In contrast, while China has maintained a high-level diplomatic representation in the multilateral forums on the two most recent and pressing crises engulfing the Middle East — the Iranian nuclear issue and the Syrian civil war — it has taken the backseat in deference to the United States and Russia. Indeed, this fits with the pattern of China’s criticism of Western policies toward the region while in effect relying on Western hard power to ensure its energy security. Despite this dynamic, the potential for a greater Chinese role in the region should not be underestimated — even though it may appear far-fetched.
China should utilize its economic gravitas and turn it into political power by adopting a more proactive posture toward West Asia. China should do this not only to pursue a position as a true global power, but also to secure core Chinese interests, including energy security and addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State (IS).
Indeed, in various conversations with Al-Monitor, it became apparent that Chinese officials and Middle East experts view militant Islamism as a key concern. In this vein, it should not be overlooked that China has an Islamist problem of its own, and that individuals linked to the unrest in the western Xinjiang region are reported to have joined IS.
Several Chinese experts on the Middle East who spoke with Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity all separately expressed deep cognizance of the threat posed by the prospect of these militants returning home — and more of their kin joining. Of note, reports surfaced Nov. 18 of the execution of a Chinese hostage by IS.
Beijing’s policy of mutual respect, dignity and noninterference has had its dividends. Yet, these dividends are what paradoxically have put China in the unique position of now being able to play an important role as a proactive facilitator of dialogue. The Saudi-Iranian cold war is one of the most important challenges facing the region today. China is uniquely equipped to facilitate direct engagement to address this rivalry for two main reasons.