Dialogue between Zhou Bo and Tuvia Gering: What does China's efforts to promote "peace in the Middle East" mean to Israel?

  • The following conversation took place on March 2nd, 2023 at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) after the INSS 16th annual conference in Tel Aviv, Israel. It is shared with Guancha with the INSS's permission. The English transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

    Tuvia Gering: Welcome to the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) podcast series in Tel Aviv. I'm your host for today, Tuvia Gering , I'm a researcher with the Diane and Guilford Glaser Israel-China Policy Center, and a non resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council global China Hub.
    In September we had a pretty major event in Beijing, the Second Middle East Security Conference, headed by then Foreign Minister and State Councilor Wang Yi, who gave the keynote speech. That is when he unveiled what he called China's New Security Architecture for the Middle East. The forum lasted a few days and was attended by about 70 dignitaries from all over the region, who discussed China's solutions to the problems that plague the Middle East.
    A few months later, in early December, Chinese leader Xi Jinping visited Saudi Arabia for three summits. The first one was hosted by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia; the second with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and the third with with 21 members of the Arab League. They made some significant announcements, including $50 billion in MoUs and numerous grand statements about the strategic nature of cooperation between China and the region. In addition, China and the Gulf have released a joint statement, and there, too, they mentioned China’s New Security Architecture for the Middle East.
    This framework was repeated a third time just recently, a few weeks ago, when Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi, visited Beijing. His visit mirrored Xi Jinping's visit to Saudi Arabia in that both sides issued a joint statement and signed MOU worth approximately $20 billion. They, too, used the word “strategic” to describe the nature of the relationship.
    To help us understand what China's New Security Architecture for the Middle East means, I'm very happy to welcome today, senior Colonel (retired) Zhou Bo. Zhou is a senior fellow with the Center for International Security and strategy (CISS) at Tsinghua University, and a China Forum expert. In his military capacity, Professor Zhou was director of the Center for Security Cooperation of the Office for International Military Cooperation of the PLA. A very warm welcome to you, Zhou Bo, thank you for joining us today.
    Zhou Bo: Thank you for having me, Tuvia.
    Tuvia: Over the last week, during the INSS International Conference we got to talk a lot about security, China’s role in the region, and the war in Ukraine. I would love to touch on all these topics today, but just to kick us off, when did China become interested in the Middle East, and when did the Middle East become interested in China? This wasn’t always the case.
    Zhou: Well, I think China's interests the Middle East are certainly growing. The most obvious point is that China is interested in energy input, and most people are focused solely on that. But there is more than that; nowadays, China's influence is global, so China's economic activities are also ubiquitous.
    So with that, and nowadays, we couldn't see, you know, a very much diversified investment in the Middle East. I was in Abu Dhabi a few years ago, where I visited the so-called Dragon City and discovered a large number of Chinese nationals. People are talking about 200,000 Chinese expats –
    Tuvia: I saw 400,000 last time.
    Zhou: Oh, I see. Yeah. I asked one entrepreneur how much of the materials for infrastructure construction come from China. And he paused for a moment and said, “100 percent.” That really surprised me. It takes some guts to say "100%," don't you think? It is outstanding how China has actually occupied lion share in the in the Middle East market. Chinese workers are also employed in construction and other industries in Israel. This must be true for almost all countries, including your rival, if not enemy, Iran. China’s coverage of cooperation is truly intensive. Putting all this together, China is deeply, deeply engaged in the Middle East. And, of course, this would raise issues other than economic ones, right? Then there's the issue of security, such as protecting harbors or the Chinese workers here.
    Tuvia: Yeah, for sure. And when Xi Jinping visited the region just recently, that was his second in his official capacity after 10 years in power, and this is also the 10th year anniversary of the Belt and Road Initiative 一带一路, which he unveiled back in 2013. And since that time, some of the numbers that we're talking about just to give the viewer some idea, in 2021, the trade was to the tune of $330 billion between China and just the Arab states, excluding Iran, Israel and Turkey. China's has been involved in over 200, major infrastructure projects - and I'm talking about ports and bridges, roads, rail tracks, power stations, and even entire cities, when it comes to Egypt's New Administrative Capital. It really is spectacular.
    It's not just physical infrastructure either. You can see it in other sectors, in the infrastructure of the future, as I call it, in all these different types of Silk Roads: a big web of the Digital Silk Road, e.g., smart cities and 5G and 6G communications by Huawei; the Green Silk road, with renewable energy, nuclear energy; a space Silk Road, with joint satellite launches, and BeiDou navigation satellite cooperation; there is also a Health Silk Road, especially after COVID. China has established redistribution and manufacturing centers for vaccines, which is pretty amazing.
