At the bottom of a deep pit gouged by a bulldozer, a Chinese soldier in a protective visor shovels aside earth to reveal an unexploded bomb left over from Israel’s war with Hezbollah guerrillas in south Lebanon.
Sweating at his perilous task in Zebqin village, 2nd Sergeant Liu Sinpshi is part of a 190-strong Chinese contingent in a U.N. peacekeeping force trying to stabilize the south.
The Chinese demining mission in Lebanon is a small sign of Beijing’s rapidly expanding engagement in the Middle East, where its voracious quest for secure energy supplies in the 21st century has sharpened its interest in regional stability.
China is striving to build economic and political ties in a region which the International Energy Agency expects to supply 70 percent of its oil imports by 2015, but in doing so it risks antagonizing its key trading partner, the United States.
For China woos U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia with the same fervor it uses to court Iran, Syria and Sudan—all at odds with the West and seen by Washington as “sponsors of terrorism”.
From Tehran to Rabat, few capitals seem worried by China’s growing weight, at least as a trading power, in a region where it had a low profile before becoming a net oil importer in 1993.
“Hegemony, domination, imperialism are associated with the United States and Europe. China is not seen that way,” said Sami Baroudi, a Lebanese political scientist. “Arabs appreciate its economic might, but don’t see it as a political threat.”
No questions asked
Ruling elites in Iran and the Arab world appreciate China’s eagerness to do business without fussing about human rights and democracy. They prefer Beijing’s calls for international dialogue on conflicts such as the Iran nuclear dispute to the unilateralist and militarist urges of the U.S. administration.
Even those close to the West are frustrated by Washington’s support for Israel, the chaos created by its Iraq invasion and its threats to those defying its plans to reshape the region.
Many also welcome China’s stress on national sovereignty, one reason for its opposition in the U.N. Security Council to the Iraq war and more recently to tough trade sanctions against Iran or U.N. military intervention in Sudan’s Darfur region.
Baroudi argues that ordinary Middle Easterners, not just their rulers, admire China for its explosive economic growth, which many believe—rightly or wrongly—has occurred without sacrificing social justice, law and order or traditional values.
In Egypt, a recent government poll showed China as the most favorably viewed non-Arab country, with 73 percent of Egyptians seeing it as friendly and only 4 percent as hostile.
“China has no colonial ambitions in the past or now and it has emerged as an economic power with an interesting experience so in Egypt there is a strong tendency to establish relations in economic cooperation and energy projects,” said Abdel-Raouf el-Reedy, who chairs the Egyptian Council on Foreign Relations.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who briefly allowed a climate of debate after he took power in 2000, soon made clear that reform of the state-dominated economy would take priority over political change in a policy that his liberal critics said was inspired by the “Chinese model.”
Those critics argued that China, unlike Syria, had axed its “old guard” and had generated huge economic opportunities, whereas Damascus could offer nothing comparable to deflect demands for political, social and judicial reforms.
Counterweight to America
Assad has looked openly to China to carve out a bigger role in the Middle East after the demise of Syria’s Soviet ally.
“China is now a superpower and is very important after the absence of the Soviet Union,” he was quoted as saying in 2004.
For Saudi Arabia, China is also a counterweight to U.S. dominance, not just a booming market for oil and investment.
The kingdom, the birthplace of Islam and former bulwark against what it saw as the threat posed by atheist Chinese communism, has embraced Beijing partly to offset strains in its longstanding alliance with the United States which became acute after the Sept. 11 attacks and which have not fully dissipated.
King Abdullah chose China for his first trip abroad as Saudi monarch in April and described it as a “truly friendly country.”
China’s combination of political control and economic growth has attractions for Saudi Arabia and other Gulf oil producers, buoyed by a vast oil price windfall they can use to assuage discontent with autocratic rule and reduce religious militancy.
In Iran, China is welding an ambitious economic relationship that it is struggling to insulate from any disruptions sparked by the international nuclear dispute with the Islamic Republic.
China has consistently urged peaceful diplomacy, but Tehran cannot assume it will use its Security Council veto to block eventual U.N. sanctions for its pursuit of a nuclear fuel cycle.
Even if sanctions threaten immense harm to the web of energy and other deals China has spun in Iran, Beijing has far greater trade interests in the West, especially the United States.
Aware of such constraints on China, as well as its newcomer status and lack of military muscle in the Middle East, Iranians and Arabs have few illusions that Beijing is able or willing to challenge U.S. primacy, at least in the short run.
“China has been kow-towing to the United States (because of its economic interests) and will do until at least the middle of the next decade,” said Mohamed el-Sayed Said, an analyst at Cairo’s al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
“Also Chinese diplomacy is totally pragmatic and the China of the future may not be a better partner (than Washington).”
For now, China’s growing reliance on Middle East energy has given it a vital stake in regional stability—including non-proliferation of nuclear and unconventional weapons.
It has reined in sales of arms and military technology to the Middle East that marked earlier decades and it shares U.S. concern about al Qaida, especially the group’s backing for Muslim militants in its own northwestern Xinjiang Uighur region.
Since 2002, China has even had its own envoy working on Arab-Israeli peace, although without perceptible success.
“China is emerging as a more influential political power and their attitude is always based on dialogue,” Reedy said.
Beijing has become more involved with U.N. efforts to mitigate Middle East conflicts, joining pre-war arms inspections in Iraq and this year the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Lebanon.
The Chinese have cleared thousands of cluster bombs and other ordnance—including the bomb 2nd Sergeant Liu was tackling in Zebqin—since the Israeli-Hezbollah war ended on Aug. 14, winning them a degree of affection from Lebanese villagers.
“The people are quite friendly because they know we’re doing something for them,” says liaison officer Major Xu Hongcai.