Middle East doesn’t need a new external chief, China says as US pivots to Indo-Pacific

South China Morning Post

Posted at Jan 17 2022 07:38 AM

There is no "power vacuum" in the Middle East and the region does not need an "external patriarch", Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said on the weekend, capping a flurry of talks with envoys to strengthen ties with the region.

In a statement from the foreign ministry on Saturday, Wang said the international community should help but not meddle in the Middle East.

"China's efforts to maintain stability and promote peace (in the region) have not and will not stop," he was quoted as saying, adding the region should not directly copy any outside models of governance.

"Neoliberalism isn't an elixir," he said.

The statement followed a series of meetings in the eastern Chinese city of Wuxi, Jiangsu province, last week with the secretary general of the Gulf Cooperation Council and foreign ministers from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Turkey and Iran.

As the United States shifts attention to the Indo-Pacific, China is positioning itself for a more active role in the Middle East, a region that it is looking to for energy security and to promote its go-global strategic Belt and Road Initiative.

While China is now the region's biggest trading partner and energy buyer, the talks went beyond oil to cover other areas of economic cooperation, including agriculture and e-commerce.

The meetings also included an agreement to accelerate negotiations for a free-trade deal. The two sides agreed to wrap up negotiations on a China-GCC free trade agreement as soon as possible and to speed up the signing of an action plan for strategic dialogue in the next three years.

Covid-19 and the transition to a green economy to combat climate change were other items on the agenda, according to the ministry's statement.

On Friday, Wang held talks with his counterpart from Iran, Saudi Arabia's regional rival, saying China hoped to set up a dialogue mechanism with Gulf countries to discuss regional security issues as soon as possible.

He said that China, a signatory of the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, was actively pushing for progress to revive the deal, but had also noted reasonable concerns from the Gulf countries on the issue.

He said China tried to advance talks between Iran and Gulf countries during last week's meetings, and Saudi Arabia and Iran, "both China's friends", expressed willingness to improve their relations.

China has proposed setting up a multilateral dialogue mechanism for the Gulf region and invited academics to take part in exchanges.

Wang said China was willing to push for official-level dialogues under the mechanism as a way to reduce conflict.

"We suggest starting by discussing political solutions to urgent hotspot issues such as the Yemen crisis, and gradually building mutual trust," he said.

"When conditions are ripe, we can consider setting up a collective security mechanism for the Gulf region to realize shared, holistic, cooperative and sustainable Gulf security.

"No matter how the situation evolves, Gulf countries should hold the keys to the security and stability of the region in their own hands."

Wang also hit out at the US over its involvement in the Middle East and blamed it for causing instability.

Beijing has also rallied support for China's policies on Taiwan, human rights and Xinjiang, all flashpoints in escalating tensions with the US.

Wang said the US' efforts at democraticization in the Middle East were attempts to gain strategic interests through military interference, and "severely damaged regional stability and public welfare", showing that the efforts were not examples of "true democracy".

"China and the Middle East should firmly walk their own paths, advocate for equal exchanges between different civilisations and promote the common progress of human society," he said.

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