    When you take a step back, you see that China has really become an important player. We don't need to use the word “central” or “the most important,” but certainly, no one will object that it's important. It is very important to local people, perhaps indispensable in some ways. However, there is one area where it has not been as involved in the wide range of fields we mentioned: security and politics - it appears that China is still a little hesitant on these topics, do you agree?
    Zhou: I think so. Well, when you're talking about all these things, what I'm thinking is that the world is not only about the “West versus the rest.” The rest is actually much bigger, if you consider the Global South. Just in this region, China is certainly investing a lot in the Middle East, but equally in Africa and Oceania. Everywhere.
    So what makes the Middle East different is its internal chaos, the underlining potential for conflict. China would wish for all the hotspots and conflicts to disappear, but this is, of course, wishful thinking. That is why, so far, China has been very cautious, walking on a tightrope and focusing primarily on business without getting too involved militarily in the Middle East.
    But things could change. First of all, what if Chinese workers are hijacked? It happens all the time, even in Baluchistan, Pakistan, whose foreign policy is friendly with China. They don't necessarily despise Chinese people, but they kidnap them for ransom or out of resentment toward the Pakistani government. This could happen here as well. This type of thing will almost certainly increase as Chinese involvement grows. This is only natural.
    The other thing is how could China avoid being sucked into this black hole. Even you don't like each other, as in the case of Israel and Iran, so for us, this is difficult to for us to make a choice. Furthermore, there are many subregional hotspots, so China has to be very careful.
    Tuvia: Of course, our situation in our neighborhood is not very quiet. And even before we talk about the West, it's just intrinsically, here, in our neighborhood, we don't get along, as you said; this is not an ideal world. Facing these facts, that China's interests are increasing, its engagement is growing, until now, we had this arrangement where China had to rely, like all of us, on the American security architecture after the Cold War, where it'd become a unipolar moment. Sure, it's been only for a short while, but still, in the last 30 years or so. US involvement turned it into the indispensable power, and this is something that is not going away. I of disagree with the idea that the US is withdrawing from the region. I don't see it, maybe just superficially. But the US is still here to stay. That's how they say it. That's the way we see it. And now this may create complications. And the question is, will China be able to still maintain this balance - or this more aloof position - because we have growing engagement, we have sea lines of communications that you have to protect, you talk about hijacking, and it was just over 10 years ago, during the Arab Spring, in 2010-2011, when China had to evacuate 35,000 Chinese nationals just from Libya. During that time, China had to rely on the benevolence of other actors, namely Western.
    And now with a great power competition and the fraught nature of the relationship between China in the West - the US and Europe - the situation has changed a bit. And this led leads many of our colleagues in China, for example, Professor Yang Cheng , a former diplomat. He was talking recently about the war in Ukraine, and how it will affect the China's posture in the Middle East. He thinks that there's now a consensus among Chinese scholars that China has to increase its security and political involvement in the Middle East; there's just no way around it.
    On the other hand, you have people like Niu Xinchu from CICIR. And he thinks that it's still up for debate. And of course, all of them agree, even when they say the East is rising, the West is declining. It's still just relative. America is here to stay. So how do you reconcile with this situation?
    Zhou: Those are just academic debates. But I used to be a practitioner for many, many years. And I myself have been China's coordinator for counterpiracy operation in the Gulf of Aden in the Indian Ocean. When we talk about the China-US rivalry, I believe it is primarily limited to the Western Pacific, which is on China's doorstep, and aside from the South China Sea, we don't have any significant rivalry on security issues, because China has no intention of becoming the world's police.
    The real question is how India views China's military presence in the Indian Ocean, because India has traditionally regarded itself as the region's "net security provider," that is, its sole security provider. This is something I disagree with. How do you establish yourself as a "net security provider" for the entire Indian Ocean, considering the fact that it is full of strategic international sea lanes and that we operate there as well.
    This is based on Hindu nationalism, also known as "Akhand Bharat" which believes that India possesses a vast region that includes Bhutan, Tibet, and Sri Lanka. They consider the Indian Ocean to be "India's Ocean," which is not true. That is why, from time to time, we hear about Chinese military vessels berthed in Sri Lanka reported as a problem for India (such as the case of the “Yuan Wang”). Even if you believe it's a spy ship, it was restocking in Sri Lankan territorial waters, and this “spy ship” was in fact for observing activities in outer space, which may or may not have anything to do with India. How will India react if Chinese aircraft carriers sail into the Indian Ocean one day, which I don't think is far away? And India has been working hard to strike a balance between the major powers. However, because of their mindset, this presents a challenge to them.
