November 10, 2020 Special Dispatch No. 9019

Chinese Middle East Expert Fan Hongda: China Is The World's 'Second-Greatest' Power, But It Should Not Force Middle East Countries To Choose Between China And The U.S. – Or It Will Face 'A Very Embarrassing And Dangerous Situation'

November 10, 2020
China | Special Dispatch No. 9019

On October 15, 2020, the most-circulated Chinese-language Singaporean newspaper, United Morning Paper (联合早报), published an op-ed by Chinese Middle East scholar Fan Hongda (范鸿达), professor of international relations at Shanghai International Studies University (SISU). The op-ed focused on China's diplomacy in the Middle East.

Titled "China Needs a New Middle East Diplomacy," the op-ed is divided into two sections. In the first part, Fan lists five major changes that the Middle East is undergoing, and how China needs to recalibrate its diplomatic commitments in the region accordingly. The second part proposes five ways in which Beijing could change its Middle East diplomacy.

Fan notes that the Middle East is an important region for Beijing, since it is an important international zone for energy supply, and a key area for the development of China's "Belt and Road Initiative." However, in order to exert its influence over the region, he says that China should start looking at the Middle East with a new perspective and should develop relations with influential Middle Eastern countries that can support Beijing's needs.

According to Fan, China should not "overestimate" the role of Arab countries in Middle Eastern affairs, and should instead pay more attention to "the three non-Arab Middle East countries" – Turkey, Israel, and Iran. However, Fan argues that Turkey, under President Erdogan's leadership, poses too many challenges to the stability of the Middle East and that Israel has too many internal societal fractures that endanger its own development. Iran, however, has the potential to develop rapidly. Thus, Fan suggests that China needs to pay "more attention" and "respect" to Iran. "Given Iran's expressed willingness to strengthen bilateral relations [with Beijing], China needs to respond more actively," Fan stresses.

However, Fan argues, some scholars in China believe that Beijing's strengthening of relations with Iran will not be seen favorably by the Arab countries and Israel, and therefore they will urge China to handle its relations with Iran carefully. This view is absurd, he writes, because China is well above these neighborhood squabbles. Furthermore, China should pursue its own interests, without caring about making others' "unhappy," since whenever Arab countries and Israel develop relations with the U.S. they do not care that China is dissatisfied.

Fan asserts that China is today the world's "second-greatest" power, after the U.S., and that therefore China's level of policy-making should match its development. China has reached a stage where it should focus on the quality of its international allies, rather on their number. "It is more important for China to have more dominant and influential allies at this point in time. China has already surpassed the stage of historical development of having to rely on the number of allies it has to measure its international standing."

However, Fan warns China to be cautious and not to fall into a Cold War war mentality, in which Beijing – being the world's "second-greatest" power – would force Middle East countries to choose between it and the U.S. According to Fan, China is not ready yet for this kind of confrontation, since it still cannot fully compete with the U.S. Therefore, if China forces Middle Eastern countries to choose between Beijing and Washington, it will face "a very embarrassing and dangerous situation."

The following is a complete translation of Fan Hongda's original article for United Morning Paper: [1]

Fan Hongda (Source:

"China Needs A New Middle East Diplomacy

"The Middle East is an important international zone for energy supply, a key area for China's 'Belt and Road Initiative' for cooperation and development, and a significant region where international contradictions are clustered and major world powers compete fiercely. Today, as the Middle East and the world are experiencing significant changes, China must look at the Middle East from a new perspective and develop relations with Middle Eastern countries in line with its own needs.

"New Perspectives For Middle Eastern Politics

  1. The influence of the three non-Arab countries in the Middle East has increased. Of more than 20 countries in the Middle East, all but Turkey, Iran, and Israel are Arab countries. Yet the Arab states' political influence in the region is not as great as their number [might indicate]. Due to many years of wars and turmoil, Egypt, Syria, Libya, Iraq, and other former Middle Eastern powers have long been declining. With the exception of Saudi Arabia, the rich Arab oil-producing countries in the Gulf... only exert limited regional and international influence. To date, Turkey, Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia have been the top four powers in the Middle East. China must not [make the mistake of] overestimating the role of the 'Arabs' in Middle Eastern affairs, and must pay more attention to the three non-Arab Middle East countries.

  2. The question of Palestine or that of Palestine-Israel is no longer the core [demand] for 'Middle East peace.' Although some countries still claim that the 'Palestinian issue' is at the core of Middle Eastern affairs, this is not in keeping with the realities of the Middle East and Palestine. The issue of Palestine has its own inherent evolution, and 'Middle East Peace' also has its own trajectory. The normalization of relations between the UAE (and possibly other Arab countries) and Israel is conducive to peace in the Middle East as a whole. The more countries normalize bilateral relations, the more beneficial it is for peace in the Middle East. This is also the common aspiration of Middle Easterners that have been through great hardships. China's view of the peace efforts in the Middle East must extend beyond the purview of the 'Palestinian issue' and keep up with the times.

