The backbone of China’s non-interference policy was set as early as 1955 by Mao Zedong’s deputy, Premier Zhou Enlai at the Bandung Peace Conference. The foreign policy principles set at the time were of non-interference, respect for the sovereignty of others, non-aggression, and peaceful co-existence. Chinese leaders have since then used the same line of thinking to stay away from international conflict zones. When it comes to the Middle East, Chinese foreign policy is no different. However, following heavy economic investment in a number of regional partners in the last few years, President Xi Jinping is finding it harder to safeguard his country’s economic interests in the region.
It is interesting to study China’s reaction while looking at the example of the recent Saudi-Iran feud. When Saudi Arabia executed a Shiite Muslim cleric at the turn of the year, it sparked a row with Shiite-majority Iran. The two countries have since cut off their diplomatic relations, fuelling further unease into their rocky relationship in an already volatile Middle East.
Seeing this from a Chinese perspective cannot have been comfortable viewing for the country’s leadership. China has invested a lot in the Middle East, not least in its own energy security. While Saudi Arabia is its biggest supplier of crude oil, Iran has (despite international sanctions) been selling most of its own exported crude oil to China. Furthermore, an unstable Saudi-Iran relationship could derail China’s economic plans within the region and beyond, with both Iran and Saudi Arabia being considered an integral part of its ambitious New Silk Road project that aims to connect East and Central Asia with Europe. In other words, as things stand China would have a real problem on its hands if things went belly up with its Middle Eastern partners.
It was in this context that Chinese President Xi Jinping took a trip to both nations, as well as Egypt, last month. It was also the first time a Chinese President visited the region since 2009, and the timing could not have been more appropriate for China to emphasise its point for the need for regional stability. In statements made before, during and after the visit, the Chinese Foreign Ministry and Xi refrained from presenting China as a central mediator in any Middle Eastern issues, instead proposing a “China solution” with “peace and development as the core, [that] targets both the symptoms and root causes of the Middle East quagmire”. Indeed, rather than playing the role of a hands-on peacemaker, Xi spent most of his time signing deals which enhanced economic cooperation.
Shortly before the President’s Middle East visit, China released its first ever Chinese-Arab Policy Paper. Never veering away from a typically Chinese diplomatic language, the phrase “win-win” is mentioned no fewer than 11 times, while the word “cooperation” goes all the way up to 142. It is the emphasis on this kind of language and the persistent eagerness to present oneself as a peaceful observer that captures the essence of non-interventionist Chinese foreign policy.
*The views expressed in this article are of the author and do not represent those of The Political Analysis.