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Pan-Asian community, great changes in the Middle East, and the Israeli Sisyphus
Discourse Power | July 27, 2023
Greetings from Jerusalem,
Today is Tish'a B'Av תשעה באב, a Jewish fast day commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, as well as other tragedies in Jewish history. According to tradition, the last Temple was destroyed due to Sinat Chinam שנאת חינם, that is, hatred and animosity between individuals or groups for no valid or justifiable reason, reminding us of the importance of compassion and reconciliation.
Thank you for reading,
“The US and the West don't really care about democracy in the Middle East and are instead attempting to turn their Middle Eastern allies into tools for confronting non-Western powers”
Fudan University Professor Sun Degang asserts that China is leading a group of economically driven Asian nations that are assisting in the creation of a "new Middle East" free from the narrow American and Western geopolitical interests.
Professor Sun is the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at Fudan University and a vice president at the Chinese Middle East Studies Association (CMESA 中国中东学会),
Full translation of Sun’s article published on July 17, 2023, in the Chinese version of the Global Times:
“Amidst great changes unseen in a century, Middle Eastern countries are ‘looking east,’ while Asian countries are ‘heading west.’ Both sides are developing increasingly closer and more pragmatic cooperative relationships.
“Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi both visited the Gulf in the last two days. Some media outlets interpreted this as yet another attempt to "counter China's influence."
“But when it comes to the Middle East, where a new atmosphere is gradually taking shape, Asian countries should steer clear of the strategic competition trap. Instead, they should make positive contributions to the region's peaceful development.
“The Middle East’s Problems are Complicated by the American-European Security Concept
“The Middle East has long been referred to as ‘the world's powder keg’ 全球火药桶. The region has long been troubled by ethnic tensions, sectarian conflicts, territorial disputes, and refugees. The situation has worsened as a result of regional conflicts, competition between major powers on the global stage, and American and European interference.
“By dividing and conquering the Middle East, erecting ‘small yards and high fences,’ and waging in ‘proxy wars,’ the US and the European powers have not only failed to resolve regional security threats, but they have also internationalized regional security and multilateralized bilateral security.
“China, on the other hand, has proposed the Global Security Initiative (GSI), which seeks to replace confrontations with dialogues and alliances with partnerships. This new security concept is gaining popularity in the Middle East and has made significant contributions to regional peace.
“China successfully facilitated the reconciliation of Saudi Arabia and Iran in March of this year, resulting in a "tide of reconciliation" 和解潮 in the Middle East. The peace dividend 和平红利 that China brought to the Middle East is slowly evolving into a development dividend 发展红利.
“Saudi Arabia and Iran have beaten their swords into plowshares 化剑为犁, improving the overall investment climate in the Gulf region and laying the groundwork for extraterritorial nations to intensify their practical cooperation with West Asian [i.e., Middle Eastern] nations.
“The Key to Resolving the Middle East's Problems is Development
“Following the September 11 attacks, the US and the West believed that the root cause of the Middle East's turmoil was a "democracy deficit" 民主赤字. The US has worked to advance the Greater Middle East Initiative (GMEI) for democracy, with the aim to promote ‘human rights, the rule of law, and freedom’ in the Middle East. In practice, the US and the West don't really care about democracy. They are only interested in turning their Middle Eastern partners into tools for confronting non-Western powers.
“According to China and other rational 理性 members of the international community, the "development deficit" [Xi’ist term] in the Middle East is the principle contradiction 主要矛盾 [Marxist-Maoist term]. Lack of dynamism and inadequate, unbalanced development have turned into roadblocks that keep Middle Eastern nations from progressing toward greater prosperity.
“In the decade that has followed the Arab Spring, Middle Eastern nations have been caught up in a maelstrom of a zero-sum game as a result of the geopolitics of extraterritorial powers and the sectarian politics of regional powers. This has resulted in a loss of development opportunities, and the gap between the Middle East's development and that of the rest of the world has not only not narrowed, but has widened.
“Thanks to the combined efforts of China, the United Nations, and the international community, the "tide of reconciliation" in the Middle East has aided in the region's transition from the ‘old Middle East’ of war and conflict to the ‘new Middle East’ of peace and development.
“Middle Eastern countries are attempting to rise above the "Thucydides Trap" externally and cross the "middle-income trap" internally, with development as their top priority. Vision 2030 in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Vision 2035 in Kuwait, Vision 2040 in Oman, Turkey's Middle Corridor initiative, and Iran's Seventh Five-Year Plan are all underway.
