15 October 2012
By Pinhas Inbari
China’s recent conflict with Japan over the Diaoyu Islands near Taiwan gives a rare glimpse of the rising power’s strategic concerns and provides an insight into its Middle Eastern policies.
A possible clash between two giants like China and Japan is far more alarming to Israel’s ally, the United States, than the ongoing sectorial infighting in the Middle East. While America remains concerned about the Palestinian problem and the bloodshed in Syria, events in the Far East may shift American focus away from the Middle East toward China and its neighbors.
Though it is in China’s interest to distract the Americans with problems in the Middle East, it is unlikely to succeed due to the persistence of its conflict with Japan. To date, China has done its utmost to keep the bitter memory of the Japanese occupation of China alive. Every night, Chinese television screens another 'Japan hate movie' that retells the events of the Second World War. In typical fashion, the Chinese are portrayed as handsome and brave guerilla fighters who team up with defenseless local villagers to eventually triumph over the cruel and ugly Japanese.
The conflict over the Diaoyu Islands fits neatly into this narrative. As a middle-aged Beijing intellectual pointed out, the Japanese surrendered the islands at the end of the war to the United States alone, but still perceive is as part of the spoils of war and an integral part of Japan. He added that the Japanese never apologized to China or provided compensation, thus leading the Chinese to conclude that Japan still eyes parts of China, like the Formosa Island now known as Taiwan, as Japanese territory.
Chinese policies in the Middle East derive from the country’s concerns in its backyard, especially in Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea. China’s staunch support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is intended to convey to its neighbors that while nobody can rely on the United States, China stands solidly behind its friends and allies.
When a local newspaper reported the latest clashes between Syria and Turkey, the subtitle read "Erdoğan is isolated" and emphasized NATO’s (i.e. America’s) refusal to allow him to invade Syria. So, it is not China-backed Assad who is isolated, but Erdoğan who is allied to the United States.
China’s support of Assad comes at a price for the Syrian regime. It will not allow Assad to run off into the Alawite Mountains and hide amongst his people. The reason is China’s fear of appearing to defer to its minorities. Eighty percent of China is populated by Hans - what we call Chinese. The other 20 percent are a mix of quiet minorities that do not pose a challenge to the regime at this time. However, China fears that once the Middle East begins to split along ethnic lines, its own minorities may stir. The Tibetans, for example, have so far been submissive, but they have never accepted Chinese rule.
In fact, the only reasonably active minority in China are the Muslims. Hence, China has insisted that Assad stay in Damascus and not let it be overrun by the Muslim Brotherhood, which is not supported by China’s Muslims. The group is also the reason why China has thus rebuffed any outreach by Egypt’s President Mursi, who belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Yet, the Chinese government is threatened far less by the “minority effect” of the Middle East on its internal policies than it is by the Tahrir Square demand for freedom and democracy. Here it faces a challenge and danger from the Han majority and has taken steps, among them limiting student enrolment in universities in order to prevent a large student contingent, to curtail any chance of a popular uprising akin to the Arab Spring. The infamous Tiananmen Square is carefully guarded. Entrance is allowed only to those who go through a security check as if boarding a flight.
China’s policies in the Middle East are formulated with its home front in mind. Its efforts to keep the United States tied up in the region, allow Assad to contain the Muslim Brotherhood, and, most importantly, keep Tahrir Square far away from Tiananmen Square, are all indicative of China’s domestic concerns and weaknesses.
Photo: Pinhas Inbari
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