    In the Middle East, China's interest will remain, as will the Americans, your ironclad allies. I agree with you that American withdrawal is only superficial. They may no longer require Middle Eastern oil, but they continue to have a strong interest in the region. The question is, under what conditions would Chinese and American interests collide? I can hardly think of a tangible scenario, when we are so deeply involved in economic activities. The idea that we will undoubtedly have a clash of interests does not appear to be correct.
    For example, in a hypothetical situation, Israel may find itself in a difficult situation because, on the one hand, it is a staunch ally of the United States, but on the other hand, it continues to do business with China in agricultural and other non-sensitive sectors. This should be fine, right? And Israel can speak directly to America about this. Why can't we collaborate in these areas?
    Tuvia: I would love to explore this a bit more. So from what you're saying - and other experts like Niu Xinchun said so as well - there's no conflict of interest between China and the US. In other areas, of course, there's a lot of conflict. But here in the Middle East, this can be like our small Kingdom of Heaven, where all of our interests are aligned, because after all, both sides, China in the US, are interested in regional peace, security, prosperity - everyone can agree on that, right?
    However, in the security second security forum that we talked about, in the beginning, in September, China is beginning to perhaps step on the toes of the US security posture in the region. Then, it's not just in agriculture, and education, and all these various civilian non military aspects; China is, by definition, declaring that it wishes to become involved in security. They called it the Middle East Security Forum. Then, a senior Chinese diplomat, Wang Yi, unveiled this New Security Architecture for the Middle East. And the word “new,” I think, is the key word here. Because this implies there's an “old” security architecture for the Middle East, that China thinks it can improve upon. Is that a correct way to put it?
    Zhou: China has been heavily involved in the Middle East, so it is understandably concerned about security. And, because the security situation in the region is so complicated, China wishes to do something about it.
    Talking about it in principle is fine, and it shows that China does play a role. However, this is similar to its peace proposal for Ukraine, which lacks a tangible roadmap. China's proposal is more general in nature, focusing on principles.
    Tuvia: So, why offer a peace plan at all, if it is general and not tangiable?
    Zhou: It is good for people to know China's attitude, and China proposal might evolve in the future, when time is right. For example, consider China's role in the Six-Party Talks on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula (in 2003), which ultimately failed, but everyone agrees that China played a positive role in bringing the talks together.
    When the Belt and Road Initiative was put forward 10 years ago in 2013, nobody knew what it was. But you have now described how it has evolved. So, as time passes, China may become more constructive in its proposals. These proposals are not static; they have the potential to thrive.
    Tuvia: But still, for me, as a Middle Easterner and an Israeli, I say that if it isn't broken, why fix it? We already have us an existing security architecture. It's by no means perfect. I mean, we like the Americans, but they're also not perfect, we're not perfect. But we have a security architecture led by America. Israel wants it and the Gulf countries need it for their own prosperity and survival.
    And it works. I mean, of course, we can talk about the many problems that it has caused. But it has also worked for China, because China gets approximately 50 percent of its energy from the Middle East, it passes through the Strait of Hormuz, and it is US deterrence that keeps the whole thing from falling apart, at least the way we see it here in the Middle East. That's why we need it. When I read about China’s New Security Architecture for the Middle East, I ask myself, why don't you just become involved in what exists and improve it from the inside? Or, in other words, integrate instead of interfere? Because in my mind, it looks like something that is alternative. We don't want an alternative. We want better, but not an alternative. Does that make sense?
    Zhou Bo: Of course, there is some truth to what you said if there is a proposal that meets the needs of all parties. For example, the Abraham Accords (the normalization of relations between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan in September 2020) are positive because you improved your relationship with your neighbors. If something is proven to be good, people should accept it.
    But China's attitude, if China puts forward this proposal, I believe it is for good reasons. And, as a result, you may wonder whether China and the US can actually cooperate in terms of regional security. Counterpiracy operations in the Gulf of Aden is a typical example of how major powers can actually become a coalition for a common purpose.
    If you look at the PLA's overseas operations, you will notice that they are all in humanitarian areas, whether it is peacekeeping or disaster relief. China is not trying to bomb or kill anyone. If America's strength is truly declining, how about we work together to safeguard these strategic sea lanes?
