The story behind the story in the Middle East today is the proxy war, as Israel, on behalf of the US, takes on Hezbollah, which fights on behalf of Iran and Syria. Indeed, one can widen it further and describe the participants as proxies for the West versus militant Islam.
This analysis of the conflict sometimes mentions, in passing, Russia’s declining influence. But there is another player that has somehow received almost no coverage.
For decades China has been building up influence in the Middle East. It suits China’s strategy well that coverage has been almost non-existent. As Deng Xiaoping once put it, China must “hide brightness and nourish obscurity . . . to bide our time and build up our capabilities”. As China develops into the role of global power, its influence on the region is no longer obscure; it cannot now be ignored.
The original postwar Middle East proxies were the US and the Soviet Union. Washington supporting Israel and the Kremlin sponsoring enemy regimes and their terrorist offshoots. But the Sino-Soviet split, which began in the 1960s, meant a lifting of the constraint on China getting involved, and it soon began to develop ties to countries that were not under Soviet influence, such as Egypt under Sadat.
A brilliant analysis of China’s role by Barry Rubin, in the Middle East Review of International Affairs, describes China’s first steps thus: “As hope for global revolution faded and Beijing switched its partners from tiny opposition groups to governments, China now projected itself as leader of the Third World, struggling against the hegemony of the two superpowers, the USSR and the United States. Lacking the strength and level of development of other great powers, China would try to make itself the head of a massive coalition of the weaker states.” That meant, in the Middle East, Israel’s enemies.
Today countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Pakistan — all key states in the region — have strong ties to China, which they are all likely to see as a counterbalance to American power in the Middle East and beyond.
As President Jiang Zemin put it in 1994, US “hegemony” should be opposed, in part by helping countries such as Iran, which were already fighting that battle. But China’s strategy dovetailed geopolitics with economic necessity. Without access to oil markets, China had to fuel economic expansion by turning to more neglected suppliers, such as Iran, Iraq and Sudan. And with a growing consumption of Gulf oil, so China has had to direct its security policy towards ensuring that the US will not be able to interfere with the flow of oil. This means developing ever stronger political and strategic relationships with oil exporters.
Jiang’s state visit in 1999 to Saudi Arabia cemented what he termed a “strategic oil partnership”. In 1996 Saudi exported 60,000 barrels per day to China. By 2000 exports stood 350,000 bpd (17 per cent of Beijing’s oil imports). Iranian oil exports rose even faster, from 20,000 bpd in 1995 to 200,000 bpd in 2000.
The Middle East is now China’s fourth largest trading partner. But its trade is hardly traditional. As Rubin puts it: “Being so late in entering the region — and having less to offer in economic or technology terms than the United States, Russia, Japan, and Europe — China must go after marginal or risky markets . . . supplying customers no one else will service with goods no one else will sell them.” What that means, of course, is arms.
In the war-by-proxy analysis, Iran is rightly said to be the power and arms supplier behind Hezbollah. But the issue of where Iran’s arms come from has been ignored. China has sold Iran tanks, planes, artillery, cruise, anti-tank, surface-to-surface and anti-aircraft missiles as well as ships and mines. It is also Iran’s main supplier of unconventional arms and is thought by almost all monitors to be illicitly involved in supplying key elements in Iran’s chemical and nuclear weapons programme. This is despite China being a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Chemical Weapons Convention.
China has sold nuclear reactors to Algeria, Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, and Chinese nuclear weapons designs were found in Libya. It has also negotiated with Syria on the sale of M11 ballistic missiles. China is one of the few global suppliers of ballistic missiles. and can charge a heavy price. It demanded of the Saudis, for instance, to whom it sold CSS2 missiles, payment in cash, ensuring both the cementing of a key strategic relationship and total deniability of the sale.
Both nations have kept the relationship as secret as possible, but one expert, Robert Mullins, estimates that at least 1,000 Chinese military advisers have been based at Saudi missile installations since the mid-1990s. Such secret deals are handled by Polytechnologies Incorporated, a defence firm controlled by the People’s Liberation Army, which both installs weapons and trains handlers.
But like all the most successful illicit traders, China is ideologically profligate in its relations. Keen to supply weapons to Israel’s enemies in return for oil, it is equally happy to trade with Israel in return for its technology. As Benjamin Netanyahu put it to the Chinese when, as Prime Minister, he championed an Israeli investment in China: “Israeli knowhow is more valuable than Arab oil.” The estimates are that there has been between $1 billion and $3 billion of arms trade between China and Israel. But in this case the flow of arms and weapons technology has been from Israel to China.
In the immediate analysis of the present conflict, it is clearly Iran and Syria that, as President Bush put it, should “stop doing this shit”. But any deeper explanation of the realpolitik of the Middle East has to include the insidious role of the Chinese, the 21st century’s next superpower.
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