February 14, 2024
10:00 am - 11:00 am


Zoom Briefing

The Middle East Institute (MEI) hosted an on-the-record briefing to discuss China’s role in the Middle East amid rising regional tensions and growing threats to both international security and the global economy.


John Calabrese
Senior Fellow

Yun Sun
Senior Fellow, Co-Director of the East Asia Program, and Director of the China Program at the Stimson Center


The following transcript was automatically generated and may contain errors.

Thomas Halvorsen [00:00:00] Good morning, everybody. My name is Thomas Halvorsen, and I'm the associate director for corporate and foundation relations here at the Middle East Institute. I'd like to welcome you all to another session in MEI's virtual briefing series on the escalating conflicts in the Middle East, which this week will focus on China, and its role in the region. Since October, MEI has been working hard to provide you with expert analysis on every dimension of the ongoing conflicts in the region post October 7th world, and we hope that you found them to be a valuable resource over the last couple months. After today, invitations to join these live briefing calls will be restricted to better serve our corporate and individual members, as well as members of the press. If you found that these briefings are beneficial to your business or relevant to the work that you do, we encourage you to consider joining our membership community. I'd be more than happy to chat with you if you're interested. Feel free to send me an email, and I'd be happy to find time to chat.

Thomas Halvorsen [00:00:59] Without further ado, however, I am delighted to welcome two highly regarded experts on China to today's session. John Calabrese is a senior fellow at MEI and a professor of international relations at American University, and Yun Sun is a senior fellow at the Stimson Center and a co-director of their East Asia program and a director of their China program, as well as a close friend of MEI. Thank you both for joining us this morning. Before we get to our question-and-answer session, I'd like to invite you both to provide our listeners with a better understanding of how China is reading and reacting to the escalation of conflict and tension in the Middle East since October 7th. I’m hoping you can address three main points. First, I'd love to get your impression on how China views the ongoing war in Gaza, how it's affecting China's relations with Israel and Palestine, and how China is interpreting the conflict from the perspective of shifting regional geopolitics. Second, I'd like to hear both of your opinions on China's reaction to threats in the red sea and threats to pressing global commerce issues. And finally, I'd love to get your impression on how all of this and more in the Middle East affects China's calculus in its long term, greater geopolitical strategy. How does China see the Middle East as something? Does China see the Middle East as something it can avoid? What is China's most valuable assets in the region, and how does this all affect its competition with the United States in the months and years ahead? That's a lot. But hopefully we'll get to it all over the course of this call. I think it's all something we we're all very interested in hearing about. So, John, let's start with you and then we'll go to Yun afterwards.

John Calabrese [00:02:42] Sure. Thanks, Thomas, for inviting me. It is a packed set of questions, and I hope that I can offer some insight, or at least provoke some questions. So, I think when the conflict began, there were probably many people who expected China to play a robust, impactful diplomatic role. And I think those expectations had some basis. First of all, given China's extensive economic stakes in the region and its growing diplomatic profile and activities in the region, I think, that was probably responsible for some of the expectation. Second, at least as I understand it, and I think that Yun can correct me if I'm wrong, over the last couple of years, in terms of the evolution of China's foreign policy, there seems to have been a shift away from the somewhat self-inflicted wounds of wolf warrior diplomacy toward a greater effort to present China as a constructive player with positive contributions and numerous initiatives on the diplomatic side, whether that was in unveiling the Global Development Initiative or global security initiative. So, I think that kind of activism, and assertiveness, I think maybe led some people to believe that China would play a more impactful role. And the third, and which I'm sure that you know, people who are more conversant in Middle East affairs would have recognized, is that China played a very helpful role in brokering the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

John Calabrese [00:04:32] My take on this is that, after several months, I think those expectations were pretty much dashed or at least disappointed. I think that maybe predictably for some, but maybe not so predictably for others, China's played a pretty cautious diplomatic role. And I would say that china's diplomacy with respect to the conflict, can be characterized as more rhetorical posturing than, you know, the development and deployment of, you know, carefully crafted mediation strategy. If I had to choose a label that might like to portray or represent how China's played its hand, I'd call it pro-Palestinian neutrality. And that pro-Palestinian neutrality, I think, has certain familiar features for those of us, at least who kind of follow this over the years. Feature number one is the expression of sympathy and solidarity with the Palestinians. Feature number two, which at least was expected from me, was that China came out as a pretty early proponent of a ceasefire. Feature number three was that China and Chinese diplomats reaffirmed what had been their long-held support for the establishment of a Palestinian state, and a two-state solution based on pre 1967 borders and capital in East Jerusalem. And the final feature, which I think is interesting and does have some unfamiliar or maybe new terrain characteristics to it, is that I think China played its hand or concentrated its diplomacy with specific attention and emphasis on its role as a UN Security Council member. It's in the UN where China, I think it's profile, was the largest. Its voice was the loudest. But in some ways, you know, even the hand that it played in the UN Security Council was sort of reminiscent of the way that it dealt with the Syria civil war, where it acted, you know, more or less formally or informally in tandem with Russia trading vetoes with the United States.

John Calabrese [00:06:58] So, in terms of what you might call like unfamiliar features of China's response to the conflict, I think that, you know, there was a month and that month coincided. The month was November. It coincided with China, holding its rotating presidency of the UN Security Council. And there I think China, you know, China's approach was very interesting. I think on full display, you saw China not only seeking to prove its pro-Palestinian and pro-Arab bonafides, right, but also to promote itself as the so-called global South's champion of an alternative world order, and to highlight the West's double standards in its response. And so, in that respect, I think that that was something that I hadn't seen as a prominent feature of China's diplomacy, as maybe in other cases and other circumstances previously. To move to your second question, Thomas, on its reaction to red sea threats. There I have a few observations, and you know, I'm sure that you know more of them and probably higher quality ones as well. I think that, you know, this came at an inopportune time for China. The economy is, you know, in a doldrums. The last thing that China needed was a disruption or heightened risks to its maritime commerce. And so, you know, obviously, I don't think that, you know, the Houthi missile attacks on marine traffic in the red sea was a welcome development for China. Of course, any more than it is for anybody, with you know important stakes in maritime commerce.