"Asian Nations Provide New Impetus to Middle East Development
“Following the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the US and European powers' attention to Middle Eastern affairs has waned even further. Unlike the US and Europe, which seek geopolitical interests in the Middle East, Asian countries seek geoeconomic interests, and Asia's overall level of cooperation is increasing.
“The majority of Asian nations hold the views that there can never be a true victor in a war, that security is indivisible, and that the Middle East can only progress through peaceful coexistence.
“Instead of engaging in armed conflict, extraterritorial forces should promote peace through development and reconciliation. All nations ought to actively broaden their networks of collaboration and support the parallel growth of a community of security and a community of shared interests.
“In the 'new Middle East,' with Asian powers turning their focus to the region for international cooperation, the 'security-oriented approach' will be replaced by one that is 'development-oriented.' Middle Eastern nations are emerging from the tumult of Western 'proxy wars' and sectarian conflicts in an effort to avoid falling victim to the extraterritorial powers' geopolitical rivalry once more.
“Western academics think that initiatives like the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor of Japan, the Global Gateway Initiative of the European Union, the U.S.-Japan-Australia Blue Dot Network Initiative, the Build Back Better World (B3W) and Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGII) programs of the Group of Seven, as well as the US-India-UAE-Israel I2U2, are largely intended to dilute China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
“Instead of siding with the Western powers and engaging in a vicious race to the bottom in infrastructure, science, and technology in an effort to forge exclusive economic and technological alliances, [the Asian powers] should provide positive energy and inject new impetus into the development of Middle Eastern nations.
“Instead of politicizing development issues, securitizing scientific and technological collaboration, and weaponizing interdependence, they should promote global cooperation based on market-oriented principles. The Middle East is big enough and offers numerous opportunities for development for everyone.
“The ‘new Middle East’ will see Middle Eastern countries become more aware of their strategic autonomy and hesitant to engage in great power competition. Food security, unemployment, urban diseases 城市病, climate change, and industrial underdevelopment are among the many challenges that Middle Eastern countries face in improving people's livelihoods.
“To keep up with the digital economy and energy transformation of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Middle Eastern countries must form all-encompassing partnerships with Asian countries, for whom development is a top priority and a shared value.
“As a result of increased regional economic integration, energy, trade, and economic interdependence between West Asian nations and East, Southeast, and South Asian nations, an Asian Community with a Shared Destiny 亚洲命运共同体 will emerge.” (Global Times)
“The return of the Middle East to Asia...reflects the region’s increased strategic autonomy. The pursuit of development within and peace without is at the heart of Asia, particularly the Chinese path, Chinese wisdom, and Chinese solutions”
Professor Liu Zhongmin of the Middle East Studies Institute at Shanghai International Studies University (SISU) believes that since the Middle East is "looking Eastward" and the West's influence is declining, China needs to adopt a new, more comprehensive perspective of the region as a part of Asia.
Excerpts from Liu’s op-ed, first published in The Paper 澎湃 on July 21st, 2023:
“As a region long dominated by Western colonialism, imperialism, and hegemony, the Middle East is experiencing a significant shift in its political orientation and foreign policy choices by actively seeking to return 回归 to Asia.
“To some extent, this is an important driving force and guarantee for the Middle East's tide of reconciliation. Countries in the Middle East are actively pursuing a "look east" strategy “向东看”战略.
“The Middle East's return to Asia is most clearly manifested in the strong demand to join Asian-led regional organizations like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and to learn from the Asian example of pursuing internal development while pursuing peace externally. An important sign of the return of Middle Eastern nations to Asia is the fact that Iran joined the SCO on July 4 of this year.
“In essence, the decline of Western influence in the Middle East and the return of the Middle East to Asia are the result of profound changes in East-West relations as the world undergoes great changes unseen in a century. In sharp contrast to the Middle East's return to Asia, the West's hard and soft power in the region have both declined.
“The Middle East's return to Asia presents a challenge to China's political geography, regional studies, and overall planning 统筹 of its foreign policy.
“In fact, the term "Western Regions" in ancient Chinese culture did not just refer to Central and West Asia. Conceptually, it also reflects how China views its neighborhood in a holistic way. Present-day Central Asia, South Asia, and other regions were not historically divided from the "Western Regions"... In other words, all the westward destinations that China could reach belonged to the "Western Regions."
“In recent times, and especially in contemporary times, the development of the discipline of world geography has led to the emergence of political geographies in Central Asia, West Asia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. Each of these areas now has its own discipline as well as practical significance. However, this evolution has resulted in a more fragmented understanding of China's periphery. In other words, they are seen as distinct from one another.
