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Book Review

Changing patterns of China's foreign policy in the Middle East

Zafar Bangash

CHINA'S FOREIGN POLICY TOWARD THE MIDDLE EAST By Hafizullah Emadi. Royal Book Company, Karachi, Pakistan. 1997. pp. 102. Hbk: np.

China is an emerging superpower. For decades, the west viewed it as an enemy because of its radical ideology. Many American cold warriors still consider it so despite far reaching changes in China. These have of necessity affected its foreign policy preferences as well. Within China, old ideas have had to be discarded and new realities taken into account.

This book examines some of these nuances pertaining to China’s policy toward the Middle East which has been an exclusive preserve of the US over the last three decades. Prior to that, it was dominated by the British and French. They still wield considerable influence but America is the pre-eminent power in the region now.

Where does China fit into the picture? Hafizullah Emadi, originally from Afghanistan and educated in the US (Hawaii), examines this dimension of the Middle East situation. Although the book is rather short on detail and at times quite simplistic, the fact that it sheds light on a subject largely ignored in the past, enhances its significance.

Emadi chooses three countries - Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran - and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) for his subject matter. While Iran and Iraq fall within the Middle East, some may reasonably question Afghanistan’s inclusion in this category. Could it be because of the fact that the author is most familiar with the country of his birth?

Similarly, Egypt is perhaps the most important Arab-speaking country in the Middle East. It has not merited inclusion in this study, although China’s relations with Cairo are discussed at some length in the context of the Palestine question.

That aside, China’s relations with Pakistan offer a far more fascinating subject of study. After all, the two countries have had close relations since the early sixties which have endured every kind of upheaval, both internal and external. That so little is written about Pakistan-China relations is one of the major gaps in this vital area.

After giving an overview of China’s policy toward the Middle East, Emadi examines Beijing’s relations with Afghanistan. He identifies three distinct phases in China’s internal situation. The first phase lasted from independence in 1949 to about 1955. From then upto Mao Tze Dong’s death in September 1976 can be considered the second phase while the third phase is on-going since then. Much has changed in China over the years.

In its first phase, China’s policy was guided by Mao’s revolutionary thought. Initially, it was also close to the Soviet Union with which it later fell out over Moscow’s denunciation of Josef Stalin and Beijing’s adherence to the Stalinist line. Thus, in Chinese lexicon, the Soviet Union became the ‘revisionist State’ while Beijing adopted the Marxist-Leninist line to distinguish itself from Moscow. The US lost the top spot as enemy number one despite being the leading imperialist power.

Emadi says that for many years, China provided weapons and training to various revolutionary groups free of charge. This was all done as part of its revolutionary duty. Mao was quite committed to this line. Later, according to the author, arms sales became part of China’s policy of earning foreign exchange.

The three countries under consideration had marxist groups but few of them toed the Chinese line. There were, however, fringe groups in Iraqi Kurdistan, Iran as well as in Afghanistan that had links with Beijing. Among the Palestinians, pro-Chinese communists enjoyed some support. The Soviet Union exercised much greater influence among the communists in the various countries. While Chinese policy was marked by anti-colonial rhetoric, it was pragmatic in practice, as Emadi notes.

For instance, in Afghanistan, Chinese-backed groups operated on the fringes of the tiny minority of marxists. The latter grabbed power in April 1978 leading to the most gruesome chapter in Afghan history. The resistance that erupted and Soviet brutality in attempting to crush it devastated Afghanistan.

China found the Afghan situation much to its liking. Beijing was at loggerheads with the Soviet Union both ideologically as well as over border skirmishes, especially in Mongolia. Its close ally Pakistan decided to help the mujahideen and the Americans pitched in to exact revenge from the Soviets over the Vietnam debacle. China decided to support the Afghans’ struggle against Soviet occupation.

