China’s hands-off style is winning friends in Iran, Israel, Egypt and beyond
Niv Horesh says Beijing’s non-judgmental foreign policy and its ‘One Belt, One Road’ development initiative are building influence in the developing world
President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) “One Belt, One Road” vision is, according to Chinese media, an attempt to revive the pre-modern Silk Route, with the ancient city of Xian as its entry point. That vision was preceded in 2014 by Premier Li Keqiang’s ( 李克強 ) statement at the Boao Forum where he signalled China’s intent on “collectively forging Asia’s future development”. Chinese policymakers have since gone to great lengths to explain that “One Belt, One Road” is not a challenge to Western-led institutions like the World Bank but a means to bring regional stakeholders closer together, and diversify and augment credit sources, thereby averting political conflicts.
Funding for belt and road fast-track rail links between China, West Asia and onwards to Europe is to be provided by the newly established Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Apart from China, the new bank’s founding members include arch-enemies Israel and Iran, with both of which Beijing currently enjoys warm relations. Following the British lead last March, several Western or pro-Western countries decided to defy Washington and join the bank, including Australia, France and Germany. Even Vietnam and the Philippines, which share concerns over Chinese claims to large segments of the South China Sea, have joined.
When coupled with what is perceived as growing US energy independence on the back of new drilling in Alaska and the fracking revolution, speculation inevitably arises about possible US divestment from Saudi Arabia, and about the Chinese filling part of the vacuum politically if not militarily in years to come. On the other hand, Islamic State popularity among Sunni Iraqis and Russian air force deployment in Syria complicate America’s choice between divestment and further immersion in the Middle East, and make the Chinese more resolute to avoid getting embroiled.
But, in the long run, neither IS nor Russia will be able to challenge Western norms worldwide, if only because both narrowly rely on oil revenue. Foregrounding China as, at once, a much softer and more sophisticated challenge to Western power is, however, not self-explanatory. In fact, until Hu Jintao’s (胡錦濤) tenure (2002-2012), China’s rise had been perceived by most Western scholars as a fillip to Francis Fukuyama’s notion of triumphant liberal democracy. Indeed, much of Jiang Zemin’s (江澤民) decade in power (1989-2002) had been portrayed as a period when China, having long broken with its one-time patrons in Moscow, would increasingly converge with Western market and international citizenship norms.
In essence, the Chinese alternative narrative to Western norms boils down to non-judgmental foreign policy and rural poverty eradication. Rather than focusing on individual freedoms, it conjures up a harmonious world in which diverse religions, cultures and lifestyles can coexist peacefully, and where big countries do not meddle in their smaller neighbours’ affairs. Imperial China is somewhat wishfully cast as such a sophisticated tolerant polity that was administered by war-averse, selfless sage-bureaucrats; where community bonds overrode whimsical individual self-fulfilment, and where ethnic minorities could reach high office on merit.
INFOGRAPHIC: How ‘One Belt, One Road’ will give China’s developing neighbours easier access to Chinese-made products
In Chinese eyes, the American-led world order is rhetorically framed around the sanctity of national sovereignty and universal rights but is, in fact, underpinned by Western exploitative extraction of mineral resources in the developing world, and by dehumanising global military omnipresence. Though the Communist Party elite often send their children to study at Ivy League universities, and might acknowledge in private that the US has proven a more benign power on the world stage than the old-world European colonial powers of the 20th century, suspicion of American motives is as rife as ever in China at the grass roots.
The global appeal of the Chinese narrative is often belittled by Western analysts despite the country’s developmental credentials. But that narrative is increasingly complex, and proving more influential in the developing world even as Chinese economic growth has slowed. Spun by what is, after all, a party that still calls itself Communist, that narrative is on the whole more secular when compared with Americans’ “In God we trust” mindset. And yet, remarkably, it can at times go down well in theocracies like Iran.
During the Tehran leg of Xi’s three-nation tour of the region last month, Iran’s hardline spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is reported to have commended the Chinese stance despite differences over the civil war in Yemen: “Iranians never trusted the West ... That’s why Tehran seeks cooperation with more independent countries.” The same perception of fair-mindedness earned Xi an equally warm welcome in Riyadh, Tehran’s arch-rival, casting him in the mould of a new energetic global power broker.
In his speech to the Arab League in Cairo, Xi hinted that the use of force and religious fanaticism were aggravating Middle East problems. How else could a region so “abundant” in resources fall behind so badly in terms of living standards? He urged his listeners to embrace “One Belt, One Road”, holding out in return the promise of rapid industrialisation, Chinese style. Though he did not dwell on European colonialism as such, implicit in his message was a common Sino-Arab grievance against – and suspicion of – Western motives as directed at the perpetuation of global wealth disparity. At the same time, China’s official news agency, Xinhua, stated more openly: “[We hope] that the wisdom of China, which is trusted by Middle Eastern countries as a non-interfering country, could serve as an effective remedy for problems and herald a brighter future for the region.”
In the meantime, “One Belt, One Road” poses a real long-term challenge for the Israeli government, not least because Xi reiterated in Cairo China’s commitment to establishing a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. Yet, below the surface, Sino-Israeli business and military ties have improved over the past few years without provoking too much American ire. The one dimension bafflingly ignored thus far in the Israeli press has to do not so much with geopolitics but with identity. Although born in Poland, Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, was well known for his intellectual fascination with Buddhism, and his attempts in the early 1950s to forge closer ties with East Asia. Had Asia not turned its back on Israel after the Bandung Conference of 1955, a stronger sense of Asian affiliation – if not Asian identity – might have emerged.
Today, Israel’s increasingly fractious society is at a similar crossroads once again. Though largely Eastern-European born, Israel’s founding fathers saw themselves as torch-bearers of Western European enlightenment values. Later in the 1990s, Americanisation was pervasive. More recently, however, that sense of belonging is gradually giving way to raucous multiculturalism. Critics often posit European affiliation as synonymous with modernity. They warn that “Asianisation” would lead to religious fanaticism and economic backwardness. Here, China’s rise is of relevance: it’s a reminder that there may be multiple paths to modernity, and that the Western European one may not be the only secular option in the future.
Niv Horesh is director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham, UK