“While Central Asia, West Asia, and South Asia have been artificially divided, they have many geographical, religious, and cultural similarities. This not only limits research but also has detrimental effects on diplomatic relations. As an illustration, Afghanistan, which sits at the confluence of Central, South, and West Asia, has been the subject of research in each of the three respective major regional studies.
“However, there is a lack of thorough research on Afghanistan, in part because all regional studies hold that the country should be studied in relation to other regions.
“Another instance is the twelve Eurasian nations that gained independence following the fall of the Soviet Union, including the five Central Asian nations, which are overseen by the European and Central Asian Affairs Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. However, it is evident that the five Muslim nations of Central Asia share more cultural traits with West Asia than they do with the other European nations that fall under the jurisdiction of that department.
“Furthermore, Afghanistan, which maintains close ties with Central Asia, is now covered diplomatically by the Department of Asian Affairs. This presents some management challenges and hinders the integration of peripheral diplomacy as a whole.
“As a result, the concept of the "Middle East," with its strong Western-centric overtones, has significant historical limitations, both theoretically and policy-wise. Furthermore, the limitations of Central, South, and West Asia in terms of political geography and diplomatic management are becoming increasingly apparent.
“It is, therefore, imperative that China reestablish a [holistic] view of Asia in academic and policy contexts as well as a view of West Asia based on based on traditional practices and current demands.” (The Paper)
“The US no longer seeks global and all-encompassing control of the Middle East, so long as its influence in the region exceeds that of other major powers such as China and Russia”
Professor Wu Bingbing of Peking University sees significant shifts in the US, China, and Russian governments' respective Middle East policies, but from a geostrategic perspective, many things remain the same.
Wu is a senior research fellow at the Institute of International and Strategic Studies (IISS) and an associate professor at Peking University's School of Foreign Languages' Department of Arabic Language and Culture.
Full translation of Wu's article, originally published in World Knowledge journal and republished online on July 21st, 2023:
“In recent years, the Middle East has been characterized by a mix of "changes" and "constants." The most significant change is that China, the United States, and Russia have adjusted their respective policies toward it.
“Three Significant Changes
“Change #1: America’s Middle East policy has shifted. US global strategy [lit. "global layout" 全球布局] regards the "Indo-Pacific", the Middle East, and Europe as three dynamically interconnected regions. The US has set a limit on its pivot from the region because an unrestricted reduction [in forces] and withdrawal would be detrimental.
“By completely withdrawing from the Middle East, the US would lose the link between the "Indo-Pacific" and Europe, so, at minimum ["bottom line" 底线], it needs to maintain a basic presence in the region. The withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan in August 2021 marked this limit of its strategic withdrawal from the Middle East 美国从阿富汗撤军，这是其中东战略收缩的极限.
“The direction of Washington’s strategic adjustment in the Middle East is to reduce investment while maintaining its presence. This means pivoting the main focus to the "Indo-Pacific" and Eastern Europe while maintaining influence in the Middle East.
“Consequently, US thinking has shifted from a state of "control" to one of "competition." Whereas in the past, it had to pay a very high price to maintain absolute control of the Middle East; now, it seeks to compete for the Middle East at a low cost and a high yield.
“Put differently, the US no longer seeks global and all-encompassing control of the Middle East, so long as its influence in the region exceeds that of other major powers such as China and Russia.
“The US has fought three major wars in the Middle East in the last 30 years: the Gulf War, the War in Afghanistan, and the Iraq War. Since the W. Bush administration launched the war in Afghanistan, the US has spent more than $1 trillion [other estimates put it at over $2 trillion].
“State Councillor and Minister of Foreign Affairs Qin Gang stated on April 13, 2023, at the Second Informal Meeting of the Foreign Ministers of China, Russia, Pakistan, and Iran on Afghanistan in Samarkand, that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan "seems tactically woeful, but strategically it is a carefully planned move."
“It will be difficult for the US to launch another large-scale ground war in the Middle East. Hence, the most significant change in US policy in the Middle East is the emphasis on maintaining strategic interests through "non-military means" 非军事化手段
“When the US pursued its Middle East policy through "military means," high investments and costs were unavoidable. That is why it must now employ "non-militarized means" to reduce these inputs. At the same time, this forces the US to become unaligned [lit. to "decamp" 去阵营化], that is, it can no longer choose sides and must leave itself some flexibility 弹性.
Change #2: “Russia's Middle East policy has been modified. Following the escalation of the Ukrainian crisis, Russia's foreign policy has shifted to a "look east" strategy, with diplomatic attention shifting to the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific. Russia intends to speed up the revitalization of the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), which connects South Asia with Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Iran.
