China must avoid joining Great Game in Middle East
How far should China commit itself to enhance its standing in the Middle East?
Israeli ambassador to China Matan Vilnai has some advice for Beijing.
The conflict in Gaza would be "very complicated" for Beijing to solve, he said. Generally, he added, "dealing with the Middle East is very dangerous. It is very complicated, and I am not sure that China is prepared to do it, because it is not easy and there is not a simple way to do it".
Vilnai's comments have been called "condescending". For one, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is actually not complicated to understand. The outlines and perquisites for a viable peace settlement have been widely known for decades.
What Vilnai is really saying, in a coded message, is that Palestine is Israel's backyard. To the extent that Israel, unlike most Western democracies, almost never comments on the situations in Tibet and Xinjiang , Beijing may actually find Vilnai's statement reasonable: you don't call me out, I won't call you out.
Tel Aviv and Beijing are among the most cynical practitioners of realpolitik; the two should have no difficulty understanding each other.
In its desperate search for energy and materials security, China has been pulled into South America, the Middle East and deep into Africa. This happens at the same time as the shale gas revolution, which makes energy-independence for the United States a real possibility. This means the US will have fewer material incentives to entangle itself in the Middle Eastern conflagrations.
China may be tempted to play a greater role in the region. After all, the Middle East has been part of the Great Game for the great powers for at least two centuries, and China is supposed to be the next super power. That would be a mistake.
China has been clever in securing oil contracts in Iraq, making it one of the chief beneficiaries of America's military misadventure there. It has locked in supplies from Iran and Russia as the two have become increasingly isolated under US-led sanctions. These are the clever games that Beijing can and should play. But it must never be drawn into the region's fanaticism, radicalism and religious chasms as the US did.