    The Chinese navy is growing. If you count the ships of China's South Sea Fleet (SSF) or East Sea Fleet (ESF), each of them is larger than the surface ships combined of the whole British Royal Navy, which was once second to none. What's the use of having such a large [fleet]? Of course, it is to protect China's interests overseas and to enable the Chinese people to [fulfill] their international obligations. Apart from issues of sovereignty closer to home for China, we do not have many disagreements with the US in terms of security. China is open minded. Why don't we just abandon the Cold War mentality and join hands to make the world safer?
    Tuvia: For me, as an Israeli, this is music to my ears. I would love nothing more. And I'm sure most people in the Middle East are tired of having our little region become an arena for great power competition. But again, we're don’t live in an ideal world. And I think there are some barriers to create this sort of cooperation that you mentioned.
    I want to take you back 25 years to your time in Cambridge. You wrote a master’s thesis about ASEAN and collective security. And I think this is where the difference lies between China's “collective/shared security”. And then you have the Western “traditional security.” And maybe if you can talk about the different ways in which China views security, it could be for ASEAN and for the Middle East, and the way the US views security.
    Zhou: There is a fundamental difference, because if you look at Xi Jinping Thought, in terms of foreign policy, I consider his ideas about a Community of Shared Destiny for Mankind is a top hat. Underneath it, there are two important initiatives, the Global Security Initiative (GSI) and the Global Development Initiative (GDI). China is good at developing some general ideas and then make them become a more tangible and concrete. On the GDI, I would say that we already have a lot of things in it, such as the Belt and Road Initiative. It is something that everyone can see and grasp around the world, and it serves as a pillar for the Global Development Initiative
    The other pillar of security is currently being developed, but there is already something in it, such as PLA operations overseas that are only limited to humanitarian areas. This reveals a great deal. That indicates that China wishes to distance itself from America's practice, which has proven to be more bloody, to say the least. The PLA have not killed anybody overseas, not even pirates.
    Tuvia: You didn’t have to because the US was involved.
    Zhou: But Chinese are still more cautious about using force. For example, in counter piracyand peacekeeping you are allowed to use force. The UN mandates for peacekeeping operations do not say “you can kill,” but they do authorize you to "use all necessary means." Even so, China has been extremely cautious in its peacekeeping efforts. In counter piracy we scattered the pirates or apprehended them but we didn't try to kill them.
    Tuvia: Back to our region here in the Middle East. Of course, people here kill each other all the time. And when it comes to the tangible, concrete areas of security, will China be able to cooperate with the US or not? Because if China does not offer anything tangible, and let's take the most glaring example, the Iran nuclear deal - just a week, week and a half ago, we got the news that Iran has reached 84% of uranium enrichment (just short of the 90% required for the bomb). That is way above civilian use, and even if we say it's “only” 60%, something they've been doing for a long while now. Iran appears to be hell-bent on obtaining the bomb, and we can all agree that this is not in China's interest or declared position, as China is a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). China also important in reaching the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) in 2015. At the time, former ambassador Hua Liming (华黎明) was instrumental in facilitating the relationship between Iran and the United States.
    But now we're in a very different situation, where the relationship between the US and China has almost never been lower. Just look at the balloon incident. And now we're are reaching closer to a point that is very possible, where either Iran is going to reach a bomb and mount it on a missile or you're going to have a preemptive attack by Israel, the Gulf countries and the US. What will China do then, and what will become of China’s security architecture? How will it help? This is where the tangible aspect becomes extremely important. What will China do?
    Zhou: My direct answer is, why hadn’t you, as America’s staunch allies, told them not to scrap the JCPOA? Donald Trump made a mess; everybody was working towards non-proliferation, and to a great extent the Iranians have abided by the deal. Why would you just throw it away? You should have told the American government, because you're your allies and it served your best interest. Even for the sake of your so-called ironclad commitment to Israel, they shouldn’t have thrown it away.
    You can imagine how difficult it is to reach an agreement on nuclear issues. Whereas the Six-Party Talks simply failed, the situation was different here, and an agreement was almost reached. Despite the fact that China was involved, they scrapped it due to some people in Israel, but primarily due to Donald Trump. As a result, we are now in a more dangerous situation.
    Tuvia: I can’t disagree on what Trump did. And by the way, it was Israel that lobbied the US to scrap the deal because Israeli policymakers thought at the time that the deal was terrible. Even during the implementation phase (from 2015 to 2018), Iran continued to expand and strengthen its proxy powers throughout the region, particularly around Israel.
