PROVIDING ARMS: CHINA & THE MIDDLE EAST
By Dan Blumenthal
Though Beijing has historically tried to avoid direct confrontation with Washington, China's new Middle East strategy is inimical to U.S. nonproliferation goals. Beijing may pledge to adhere to U.S. counter-proliferation policy, but its willingness to cultivate relations with Middle Eastern states, on the back of sales of both conventional weapons and materials applicable to weapons of mass destruction programs, indicates that its promises are insincere. Indeed, as China has grown more confident, it has more brazenly challenged U.S. policies. Consider two recent events.
The first event was an op-ed published on the eve of the U.S. presidential elections in the official China Daily and attributed to former Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen, one of China's most distinguished diplomats. Qian blasted the Bush administration's foreign policy:
Qian's open criticism of a central tenet of Bush administration policy reflects the intensity of Beijing's concern with Washington's Middle East strategy, which it sees both as advancing the encirclement of China and creating a norm of regime change against undemocratic states. If the Chinese government perceives that Washington is serious about making democratization the centerpiece of U.S. Middle East policy, Beijing will resist it even more intensely, seeing such a policy as an implicit challenge to the Chinese Communist Party's legitimacy at home.
The second event came just days after Bush won reelection, when Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing flew to Tehran to conclude an oil and gas deal between China's state-owned Sinopec and the Iranian Oil Ministry worth approximately $100 billion (US) over thirty years. The purpose of Li's visit was clearly to exploit tensions between Washington and Tehran over Iran's nuclear program. His trip came against the backdrop of delicate European Union-led negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program and U.S. threats to refer the Iranian nuclear matter to the United Nations Security Council.
After the oil deal was signed, Li announced that China would refuse to refer the issue of Iran's nuclear program to the Security Council.  Li's announcement signified that decades of Sino-Iranian cooperation was bearing fruit for both parties: China would get the oil and gas its economy desperately needs, while Iran would finally win the political support of a reliable and weighty friend.  Beijing bet that an open challenge to U.S. policy would not result in any negative repercussions and it won. The fact that the Chinese establishment considers its actions a victory should worry the Bush administration. If Beijing continues to view access to Middle Eastern oil as a zero-sum game and the Middle East as a playing field for great power competition, more direct confrontation between China and the United States will be, not the exception, but the rule.
Because the Chinese government views the United States as a strategic rival, it remains concerned about becoming reliant for its oil imports upon sea lanes secured by the U.S. Navy. It has therefore embarked on a two-pronged approach. In the medium-term perhaps for decades to come China will have no alternative to the Middle East for the bulk of its energy supply. The core of China's energy strategy is thus to buy equity stakes in Middle Eastern development projects and to improve ties with two of its main suppliers Iran and Saudi Arabia. Acquiescing in Tehran and Riyadh's demands for conventional and unconventional weapons systems is a price Beijing has no problem paying. As a hedge against reliance on the U.S. Navy for sea-line protection, Beijing has constructed a naval base in Gwadar, Pakistan, not far from the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz, facilities in Myanmar close to the Strait of Malacca, and the Kompong-Sihanoukville Port in Cambodia.  Beijing might be seeking the ability to hold U.S. tankers at risk in these waters in the case of a conflict with the United States.
In the longterm, the Chinese government hopes that increased domestic exploration will allow China to bolster its own production. Beijing has also increased its investment in Central Asian oil and gas resources. While crude oil delivered by pipeline from Kazakhstan may be more expensive than other alternatives, Beijing believes the strategic advantage of not being reliant on the United States for oil security more than offsets the added expense. Nevertheless, despite promising developments in Central Asia, such as the $700 million deal signed with the Kazakh government in 2004 to run a pipeline from Atasu in central Kazakhstan to Xinjiang, China's northwestern province, Beijing remains wary of political instability in Central Asia and the vulnerability of pipelines to terror attacks.
Russia also provides a potential alternative source of oil for China, but the two countries still mistrust each other. It was only after China agreed to bankroll the de facto nationalization of Yukos' biggest oil producing unit that Moscow amended its January decision to back a Japanese plan to run a pipeline to Russia's Pacific port of Nakhodka over a Chinese plan to terminate the pipeline in the northeastern Chinese city of Daqing. Although China will now be connected with a branch from the Nakhodka trunk line, Beijing has not been reassured by the unpredictability of Russian oil politics.
