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China's thorny Middle East policy

By Cao Chang-ching 曹長青

The Taipei Times
Tuesday, January 2nd, 2001

The China policy of US president- elect George W. Bush seems to be tougher than that of his predecessor, which has certainly raised concerns in China. The Chinese have wasted no time in adopting counteractive policies, and have hurried to strengthen their long-time alliance with enemies of the US, such as Iran and Iraq.

On Dec. 22, a Beijing delegation led by Ismail Emet, former chairman of the Xinjiang Autonomous Zone, East Turkestan, visited Iraq, and the Iraqi President Saddam Hussein declared, while embracing his Chinese guests, that his country would establish a strategic relationship with China. Iraq's official media also reported that leaders of Iraq and China had demonstrated their propensity to cooperate in political, economic and many other fields.

Subsequently, spokesmen for China's foreign ministry said recently that the vice president of China, Hu Jintao would soon visit five countries: Iran, Syria, Jordan, Cyprus and Uganda.

Beijing's sudden intimacy with Middle East countries is peculiar. The fact that it sends delegations to such US rivals during the transition stage between two US administrations clearly suggests an intention to send signals to the incoming US administration that Beijing is not afraid of a possible change in the US' China policy, especially regarding its policy toward the Taiwan Strait, and it will make alliances with Islamic countries like Iran and Iraq to counterbalance the US superpower.

Over the last couple of years, China has adopted many strategies in the conduct of its foreign policy.

First, it tried to strike up allegiances with European countries in order to have more cards to play with against the US; then it made a strategic partnership with Russia; and finally President Jiang Zemin visited Israel for the first time, making an ostentatious move toward its new Middle East policy.

China's new intention to cozy up to Muslim countries was made clear by having Ismail Emet, who is a man of Uighur nationality and has an Islamic background, to lead the delegation.

Despite the fact that the UN has imposed sanctions and embargoes against Iraq, China has still exported more than US$2 billion worth of goods to Iraq in the last four years, according to Iraq's secretary of commerce.

And China is the third Permanent Member of the UN Security Council, behind Russia and France, to ignore the UN embargo and have its delegation fly directly to Baghdad.

Beijing also has not forgotten to pay attention to Tehran and is preparing to dispatch Jiang Zemin's hand-picked successor, Hu Jintao, to visit Iran soon.

In addition to Beijing's scheme to confront the US, there is another key reason for its development of relationships with Middle East countries: China will need greater oil supplies in the future and will be increasingly dependent on the Middle East's oil producing countries.

Currently, according to the New York Times, there are only 10 mobile telephones per thousand people in China, (as opposed to 30 per thousand in Egypt, 148 per thousand in Mexico, 552 per thousand in Japan and 770 per thousand in America), which means that there is still huge room for the growth of mobiles in China.

In the light of its rapid economic development, obviously, China is preparing to increase its oil imports.

China had been an oil exporting country before the 1990s, but in 1993 it began to import oil due to its rapid economic expansion and increase in automobile use.

Of the 4.5 million barrels of oil currently used daily in China, 1.2 million barrels come from imports, according to the New York Times.

China will need to import 4 million barrels daily in 2010, and 7 million in 2020.

Since three quarters of the imported oil comes from the Middle East, Beijing has to strengthen its relationship with Middle Eastern countries, especially the two major oil-producing countries, Iraq and Iran.

But China will soon find that the consequences of developing strategic relationships with such countries will be difficult to deal with.

First of all, it will be hard for China to maintain a balance between Iraq and Israel. After decades of hostility with Israel, China has sedulously tried to improve the relationship in order to obtain from Israel high-tech military weapons, such as Phalcon AWACS aircraft, which it cannot acquire from European countries nor the US.

Obviously, China's new ties with Iran and Iraq may very well have negative effects on its nascent relationship with Israel.

Secondly, China's intimacy with Iran and Iraq may also raise complex feelings in the Xinjiang independence movement.

It is ironic that Beijing should send Ismail Emet as its envoy to build relationships with Muslim countries, for Beijing has always severely suppressed Xinjiang's Muslim ethnic groups.

It has been said that Iran has financed some pro-independence groups in Kazakhstan.

Thirdly, China may eventually face new competition with the US. Currently, the US imports 10 million barrels of oil from the Middle East every day; it will not be easy to avoid conflicts between the two biggest countries by the time China needs to import seven million barrels of oil every day.

Despite other political intricacies, it appears that the China-US relationship will become more complicated and variable from the point of view of oil competition in the future.

Although China has a serious need for imported oil, it will not have the naval capability to protect its oil pipelines for at least five years, and currently only the US has such an ability.

The dilemma for China will be that it wants to be close to Iran and Iraq to resist the US on the one hand, and, on the other hand, it needs US protection for its oil pipelines to be unimpeded.

Meddling with two mutually antagonistic sides is not an easy game to play.

If China's Middle East policy is to form an alliance with enemies of the US, it should consider whether it's worth risking the multi-billion-dollar trade surplus it generates from the US each year.

Cao Chang-ching is a writer and journalist based in New York.

2001-01-02

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