    And if we consider China's official position on the Ukrainian war, for example, that NATO's expansionism started the war, even though Russia is carrying out the attack and violating human rights. China claims that the root cause is the United States and NATO's expansion over the last 20 years, as well as a failure to listen to Russia and consider its spheres of influence.
    If we apply this logic of China here in the Middle East, we have not twenty years, but forty years, the Iranian regime, a self-described “revolutionary” regime, has been spreading its extremism and expanding its proxies throughout the region, thereby creating its own ‘exclusive security.’ What about Israel’s and the Gulf’s ‘legitimate security interests’? We didn’t enjoy security during the implementation phase of the JCPOA, and we don’t have it now. Where does China stand on that?
    Zhou: But first, let me ask you a simple question. Before I go any further, I must state that what you said in regards to Iran is something that almost every Israeli would say in a tone that is completely understood. But let me ask you one very simple question: comparing the situation now and the time before the JCPOA had been scrapped, is the situation now more dangerous or not?
    Tuvia: For us no, for China yes. This, I believe, is the story's moral hazard. Because the deaths of some Jews or Arabs killed by Iranian terrorism do not jeopardize China's interests. If Iran obtains a nuclear weapon, Saudi Arabia will immediately follow suit, followed by the UAE and Egypt. We might even have a war, putting all of China's interests in the region at risk - this is our security versus China’s security.
    Zhou: You have already answered this question. If you believe the situation right now is more dangerous than before the JCPOA had been scrapped, that means you made the wrong decision. This clearly made the situation more dangerous. Therefore, you actually have invited this kind of danger.
    Tuvia: But what do we do now in case that this not so speculative scenario where we might have a showdown in the Middle East, what will China do? Will China be able to cooperate with the US, or, at least, not interfere; perhaps, it could even support Israel and the Gulf countries in protecting their own security over Iran’s exclusive security and its proxies - or is the great power competition so [fierce] right now, and because Iran is leaning closer to China today, and both are against the US, will China just stand with folded arms in the sidelines?
    Zhou: I don't think so. On the issue of non-proliferation, China is as decisive as anyone else in the belief that Iran should not develop nuclear weapons. This position is absolute, because it is based on a decades-old policy. China has changed many of its defense policies over the years, but not on this issue on the use of nuclear weapons against countries without nuclear weapons or regions, and China is committed to never be the first to use a nuclear weapon. China's commitment is ironclad. Therefore, I do not believe that there is a difference, even with the major power rivalry. The only question is how can we achieve denuclearisation.
    Through my conversations with people, I believe that the Iranians are not as adamant about developing a nuclear weapon because they understand the consequences. It's difficult to predict whether you'll launch a preemptive strike or not because you've kept this option deliberately ambiguous. You said that “all the options are on the table.”
    However, striking Iran will not solve the problem. It may even cause more problems, because Iran is not a weak country militarily. So, nobody wants this to happen. But I believe that this kind of attitude, this Iranian uncertainty, is an opportunity for all of us; we must consider this opportunity so that the scenario does not become reality, making the situation even more dangerous. There is still time.
    Tuvia: I hope so too. To wrap up, I'd like to ask your personal opinion rather than China's official position. Has anything changed your mind during your week in Israel, or do you have a major takeaway from this trip?
    Zhou: No, I haven't changed my mind, but I am more aware of how Israelis perceive the situation here. One of the things that comes to mind is how the China-US competition might intensify, and how that might put you, as a staunch US ally, in a worse position. That would be extremely difficult for you. That is why, at the end of yesterday's conference, I stated, "We know that the Jewish people are the most clever people in the world" -
    Tuvia: - I don’t know about that…
    Zhou: Some people say it, but we also know that you are staunch allies of the United States
    Tuvia: That’s true.
    Zhou: So, putting all this together, that means you should not blindly follow other people's instructions. You should make the decisions on things the concern your national interest. We know you won't take China’s side, even in the most extreme scenario - that would put you in a very difficult situation. But we do not want you to pick sides -
    Tuvia: We don’t want “sides” at all; that is Cold War mentality.
    Zhou: Yes, but when such a situation arises, you should first consider your national interests. Be impartial in determining who is right and who is wrong, and make your own correct decision.
    Tuvia: On that, I absolutely agree. Thank you very much, Zhou Bo.

    Zhou: Thank you.

    Senior Colonel Zhou Bo (ret) is a senior fellow of the Centre for International Security and Strategy at Tsinghua University and a China Forum expert.

    This article was first published on Guancha Syndicate on Mar. 12, 2023.

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