In the period prior to the marxist coup in Kabul, China had developed fairly good trade links with its neighbour Afghanistan as it had with Iran, even under the Shah. Chinese pragmatism had won over the revolutionaries in Beijing. This policy, according to Emadi, was justified on the basis that the Shah had ‘stood up’ to the west in increasing the price of oil. The Shah had done nothing of the sort. He was an American agent whose policies were dictated by Washington.

Chinese justifications of opening up to the Shah were attempts to cover their abandonment of the revolutionary line. Emadi states that the ‘Shah was waiting for a signal from the United States, which came shortly after president Richard Nixon’s celebrated visit to Beijing on 15 July 1971. On 17 August 1971, Iran and China announced the establishment of diplomatic ties between the two countries’ (p.38).

Emadi has clearly got his facts wrong. Nixon did not visit China in 1971. It was Henry Kissinger who had made a secret trip from Islamabad, Pakistan in August 1971 to visit Beijing which paved the way for Nixon’s ‘celebrated’ trip the following year. In 1971, both Pakistan and China were engrossed in the East Pakistan/Bangladesh tragedy that was unfolding at the time.

Emadi however, is correct in pointing out that the Shah looked for guidance from the US. When he was overthrown following the successful Islamic Revolution led by Imam Khomeini, Beijing was again caught wrong-footed but it adjusted its policy quickly. It moved to establish fairly good relations with the Islamic Republic.

In the Iraq-Iran war (1980-88), Emadi shows that Beijing sold weapons to both sides. Unlike the west, China’s policy was more evenhanded. This was naturally helpful to the Islamic Republic which was under an arms embargo imposed by the west in which the US played a leading role.

In its relations with Iraq, China found itself in a quandary. First, Iraq was ruled by a monarchy, something that Beijing had always denounced. When the republican coup occurred, Beijing tried to mend fences with Baghdad but then the Ba’athists came to power. This lot was pro-Soviet but worse, it was a bloody bunch which relished in executing their opponents in coldblood. The Chinese found some small Kurdish groups whom they supported against the regime in Baghdad.

It is clear from Emadi’s account that the Maoists operated as fringe groups in all the countries. It would, however, be inaccurate to gauge Beijing’s influence in any country simply on the basis of how much support the marxists enjoy. Pakistan has no marxists to speak of. The tiny minority that may exist are all arm-chair chursees (dope-smoking) like Ahmed Faraz et al who are marginal in society. But Beijing enjoys very warm relations with Pakistan at numerous levels.

The Palestinian question is viewed as central to Middle Eastern politics. Beijing initially viewed it as part of the larger Arab-Israeli conflict. After the June 1967 war, the Palestinian issue assumed a life of its own. Emadi says that it was Beijing which encouraged the PLO to launch attacks against the zionist occupiers who were looked upon as a beach-head for the west in the Middle East. This is debatable. Yassir Arafat’s PLO had other strands in it as well.

Chinese ambivalence toward the Middle East is reflected clrealy in the Palestinian question. Beijing supports the right of Israel to exist and it even established diplomatic relations with the Zionist State in January 1992 (p.81) supporting the Madrid process initiated by the US in 1991. China believes that the conflict should be resolved through a dialogue.

In the past, Beijing had denounced those Arab regimes which refused to join the struggle against the Zionist occupiers. It realized, however, that these regimes were not serious about liberating their lands. China has therefore moved to improve ties with Israel. At the end of May, the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Beijing. There have been Chinese visits to the Zionist State as well.

The China of 1998 has come a long way from the heady revolutionary days of chairman Mao. The Chinese view the world in far less revolutionary terms and far more pragmatically. Its influence in the Middle East, however, remains quite limited. This is likely to change as China gains greater economic stature in the world.

This book offers a glimpse into the possibilities of what lies ahead but a more thorough analysis of this important topic is needed. Perhaps future studies should include a review of Chinese policy vis-a-vis Egypt and Saudi Arabia as well to complete the Middle East picture.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 27, No. 10

Rabi' al-Awwal 22, 14191998-07-16

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