Beijing considers its Achilles' heel to be a U.S. naval blockade. So far as Chinese tacticians are concerned, an Iranian anti-ship cruise missile capability able to erode U.S. naval superiority provides insurance. The naval facilities that China is constructing along the Straits of Malacca and Hormuz and a well-equipped, compliant Iran exploit the greatest weakness of the U.S. Navy: the challenge of operating in the littoral environment where large ships are especially vulnerable to missiles. Chinese efforts to bolster the Islamic Republic's anti-ship missile capability continue. Recently, Jane's Defence Weekly reported that China is producing several classes of tactical guided missiles the JJ/TL-6b and 10A, the KJ/TL-10B, and a new variant of the C-107 anti-ship missile, specifically for Iran. 
Iran's appetite for Chinese weaponry is far from sated. The Chinese government has sold Iran surface-to-surface cruise missiles and provided assistance in the development of long-range ballistic missiles. By November, 2003, a year after Iran successfully tested the Shihab-3 missile which can carry a 1,000 kilogram payload for a distance of 1,300 kilometers the CIA issued a report that China, along with Russia and North Korea, were the leading providers of assistance to Iran's ballistic missile programs.  Repeated U.S. sanctioning of Chinese firms for proliferating missiles and missile technology to Iran have so far not stopped the practice. 
Beijing has also contributed substantially to Iran's nuclear and chemical weapons programs, despite assurances to Washington that it has ceased such work. Perhaps, the most egregious example was the supply of a uranium conversion facility and nuclear power reactors to Iran. 
In the immediate aftermath of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, the Bush administration showed little tolerance for Beijing's proliferating nonconventional weapons and missile technology to Iran. In January, 2002, Clark Randt, the U.S. Ambassador in Beijing, announced that China's proliferation practices were "a make or break issue for us."  Aside from subsequent piecemeal sanctioning against Chinese businesses involved in individual cases, Washington has done little since to indicate that proliferation is indeed a "make or break issue." China's obstructionism on the Iranian nuclear issue has not elicited a strong U.S. response.
Throughout the 1990s, Beijing cultivated its relationship with Saudi Arabia, culminating in the 1999 Strategic Oil Cooperation agreement signed in Riyadh by then-President Jiang Zemin. In exchange for opening their domestic market to Chinese investment, the Saudi companies have begun participating in China's downstream refining business, thereby winning a foothold in the Chinese market. Beijing hopes Saudi financing can help it upgrade Chinese refineries to handle its growing oil imports. Because the Saudis can undercut the prices of any other oil supplier, the Saudi share of Chinese oil imports, already 17 percent, is sure to grow. During the 1990s alone, Saudi oil exports to China increased more than 500 percent, to 350,000 barrels per day. 
If oil is one pillar of the Sino-Saudi relationship, proliferation is the other. China has sold Saudi Arabia intermediate range (3000 km) ballistic missiles (CSS-2s) that Riyadh has had trouble acquiring from other sources.  The Saudis are looking at other Chinese-made ballistic missiles, such as the newer, more advanced CSS-6s (DF-15s). With the U.S.-Saudi relationship strained by the fact that most of the 9-11 terrorists were Saudis, Riyadh has developed a valuable "China card" to play against Washington, should U.S.-Saudi relations continue to deteriorate.
Because of its concern over Uighur restiveness, Beijing jumped at the opportunity to link the 9-11 terrorist attack to its own "ethnic problem." Immediately after September 11, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao stated:
Soon after September 11, China intensified its "strike hard" campaign against the Uighurs. The strike hard campaign, first enacted in the late 1990s, included curtailing religious freedom and arresting and executing suspected Muslim extremists, earning Xinjiang the nickname of the "death penalty capital of the world." Chinese Minister of Religious Affairs Zhou Guohai announced that harsh measures against Muslims were needed because the Chinese "deeply fear Islamic extremism" and "deeply distrust the Koran and what it teaches." "We will make sure that Islam is practiced in a way that is in line with Chinese culture and tradition," he declared.  In January, 2002, the Chinese government issued a document entitled East Turkestan's Terrorist Forces Cannot Get away with Impunity.  The document was part of a push by Beijing to have Washington view separatist movements in China as a "terrorist problem."
