likely presence of a new security and development actor on the scene.



Guy Burton is an adjunct professor at Vesalius College, Brussels, and a fellow of the Sectarianism, Proxies and De-sectarianisation Project at Lancaster University. He is the author of Rising Powers and the Arab-Israeli Conflict since 1947 (Lexington, 2018) and China and Middle East Conflicts (Routledge, 2020). He tweets at @guyjsburton.

Image: Mark Neyman