Column  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2011.04.13

The Middle East Situation and China

Alarmed by the various citizen anti-government movements in the Middle East, the Chinese Government has further strengthened its restrictions on media and the Internet. The changes in the Middle East China's could also affect China's foreign policy.

In recent years, China has been very aggressive in importing oil from the Middle East. China is now the region's number one trading partner, and, in 2009, it surpassed the United States. Depending on the statistics that are used, China's rank may vary, but, for the Middle East, it is obvious that China is now as important a trading partner as the United States - which was unimaginable just a short while ago.

China was able to achieve this status over such a short period of time because its one-party government implemented its trade policy as part of its national strategy. Although every nation has a national strategy, how that strategy is implemented differs greatly, as between democratic and one-party nations. China has been buying up resources from overseas in a manner that has been described as "voracious" and that term aptly explains the aggressive nature of China's appetite.

As economic relations between China and the Middle East deepen, some problems have arisen, one of which is a massive influx of Chinese workers. For example, in Libya, as the crush between the anti-government forces and the Gaddafi government worsened, 32,000 Chinese left the country via land, sea, and air. Still, 3,000 - 4,000 stayed behind, meaning that about 36,000 Chinese had been living in Libya. They worked at oil refineries, road construction, electric power plants, airports, and cement plants.

Libya is not the only country with many Chinese workers. On the contrary, that is rather the norm for countries in the Middle East and Africa. In Algeria, which neighbors Libya, there are about 20,000 Chinese workers. Compare these numbers with those for Japanese - only 120 in Libya and less than 1,000 for Algeria. The number of Japanese is in the order of hundreds, while that of the Chinese can be measured in the tens of thousands.

Chinese companies have procured and employ all these Chinese workers. For the Chinese, this arrangement is most convenient. For the host countries, however, it is a source of contention, as Chinese workers are seen as depriving their own workers of opportunities. This problem has been brewing for some time now and, as the tension from the civil unrest has worsened, there have been incidents of locals attacking some Chinese workers.

Another issue is that progress toward democratization in the Middle East will affect China's foreign policy. Before now, China would defend countries in the Middle East and in Africa whenever the West criticized their human rights and good governance records. China's solidarity with those countries is part of the foreign policy scheme that it has been pursuing steadily since the birth of the People's Republic of China, as it confronted a similar political situation domestically.

Now, the countries in the Middle East and in Africa are changing and a new order appears to be emerging after a period of confusion, with some attention being given to human rights and good governance. China and these countries have a ministerial level dialogue at the Forum on China-Africa Co-operation (FOCAC) for the promotion of relations. At FOCAC, some countries have lodged complaints against China. Some have criticized China's political stance as helping political corruption in their countries.

During the civil war in Libya, when the Gaddafi government persistently attacked the rebels, the West proposed freezing the overseas assets of dictator Colonel Gaddafi. China went along with that proposal and, so, the UN Security Council was able to vote in its favor. As for the West's proposal to set up a no-fly zone, however, China, along with Russia, was reluctant to lend its support, irritating the West. It was only on March 17 that the proposal was finally adopted. Although China refrained from exercising its veto power, it joined Russia and India in abstaining from the vote, and asserted that its support for the measure was reluctant. Some suggest that China refrained from exercising its veto power because, at the time of the debate on this issue, China chaired the UN Security Council and, if China were to veto the measure, its capability as chair would have been called into question.

China's action at the UN Security Council shows that its policies do take into consideration the broader international political situation but that they are still rather incompatible with the West. This incompatibility was not a problem while China was not as dominant on the world stage as it is today; now that it is the Middle East's number one trading partner, it is becoming more difficult for China to pursue an international policy of always maintaining friendly relations, setting to one side issues of human rights and good governance. If the people's revolutionary movements that started in Tunisia result in democratizing the Middle East, this difficulty will become even more evident. China's foreign policy seems to have caught the attention of Saudi Arabia, the largest pro-American country in the Middle East.