Why China can be a game-changer in the ME

Several decades of US failure to bring peace to the region has not prompted the sages of Israeli diplomacy to consider other tracks.

Iran Pavilian at Shanghai World Expo 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Iran Pavilian at Shanghai World Expo 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
At an Iran crisis simulation exercise held at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya (IDC) this week, a star-studded cast of ambassadors, former generals, experts and professors representing state and non-state actors played out the “responses” to a flare up between Iran and Israel. I was asked to play the Chinese position in such a scenario, affording a front-row view of some of the worryingly outdated attitudes of the Israeli (and American) participants. It was embarrassing to observe how out of touch the players were with the fast-changing geo-political and economic fault lines underscoring the tensions. It was also concerning that all seemed to misunderstand, did not care enough to understand, or chose to ignore Chinese interests and influence in Iran and the Middle East.
Consumed by an almost drug-induced US-centric psychosis and unshakeable faith in the infallibility of a US-led track, several decades of failure to bring about a Middle East game-changer has not prompted the sages of Israeli diplomacy to review its veracity or consider other options and tracks.
Despite the incredible energy Israelis spend on integrating with the American consensus – sending students to Harvard and MIT, scholarly hob knobbing and shoulder rubbing with policy institute doyens in Washington and political back scrubbing – no such efforts (or even signs of interest) are invested in developing relations with China.
Israel has become bound in the service of US conceptual frameworks, while not understanding the nuances of others and the fault lines of other geo-political and economic realities.
No alternative horizons or different models of thinking are proposed by the iconoclastic Israeli strategist. The prospect that a home-grown Asian entity, the emerging economic giant, a local resident to the continent, could actually play an important role in resolving a regional problem, has not occurred to the brilliant Israeli political adviser.
FOR THOSE who don’t have time to read more, suffice to internalize a short message. China’s role in resolving the Middle East stalemate is overlooked as if it didn’t exist. Perhaps so many political advisers have their careers built on the Israel-American relationship, they are loathe to kick a ball over to the Chinese court. China’s influence over Iran and the Arab world is many times greater than that of the US: It has massive, unprecedented investments, hundreds of thousands of workers, engineers and professionals on the ground. China consumes and underwrites a huge percentage of the ME and Iranian GDP.
Iranian and Arab world economies are dependent on China’s continued engagement. Impressive, regular and high-level exchanges between these countries are continuous. Thousands of students, delegations, trade and investment groups travel between countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Pakistan, Lebanon, Egypt and so on. China does not like to acknowledge the full extent of its influence in the region because of the obvious ramifications this would have on its international obligations if it were recognized as a Middle East game changer.
Furthermore, attention must be paid to how to steer China’s interest toward reconciling the problems in the region instead of benefiting from them, as it does at present.
I was asked by several parties at the simulation exercise to vote in favor of regional peace – something which, despite all good will, I could not do, because peace and stability in the region were designed to bring maximum benefit to the US and reduce those of other national players.
At present, China is cherry-picking the oil, gas and resource deals while selling its goods to a captive market.
Unless Israel understands Chinese interests and decides to design a situation where China can benefit from regional stability and cooperation, it cannot expect to bring the country over as a partner to its vision. This work must be done by Israel alone. It cannot expect the Americans to understand that Israel’s interests may lie elsewhere.
A short example of how Israel can work with China for regional stability is demonstrated in the recently reported expression of interest from Doha to reestablish diplomatic relations in return for rights to rebuild Gaza. Constructing a Chinese-Israeli-Arab understanding for large construction and infrastructure programs across the ME may be of sufficient interest to the Chinese for them to use their influence to halt tensions between the parties. The reconstruction of Gaza is an excellent opportunity to bring them in.
It is time for policy-makers to wake up to some conceptual game changes which have taken place in the world over the last decade. It’s time we turn our thoughts to carefully constructing Israeli policy towards China.

The writer is the Executive Director of the Israel-China Institute (www.israelchinainstitute.com) which builds multi-leveled relations between the two nations.