  3. Many factors influence Iran's foreign relations, and this country has the potential to develop rapidly. Although the current Iran-U.S. ties are still very bad, Iran has a lengthy history of relations with the West; even today, there is a comparatively powerful voice in Iran that is pushing to improve relations with the U.S., as well as private actors that advocate for doing so. This is also the mainstream view among Iranian citizens. What affects Iran's current health and rapid development is not the lack of natural resources, but the policies of those in power, and it is relatively easy to change policies. Thus, despite the current difficult situation in Iran, this country is not without options for development. China needs to pay more attention and respect to Iran, and, given Iran's expressed willingness to strengthen bilateral relations, China needs to respond more actively.

  4. Turkey poses challenges to the current security and stability of the Middle East. The collective decline of Arab countries in the Middle East and Iran's long-term sanctions provided Turkey with a good environment to enhance its regional influence. Turkey, under President Erdogan's leadership, is striving for national rejuvenation. In recent years, Turkey's involvement in conflict and even war, in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and other Middle East regions, has been a clear demonstration of its expansion of its regional influence. Before the centenary of the founding of the Turkish Republic in 2023, Turkey is likely to continue to foment unrest in the Middle East in order to have greater cause for celebration.

  5. Israel's security environment in the Middle East is getting better every day. Israel's greatest development challenges stem from internal societal fractures. At present, there is no country in the Middle East that poses a real threat to Israel's survival. Even the Islamic Republic of Iran, which still does not recognize its legitimacy, lacks the motivation and capacity to launch a fatal blow. It is the alienation between Jews and Arabs, between Asian-African Jews and European and American Jews, and between modern Jews and Orthodox religious Jews within Israel that has become a key factor in Israel's internal affairs, diplomacy, and national development.

"A Conceptual Framework For China's Middle East Diplomacy

  1. China's diplomacy with Arab countries is best pursued on a bilateral basis. The 'Arabs' have been torn apart for a long time, and the 'Arab countries' are full of contradictions. From a realpolitik perspective, it is highly inappropriate to look at the 'Arabs' and the 'Arab countries' as a [monolithic] whole. In dealing with Arab countries, China should approach Middle East diplomacy on a case-by-case basis, except when dealing with the oil-producing Gulf states.

  2. China needs to take a more realistic approach towards Palestinian and the Middle East peace efforts. China can claim that the Palestinians have their own legitimate interests, but they must also be positive and optimistic about the progress of other bilateral or multilateral relations in the Middle East. When Israel achieved normalization of relations with other Middle Eastern countries, some Chinese scholars were skeptical or even negative about it, but this attitude is subject to debate. The pursuit of peace is relatively common in the popular will of the Middle East, and a negative response to peace attempts will result in China losing more international recognition.

  3. When China cultivates ties with Middle Eastern countries, it must take its own actual needs as a starting point. Being in good standing with the major powers of the Middle East is advantageous to China and must go beyond the constraints triggered by the region's complex international relations. Some people in China believe that China's strengthening relations with Iran will make the Arab countries and Israel unhappy, and therefore urge China to handle its relations with Iran carefully.

  4. This view is absurd. It is inappropriate for China's high level of development, and does not recognize the practical needs of the Arab countries and of Israel from China. When Arab countries and Israel develop relations with the U.S. and other Western powers, are they worried that China is dissatisfied? Most countries today see China as the world's 'second-greatest' power ["世界第二"], and China's level of understanding and policy-making in the Middle East should match its development.

  5. China should pay more attention to improving relations with major Middle Eastern countries. Of course, the more international allies China has, the better, but it is more important for China to have more dominant and influential allies at this point in time. China has passed the stage in its historical development in which its international standing is measured by the number of allies it has. As American suppression of China has now become the norm; China has reached a stage of development where it needs more influential international allies.

  6. As its diplomatic relations in the Middle East develop, China must pay attention to changes in the regional structure and focus on developing relations with the major powers of the Middle East. If they express their desire to deepen relations with China, China all the more must give them its undivided attention.

  7. China must not put the Middle East countries [in a position in which they must] choose between it and the U.S. Middle East countries are well aware that their region draws the attention of the great powers. They have a sober understanding of the balance of power, and their attitudes towards the world powers themselves are different. As a result, China's efforts should be focused on how to prevent Middle Eastern countries from entering a situation in which they are forced to choose between the China and U.S. If this happens, China will face a very embarrassing and dangerous situation."


[1], October 15, 2020. It is worth noting that on October 21, 2020, six days after the original article was published in Singapore, an abridged and revised version was published in Mainland China in the Global Times (环球时报) which is operated under the auspices of The People's Daily (人民日报),the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

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