How Long Can China Stay on the Sidelines in the War on ISIS?

September 23, 2015 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: ChinaISISISILNon-Interference

How Long Can China Stay on the Sidelines in the War on ISIS?

Does China's 'non-interference' policy still work in the age of ISIS?

Recent news that a Chinese citizen has been taken hostage by ISIS shows that China is being drawn into the complex politics of the Middle East, and will need to re-evaluate its policy of non-interference. 

One of the foundations of China's foreign policy since Mao Zedong put forward the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence is non-interference in the domestic politics of other states. In the late 1990s China moved towards a 'New Security Order' emphasizing mutually beneficial economic relations between states. More recently Chinese foreign policy statement have emphasized China's 'peaceful rise' or 'peaceful development', promoting China as a responsible international actor and reassuring neighbors that its rise is not a threat. Yet through it all, non-intervention has remained a cornerstone of China's foreign policy. 

When it comes to the Middle East, China has adopted a two-pronged approach.

First, China is committed to promoting economic ties to ensure its own energy security. Second, China is committed to its policy of non-intervention. The tension between these two policies is reflected in two recent events. On the same day that the 2015 China-Arab States Expo (a platform to promote Sino-Arab ties) opened in Ningxia, ISIS released a video showing a Chinese national being held hostage. It was the first time a public ransom demand had been made for a Chinese national. 

China has extensive economic interests in the Middle East. Forty-three percent of China's oil imports come from Middle Eastern countries, with Saudi Arabia China's largest trading partner, providing 15% of China's annual oil imports. China has numerous other investments in the Middle East including in infrastructure, natural gas and direct investments. China's Silk Road initiative and the AIIB also seek to increase Chinese business investment in the region.

China has a large economic footprint in the Middle East, but when it comes to political conflicts such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the fight against ISIS and the instability in Syria and Iraq, Beijing is largely absent.

The recent flood of refugees from Syria and Iraq has caused headaches for policy-makers in Europe, the U.S. and Australia. But the extent of Chinese involvement in the crisis is to 'take note' of the issue. A Foreign Ministry spokesman indicated that China was “willing to communicate and coordinate with the EU” but ultimately believed that the EU and relevant countries were able to rise to the challenge. These comments encapsulate China's response to political issues in the Middle East: the responsibility for 'solving' these issues is placed squarely on the shoulders of West. 

The notion that the West is responsible for solving problems in the Middle East is also reflected in the Chinese media. For instance, a Xinhua editorial places blame for the refugee crisis on the policies of the U.S., and writes that Washington is not doing enough to help, taking only 1500 refugees. When an op-ed in The New York Times called on China to do more to help with the flood of refugees from Syria, an editorial in the Global Times replied that since China did not create the current turmoil in Syria, it did not need to take responsibility for it. 

When two Japanese civilians were executed by ISIS in January, Chinese state media blamed Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for their capture. A Global Times op-ed stated that the executions were evidence that Abe had placed Japan's relations with Washington over that of the safety of his citizens, and that it served as a warning to other Asian states not to entangle themselves in the conflict. China, content with its policy of non-interference, could not imagine that a similar event would occur with Chinese nationals. 

With a Chinese citizen now being held hostage, it seems the Chinese Government does not know how to react. There have only been two statements from the Foreign Ministry, neither of which gave any indication of how China will respond. The spokesman has only said that 'the Chinese side reiterated its firm opposition to any violence against innocent civilians' and that it has launched an 'emergency response mechanism.' There has been next to no coverage of this event in the Chinese media. 

While China prefers to remain on the sidelines when it comes to the fight against ISIS, the kidnapping of one of its citizens may prompt Beijing to seek a more proactive role in the Middle East. The incident could act as the impetus to change its longstanding policy of non-intervention. 

This piece first appeared in the Lowy Interpreter here

Image: Creative Commons.