China’s inscrutability in the Middle East

We can reasonably guess where four of the five permanent members of the UN’s Security Council stand regarding action in Syria. This leaves China, as usual, as the question mark.

Obama shakes hands with China's President Xi Jinping 370 (photo credit: Reuters)
Obama shakes hands with China's President Xi Jinping 370
(photo credit: Reuters)
We can reasonably guess where four of the five permanent members of the UN’s Security Council stand regarding action in Syria. This leaves China, as usual, as the question mark. There seems to be no end of hostilities in the Middle East, and China’s seat on the Security Council is permanent. Thus, I believe it would behoove observers to know more about China’s allegiances in this part of the world.
China is frequently considered an ally of Syra and the PLO. As proof, China’s thinly veiled criticisms of Israel’s use of force is frequently cited. However, appearances can be deceiving. The reality is quite different.
Don’t mistake China’s rhetoric for reality. In fact, China’s relationships with Syria and the PLO aren’t what they used to be. The reason is that China’s relationship with the State of Israel isn’t what it used to be. In the mere 20 years since China and Israel established diplomatic relations, ancient ties between the nations of China and Israel have strengthened to an unprecedented degree.
Unbeknownst to many people, the history of the Jews in China is both long and friendly. When Marco Polo “discovered” China, he found that the Jews were already very well established there and quite prosperous. In the 20th century, China proved to be a hospitable sanctuary for the Jewish people escaping the Russian Revolution and the Holocaust. We even have a Chinese Oskar Schindler in Dr. Ho Feng-Shan, China’s consul-general in Vienna, who saved the lives of thousands of Jews.
In fact, in consideration of the centuries of peaceful contact between the two peoples, a case can be made that China has been the single most hospitable country to the Jewish people over a long period.
Last semester, I had the pleasure of hosting a visiting professor from Beijing’s University of International Business and Economics to exchange ideas about the teaching of international finance. I learned that all over Chinese academia these days, there is a veritable explosion of interest in the Jewish people, Judaism and Israel. I had not know about this, but was not surprised.
To say that China respects Israel would be a tremendous understatement.
In fact, China has come to admire greatly both the nation and State of Israel in many important areas (with the notable exception of cuisine, in which case the admiration goes demonstrably the other way).
China greatly admires the strength of the Jewish Diaspora, its educational and intellectual achievements and its entrepreneurial successes. China greatly admires the innovation of Israel’s technology and biotech industries, the resilience of a state surrounded by enemies, and the fearsome Israel Defense Forces.
The thin reed of solidarity for Syria and the PLO, extended when Mao’s communism mired China in the Third World, is no match for present day exigencies.
To wit, Israel is now the second largest provider of military armaments to China. One does not buy military armaments from just anyone and certainly not from someone one doesn’t trust implicitly. These military commitments speak far, far louder than thinly veiled criticisms.
Also, never discussed in polite company is that China itself hasn’t always had the warmest relations with some people of the Muslim religion. There is a western Chinese province named Xinjiang, which borders Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The vast majority of the population in Xinjiang are Muslim and of an ethnicity quite different from the rest of China. The indigenous Uighur people there have long desired to form East Turkestan. Unfortunately, flying the flag of jihad, a splinter militant group has been very deadly in China.
Despite this, China sees no need to ruffle feathers with Muslim countries, especially since it sees strong business potential in the Middle East. Some politicians resent this but there can be no serious kvetching that China considers business potential in its foreign policy.
Can you name any country which doesn’t do the same? Go ahead and try.
I’ll wait.
The fact is that no country doesn’t.
It would take some great chutzpah for any country, especially those in the G7, to claim that its own relationships with Middle East countries don’t stem at least partly from economic self-interest.
Thus, China’s hard currency will continue to flow into Israel even as its words may provide moral support to Syria and the PLO. But those words should not matter to Israel. More than any other people of the world, the Jews know how to shrug off bitter words. They deal regularly with much, much harsher words in the UN General Assembly. The goyim, on the other hand, don’t know from that and would have wilted long ago under such barrage.
I think it’s entirely possible that Chinese officials give Israel the ol’ wink and nod before they launch into their public spiel. There is a stereotype about East Asians in general and the Chinese in particular that some people find offensive.
I happen not to ,but in any case, inscrutability in modern geopolitics is hardly a liability.
Michael Justin Lee is a lecturer in the University of Maryland’s Center for East Asian Studies and the Department of Finance. A veteran chartered financial analyst, he is the author of The Chinese Way to Wealth and Prosperity (McGraw-Hill, 2012) and speaks frequently on the kindred values of the Chinese and the Jews. His website is