“The Middle East's position in the global strategy [lit. "layout" 布局] of Russian diplomacy has thus grown significantly. Due to their influence on the course of the Ukrainian crisis and the state of Russian diplomacy in general, Turkey and Iran have been given priority in Moscow’s Middle East diplomacy.
“Change #3: China's relations with the Middle East have deepened. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Middle East was seen as an extension of China's periphery 中国周边的延伸 or its greater periphery 大周边. According to the joint statement signed by China and Saudi Arabia on December 9, 2022, "the two sides emphasized that China-Saudi Arabia relations should continue to be prioritized in their respective foreign relations."
"The Middle East's standing in China's diplomatic landscape has grown significantly. During the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, China's stance on the Middle East issue was one of general detachment and moderate involvement. In contrast, in 2019 China proposed a new security architecture for the Middle East. It has since taken the initiative to create a platform for security dialogue in the Gulf and put forward proposals for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, actively participating in and shaping regional security.
“The Middle East is an important partner in the development of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China has proposed the Global Security Initiative (GSI), the Global Development Initiative (GDI), and the Global Civilization Initiative (GCI), all of which integrate security and development rather than separating them.
“The "Three Summits" between China and Saudi Arabia, China-Arab League, and China-Gulf Cooperation Council were held in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in December 2022, and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visited China in February 2023. Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to restore diplomatic relations in March 2023 in Beijing. It could be said that the Middle East has become a focal point of Chinese diplomacy.
“No Fundamental Shifts in the Geostrategic Landscape
“The Middle East's geostrategic landscape has remained largely unchanged. Three power centers remain: Iran and its network of allies, Turkey and Qatar's support for Islamist movements, and the camp formed by Israel and the UAE on the basis of the Abraham Accords and the I2U2 (a quadrilateral grouping formed by the US, India, Israel, and the UAE).
“This power structure has yet to be broken. Before Turkey's presidential election in May of this year, some analysts predicted that the country's political situation would drastically change, altering the Middle East's strategic landscape. However, with Erdogan's re-election, this wasn't the case.
“The current geostrategic landscape of the Middle East necessitates the retention of some fundamental elements: first, the Palestinian issue has not been marginalized, although some have argued to the contrary.
“In fact, it has always been a core component of the geostrategic competition in the Middle East. The importance of the Palestinian question in the competition has grown in tandem with the rise of extreme right-wing political forces in Israeli politics.
“Second, the "tide of reconciliation" 和解潮 has not yet succeeded in eradicating geostrategic rivalries in the Middle East. Although Syria has been readmitted to the Arab League, a portion of its territory remains under foreign occupation, and the country stands divided; competition between East and West remains in Libya; and the situation in Yemen has only temporarily improved.
“These regional hotspot issues have yet to be resolved, as the Caucasus is becoming a new hotspot area, with conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh erupting on occasion, and the tensions between Iran and Azerbaijan have risen. All of this is to say that the Middle East's cross-regional ties with its neighbors have been strengthened. From this vantage point, the Middle East's geostrategic competition situation remains grim 严峻.
“Third, there is still a need to cautiously monitor the direction of Islamist movements in the Middle East. In Turkey, Erdogan won the presidential election; the "People's Alliance" formed by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) won the parliamentary election; Iran maintains its influence throughout the region, and the Muslim Brotherhood is undergoing a transformation. These are structural issues that are unlikely to change dramatically in the near future.
“New Economic Trends in the Middle East
“Since taking office, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has advocated an "Asia First" diplomacy, a marked departure from the foreign policy of former President Hassan Rouhani, who prioritized the Iranian nuclear negotiations. In February of this year, Raisi delivered a public speech at Peking University [where he was awarded an honorary professorship], emphasizing the concept of "Asian integration," arguing that Asia's importance in the two dimensions of security and economy is growing beyond that of Europe.
“Saudi Arabia established a new national development strategy in 2022, proposing a new concept of economic diversification, industrialization, and supply chain development to promote economic development. To some extent, this new philosophy is influenced by the concept of Chinese-style modernization.
“The UAE is fully committed to positioning itself as a financial, supply chain, and new technology transfer hub on a global scale.
“The recent changes in these three countries, which wield considerable power in the region, have created new opportunities for China to expand its relations with them.” (CFisnet)
“Israeli right-wing proponents are digging a hole for themselves, turning Israel into a modern-day ‘Sisyphus,’ perpetually rolling the heavy boulder of occupation of Palestine and constantly consuming itself from within”
Zhejiang University Professor Ma Xiaolin forewarns Israel about the "Gazafication" of the West Bank. Unlike Wu Bingbing (previous entry), Ma believes that the current trend of Middle East reconciliation does not fundamentally change the general trend of marginalization of the Palestinian issue, nor does it change Iran's hostile relationship with Israel. It is even less likely to facilitate Palestinian and Israeli concessions.
