Israel

January 14, 2007

While the Iranian president visits South and Central American leaders, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert visits China.

China’s Middle East journey via Jerusalem
By M K Bhadrakumar

Two prominent leaders of the Middle East headed abroad last weekend, canvassing support from the international community. Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad went on a tour of Venezuela, Nicaragua and Ecuador, the “red rain land” of Latin America, while Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert headed for China.

By coincidence, on Wednesday, while Ahmadinejad was being received in Managua by the charismatic Marxist revolutionary Daniel Ortega at his inauguration as the democratically elected president of Nicaragua, Olmert was received with state honors in Beijing. Nothing can bring home as vividly the complexities of the emerging “multipolar” world order.

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China has to keep up the image of a responsible rising power on the world stage. Besides, its relationship with the US and other Western powers must have foreign-policy priority. China’s trade, investment and technological exchanges with the US are profound. China sees that six-party talks over the North Korea nuclear crisis have strengthened China-US relations. China counts on the United States to rein in the independence elements in Taiwan as well as in working out its differences with Tokyo.

Also, China could be losing patience with Iran’s perceived “intransigence” and “inflexibility” with regard to nuclear negotiations with the permanent five plus Germany, and with Tehran’s actions that might undermine the international nuclear non-proliferation regime. Thus, having largely deferred to Russia to take the initiative on Iran so far, China seems to be gently disengaging from Moscow. Beijing’s interests in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf do not coincide with Moscow’s.

But the most important factor in Chinese thinking will be the strategic considerations of its relationship with Saudi Arabia. The exchange of visits by King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud and Hu to each other’s capitals within a four-month period early last year greatly cemented Saudi-Chinese political equations.

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The heart of the matter is that ideology or no ideology, as China’s integration with the world economy grows deeper it is in China’s interest to help the Bush administration preserve the stability of the Middle East’s political order. China’s low-key presence in the international debate over the US occupation of Iraq, China’s readiness to play a bigger role in peacekeeping operations in Lebanon, and China’s acquiescence with the US strategy of pressuring Iran over the nuclear issue can be seen in this light. Curiously, within the three-way equation involving the US, China and Saudi Arabia, the Bush administration is justified in seeing interesting possibilities.

Washington has already grasped China’s helping hand in steering the Security Council resolution on the tribunal for Lebanon (which serves the Saudi-Israeli regional agenda). The agenda in Iraq is much more complex. China’s cooperation in the Security Council could prove crucial in the coming months. Whatever downstream success there is for Bush’s Iraq strategy will depend on the establishment of a UN-mandated Arab peacekeeping force under the Arab League, under the pretext of supporting Iraq’s Sunnis, which, in turn, would enable a US troop withdrawal and Washington’s extrication from the Iraqi quagmire.

What webs we weave. I think the Chinese are smart enough to play every side of the equation. And Israel understands that China, not the US, is the gateway to dealing with Iran.

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