The Bush administration initially rejected Chinese attempts to paint all Uighurs as terrorists. General Francis Taylor, the Bush administration's special envoy on counterterrorism, refused to repatriate Chinese Uighurs captured in Afghanistan. Taylor said:
But, in December, 2002, the U.S. State Department agreed to put one obscure Uighur separatist group, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, on the State Department's list of global terrorist organizations.  According to former Central Intelligence Agency analyst Graham Fuller and Mount Holyoke Professor Jonathan Lipman, this was "catastrophic" for the Uighurs as a whole, as the Chinese government interpreted the designation as applicable to all Uighur nationalists.  Many experts doubt that the Uighurs have any ties to Osama bin Laden, and some are not convinced that the East Turkestan Islamic Movement even exists. 
Regardless of whether China's Islamist problem is homegrown or encouraged from abroad, the restiveness of the Uighur population is real. Following the Chinese government's harsh response to the 1997 Uighur riots in the Xinjiang city of Yinning, Saudi clerics called upon the Saudi royal family to support Chinese Muslim populations financially and diplomatically. The late Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Baz, former Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, proclaimed, "We have a moral obligation to help our Muslim brothers."  A Saudi newspaper, Al-Bilad, warned China about the "suffering of Muslims whose human rights were violated."  It was in response to this incident that the Chinese leadership began its charm offensive to co-opt Muslim leaders. During Iranian President Muhammad Khatami's visit to Beijing in June, 2000, hosts from the Foreign Ministry took him on a tour of Beijing's Ox Street mosque and Xinjiang, where he met with government-backed Muslim leaders. Khatami agreed to embrace these hand-picked officials, declaring that Xinjiang could serve as a "bridge connecting greater China with the Muslim world."  So far, the Chinese strategy appears to be working. Both Riyadh and Tehran have been largely silent about the Chinese government's post-9-11 crackdown on the Uighurs. For both Iran and Saudi Arabia, the financial and military deals trump the plight of Chinese Muslims.
Israeli arms sales to China have been a source of tension between Jerusalem and Washington. Should China decide to attack Taiwan, which it considers a renegade province, by force, then U.S. troops sent to defend Taiwan might end up facing a Chinese military equipped with Israeli-made or Israeli-modified U.S. systems. This tension reached a boiling point in July, 2000, when Washington learned of Israeli plans to sell China four Phalcon early warning aircraft for $1 billion. The United States intervened to block the sale, forcing Israel to compensate Beijing financially for having voided its agreement. 
After the Phalcon affair, Israeli officials promised their U.S. counterparts that they would consult with Washington about future arms sales. For a short period, Israeli officials kept their word. But in March, 2004, Israel and China reportedly restarted high-level talks regarding a possible Israeli sale of the Tavor assault weapon, pilot training systems, advanced communication and surveillance gear, and a range of unmanned aerial vehicles. 
Tensions have resurfaced at the U.S. Department of Defense over Israel's recent agreement with China to upgrade the Harpys.  Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith have both protested to Israel's Ministry of Defense, and U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff John Jumper cancelled a planned trip to Israel in December. 
The dispute over arms sales to China is sure to get worse, if the European Union lifts the arms embargo it imposed on China in 1989, after the massacre of Chinese students at Tiananmen Square. The United States will be hard-pressed to stop Israeli sales once the Europeans enter the Chinese defense market in force.
Israel's primary motivation for selling weaponry to China is financial. Some in Israel, however, suggest that it can leverage its arms relationship with Israel to convince the Chinese government to stop proliferating to Israel's enemies. Such a belief is self-deception and contrary to all evidence. Jerusalem has little leverage over Beijing. As China pockets Israeli weapons systems, there has been no decrease in Chinese proliferation to Iran. The strategic costs to Israel will be increasingly high.