Context: From July 3-5, 2023, The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) launched a major incursion on the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank city of Jenin. Codenamed "Home and Garden," the operation included air and ground forces and targeted terrorist infrastructure of Palestinian Islamic Jihad militants and other terrorist organizations.
For a deeper dive into the operation and its implications for Israel by my senior INSS colleagues, Brig. Gen. (res.) Udi Dekel and Dr. Anat Kurz, click here.
Professor Ma is the director of the Institute for Studies on the Mediterranean Rim (ISMR) at Zhejiang International Studies University (ZISU) in Hangzhou. Before joining ZISU, Ma spent three decades as a Xinhua News Agency correspondent and news editor covering the Middle East, including three years in Gaza.
Excerpts from Ma’s article, published on July 25th, 2023 in Xinhua News Agency's Globe 环球 magazine:
“The Palestinian National Authority's (PA) legitimacy will be challenged if it fails to repair the economy and achieve a just and lasting peace. Meanwhile, the nationalist banner and proximity to the grassroots have helped Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) gain support.
“Israel's long-standing hardline policy toward the PA has eroded the PA's legitimacy and hampered the viability of its internal forces. At the same time, it has allowed radical factions such as Hamas and the PIJ to grow and expand their power.
“Consequently, instead of facing only the "Gaza threat," Israel now faces a "double threat" from both Gaza and the West Bank. In the end, Israeli right-wing proponents are digging a hole for themselves, turning Israel into a modern-day "Sisyphus," perpetually rolling the heavy boulder of occupation of Palestine and constantly consuming itself from within.
“As a result of the Jenin conflict, Israel may find itself in an even worse and more unmanageable security nightmare. Despite normalizing relations with a number of its distant adversaries, namely Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, and Morocco, its enemies next door remain. Not only have they not been weakened or destroyed, but they are now encircling Israel more tightly:
“To the north, Lebanon's Hezbollah has long been a major strategic rival and mortal enemy. To the north-east, Syria's prolonged civil war has resulted in the unprecedented presence of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Hezbollah forces. They have been working hard to consolidate their positions and maintain a long-term presence, which has resulted in sporadic Israeli air strikes deep inside Syria.
“Under the banner of "liberating Islamic lands," Hamas and PIJ have joined forces, and even the secularized Fatah has been infiltrated by outside forces. Today, the situation in Jenin and Nablus is clearly out of control, indicating that Middle Eastern powers' political and military influence has spread beyond the Gaza Strip and taken root in the West Bank.
“In the end, Israel's rigid stance and "zero-sum" mentality have effectively stifled and suppressed the main Palestinian forces for peace, spinning itself into an increasingly tangled, sticky web 为自己编织起日益缠身麻团.
“A Peaceful Conclusion is Still a Long Way Off
“[Palestinian President] Mahmoud Abbas concluded his fifth state visit to China in mid-June. During this visit, China proposed a three-point solution to the Palestinian issue and expressed its willingness to play an active role in assisting the Palestinians in achieving internal reconciliation and promoting peace talks. This allows the international community to focus more attention on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and promote the regional peace process.
“Objectively speaking, the current trend of Middle East reconciliation is primarily a cessation of identity politics and factional entanglements between the Saudis and the Iranians. It does not change the general trend of marginalization of the Palestinian issue, nor does it fundamentally change Iran's hostile relationship with Israel, let alone facilitate mutual concessions between Palestinians and Israelis on the core issues of the dispute.
“On July 10, the Israeli Ministry of National Security expanded the distribution of weapons to citizens to defend against possible Palestinian attacks, bringing the total number of legally armed Israelis to 200,000, increasing the risk of Israelis, particularly radical settlers, shooting at Palestinians [The real concern is that Palestinian terrorists, a term Ma uses only in “scare quotes,” will steal these weapons and use them against Israeli civilians. Since January, 18 Jews have been murdered this way].
“On the same day, the Al-Ayyash Brigade launched Qassam-1 rockets from Jenin into nearby Jewish settlements. The battle of Jenin is thus only a new starting point in the Palestinians' and Israelis' strategic dilemma, and the end of peace between the Palestinians and Israelis is still a long way off.”（Globe）
Playing in the Background
Discourse Power is written by Tuvia Gering, a researcher at the Diane and Guilford Glazer Foundation Israel-China Policy Center at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub, and a Tikvah Fund’s Krauthammer Fellow. Any views expressed in this newsletter, as well as any errors, are solely those of the author. Follow Tuvia on Twitter @GeringTuvia