While the Chinese government lends rhetorical support for the war on terrorism, its backing is more circumscribed. Beijing argues that any U.S. military response should be conducted only in close consultation with the United Nations and should "avoid civilian casualties."  While other Asian nations have swapped information to fight terrorism more effectively, Chinese security officials remain less than forthcoming. In 2002, Dennis Blair, Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, lamented:
Despite the 9-11 terrorist attacks, the Chinese government remains unconvinced of U.S. sincerity about defeating terrorism and instead sees the war on terrorism as a mechanism for further encirclement of China. The quick U.S. victory over Afghanistan provided a rude awakening for Chinese officials who had predicted otherwise. The subsequent establishment of a U.S. basing structure in Central Asia upset Chinese strategists who had been working to bring the region within their own sphere of influence.  Fu Quanyou, then Chief of the Chinese General Staff, stated pointedly, "Counterterrorism should not be used to practice hegemony."  Zhai Kun, a strategist at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, expressed Beijing's fears:
Washington may have identified terrorism as its primary enemy, but Chinese decisionmakers continue to view the United States as China's primary challenge.
Beijing's diplomatic and economic offensive in the Middle East is thus part of a counter-encirclement strategy. In the run-up to U.S. military intervention in Iraq, then-President Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji included Iran and Libya on their tour of the Middle East, labeling the two U.S. State Department-defined terror sponsors as "friendly countries."  Jiang's trip to Iran was the first by a Chinese head of state since the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979.
Jiang and Zhu sought to present China as an alternative to the heavy-handed, pro-Israel, democracy-promoting United States. While in Iran, Jiang stated that "Beijing's policy is against strategies of force and the U.S. military presence in Central Asia and the Middle East." He lambasted U.S. bias toward Israel and accused Israel of failing to implement United Nations resolutions.  While in Egypt, Zhu joked about the 9-11 attacks with his hosts and demanded an immediate pullout of Israeli forces from Palestinian territories.  When Iranian Majlis speaker Mehdi Karrubi visited Beijing in December, 2002, Jiang stated that "both states share almost similar stances on most issues." 
U.S. difficulties in Iraq have emboldened the Chinese government to cultivate more aggressively its ties to Iran and Arab regimes.  So long as the oil flows, Chinese strategists believe that having Washington bogged down in Iraq may not be such a bad thing. Such an assessment would explain recent Chinese brazenness brushing off U.S. concerns about Iranian nuclear ambitions. With the U.S. military sidetracked in Iraq, Beijing can directly challenge the White House's other Middle East interests without fear of retaliation. More salient for Chinese strategists, an America preoccupied with Iraq may not have the will or resources to be firm on the Taiwan issue.
Since 9-11, China has become bolder in advancing its goals in the Middle East. Taking advantage of hostile U.S.-Iranian relations and uneasy U.S.-Saudi relations, China is securing needed energy supplies, gaining advantage in its strategic rivalry with the United States, and muting criticism of its treatment of the Uighurs. A muscular Chinese Middle East policy will continue if the United States remains bogged down in Iraq. If China continues to incur no costs for challenging Washington's Middle East policy, more such challenges will follow.
On the other hand, China will be sobered if U.S. efforts to develop a constitutional democratic Iraq are successful. That outcome, not only would allow the United States to maintain longterm military and political preeminence in the region, but it would also directly challenge China's one-party dictatorship. The Bush administration may not consider China relevant to its Broader Middle East Initiative, but the Chinese government considers U.S. Middle East policy to pose a political threat. China will use its new foothold within the Middle East to try to undercut this bedrock of U.S. policy. So far, China's Middle East gambit has paid off. For how much longer the United States can tolerate the fruits of Chinese success working against the President's commitment to "not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons"  is another question entirely.
 "Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing Pays a Formal Visit to Iran," Ministry of Foreign
Affairs of the People's Republic of China, Nov. 7, 2004.
 South China Morning Post, Nov. 12, 2004.
 China Country Analysis Brief, U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Information
Administration, July 2004.
 Gal Luft and Anne Korin, "The Sino-Saudi Connection," Commentary, Mar. 26 2004.
 Mohan Malik, "Dragon on Terrorism: Assessing China's Tactical Gains and
Strategic Losses Post-September 11," Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War
College, Oct. 2002.
 Jane's Defence Weekly, Nov. 17, 2004.
 "Unclassified Report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technologies Relating to
Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions, 1 July-31
Dec. 2003," Central Intelligence Agency, Washington, D.C., p. 27.
 Assistant Secretary of State Paula DeSutter, "China's Record of Proliferation
Activities, Testimony before the U.S.-China Commission 24 July 2003," accessed
Dec. 27, 2004; "2004 Report to Congress," U.S.-China Economic and Security
Review Commission, 108th Congress, 2nd Session, June 2004.
 "Unclassified Report to Congress," CIA, p. 26.
 Alex Wagner, "No Deal Reached on Chinese Missile Proliferation," Arms Control
Today, Mar. 2002.
 The Gracia Group, The Sino-Saudi Energy Rapprochement: Implications for U.S.
National Security, Jan. 8, 2002, p. 2.
 Erica Strecker Downs, China's Quest for Energy Security (Santa Monica: Rand,
2000), pp. 31-2.
 "Saudi Arabia," Intelligence Resource Program, Federation of American Scientists,
accessed Jan. 14, 2005.
 "China's Minority Populations: Surveys and Research," U.S. Embassy in China,
accessed Jan. 14, 2005.
 Richard W. Hefner, "Islam and Asian Security," Strategic Asia 2002-03, p. 368;
Mathew Oresman and Daniel Steingart, "Radical Islamization in Xinjiang
Lessons from Chechnya?" CSIS Central Asia Caucasus Analyst, July 30, 2003.
 News conference, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China,
Sept. 19, 2001.
 Gracia, The Sino-Saudi Energy Rapprochement, p. 36.
 CNN.com, Jan. 21, 2002.
 The New York Times, Dec. 21, 2001.
 U.S. Department of State, Patterns of Global Terrorism, 2002, Apr. 30, 2003,
accessed Jan. 14, 2005.
 Joshua Kurlantzick, "The Unsettled West," Foreign Affairs, July-Aug. 2004, p. 136.
 Joshua Kurlantzick, "Unnecessary Evil," Washington Monthly, Dec. 2002, p. 26.
 Gracia, The Sino-Saudi Energy Rapprochement, p. 58.
 Dru C. Gladney, "Rumblings from the Uyghur," Current History, 10 (1997): 287;
Miles Clemans, "Insurrection," Australia/Israel Review (Melbourne), Oct. 21-Nov.
11, 1998, accessed Jan. 15, 2005.
 BBC News, June 25, 2000.
 The Washington Post, Nov. 13, 2004.
 Asia Times Online, Mar. 26, 2004.
 The Washington Post, July 13, 2000.
 Eugene Kogan, "Sino-Israeli Arms Deals: Upsetting a Delicate Balance?" China
Brief, Jamestown Foundation, Washington, D.C., Sept. 2, 2004.
 United Press International, Dec. 29, 2004.
 Ibid., Dec. 18, 2004.
 BBC News, Sept. 18, 2001.
 Quoted in Lawrence F. Kaplan, "United Nations:' China's War on Terrorism and
Ours," The New Republic, July 22, 2002, p. 20.
 See, for example, "China's Gloating" The Asian Wall Street Journal, Sept. 15,
 Agence France-Presse, Jan. 16, 2002.
 Beijing Review, Mar. 14, 2002.
 Associated Press WorldStream, Apr. 3, 2002.
 Mideast Channel NewsAsia, Apr. 21, 2002.
 Ibid; China Reform Monitor (Washington, D.C.), American Foreign Policy Council,
Apr. 22, 2002, reporting Zhu's comments in the South China Morning Post. Apr. 13,
 BBC WorldWide Monitoring, Dec. 12, 2002.
 Willy Lam, "China's Reaction to America's Iraq Imbroglio," China Brief, Apr. 15,
 State of the Union address, Jan. 29, 2002.
Dan Blumenthal is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Between 2002 and 2004, he was country director for China and Taiwan at the Pentagon.
The foregoing article by Dan Blumenthal was originally published in the Middle East Quarterly, Spring, 2005, and can be found on the Internet website maintained by the Middle East Forum.
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