John Calabrese [00:08:47] And I do think that China shared some other kind of concerns and cost burdens, you know, for one, rising shipping costs and insurance rates. But you know, interestingly enough, I think that China so far has managed to weather some of these risks and dangers. It could be blind luck or maybe not, that, you know, Chinese ships that have transited the red sea have not been targeted, or at least have not been struck. Interestingly enough, whereas some of the larger container operations, Chinese container operations have like many of their foreign counterparts, had to traverse the Cape of Good Hope, adding you know, ten, twelve, and associated costs to their operations. Interestingly, there are at least 2 or 3, lesser known, but significant Chinese shippers that have begun or increased their operations through the red sea. And so, to some extent, that's offset some of the costs and expenses associated with the dangers. Another thing that I've seen reported, but I have no way of confirming this, nor of indicating like how frequent and what the extent is, and that is that some Chinese flagged vessels have been accompanied by PLAN or Chinese naval escorts. I think that's very interesting. I think another interesting development has been that there's been a spike in demand for overland transport of freight from China to Europe, both through the Russian corridor and through the middle corridor. And so, I think that's very interesting. Another interesting development is that China declined to participate in the United States, you know, multilateral effort, which I think is called something like Operation Prosperity Guardian. But, you know, I mean, I don't think that that is such an unexpected, or how would you say, exceptional development when you understand that, when you look at how many regional participants, for example there are in that, you know "multilateral" or "multinational flotilla", I think Bahrain is the only participant. And I think that, you know, prematurely it was declared that, you know, most or many of the United States as major European allies were going to participate. But unless I'm mistaken, France, Italy and Spain decided not to participate, I think on the grounds that they wouldn't agree or were skittish about, you know, operating under U.S. command.

John Calabrese [00:11:48] So, I think in fact, what I see having happened in the diplomatic scene, with respect to the ongoing conflict is that, you know, the United States is playing the predominant role, the predominant security role in the red sea, the predominant diplomatic role, in trying to negotiate the various dimensions of how to play or play out the conflict. And that China has been pretty much a marginal actor, with a very, you know, peripheral, or, you know, less than what I would call significant impact in shaping either the dynamics or specific outcomes. The final question, I guess you asked about if I have a minute, I'll just use a minute. And that is, you know, can China avoid the Middle East, I guess, is the question, right? And the answer to that is no. I mean, China is tethered to the Middle East, and in some ways the Middle East is tethered to China. That's particularly true when it comes to the Gulf, and the reason for that today is just like the reason for it, you know, 20 years ago, which is that oil still matters to the Chinese economy and, you know, 40 or 45% of the crude oil that China consumes, and imports are from Gulf producers. I don't think that that's going to change anytime soon. I think to some extent, you know, the game has changed, because of China's purchases of hydrocarbons from Russia. But it's true more with respect to, natural gas imports than crude oil imports. So, I think that's important. I also think that, you know, since the establishment of the Belt and Road Initiative, the interlacing of the Chinese economies and Gulf economies in particular, but Middle Eastern economies writ large, goes far beyond oil. So, investments, assets, workers, all of those things have taken on a scale and significance and scope that they hadn't had before. And I think that China recognizes that there are risks as well as opportunities that are presented by, you know, regional developments, including, unfortunately, tragic ones like the Israel-Gaza conflict. So, I'll leave it there, turn it over to Yun. And I hope and I know that she'll be much more effective in fielding your questions than I did.

Thomas Halvorsen [00:14:36] Thanks so much. Yun, please.

Yun Sun [00:14:38] Thank you, John. I'm flattered. And thank you, Thomas for the invitation to be here. So, I'll just cut to the chase. How China approaches the Palestine - Israel issue. Well, I think John got it pretty right. It is a pro Palestine neutrality. Although, I will say that if you look at the Chinese official statement about this, Chinese foreign minister said publicly during his meeting with Arab foreign ministers, that on this particular issue, we are on your side. End of the story. So, it’s a pretty clear position that China does pick a side, as though the neutrality side is a little downplayed by that statement. I would like to think that the Gaza crisis should serve as a wakening call for Israel, because it does reflect, in my view, a certain level of romanticization about China before the Gaza crisis. Israel had all those expectations, what China would say, what China should say, and how China should play an honest role and say things honestly. That did not happen. And I think it should be clear, or made clear to Israel, that it will not happen down the road either. So China's position on the Palestine Israel issue is very clear, very firm. And I think the Chinese, they probably want to tell the Israeli's, well, don't force us to choose, because if you force us to choose, our choice is not going to be you.

Yun Sun [00:16:10] So moving forward, how Israel will re-strategize on their China strategy and to recalibrate, I would say a more effective approach to China, that will be a tremendous question for Israel to answer. And of course, both the Gaza crisis and the red sea crisis, the Chinese answer is two state solution. Right. Well, easier said than done. But China does not have a concrete plan, as for how it can be done, but it will not stop China from going back to the original solution, which is two state. And China has used a talking point quite a bit in the Red Sea crisis because, the Chinese argument is, well, Red Sea crisis is basically a derivative of the Gaza crisis. If you want this de-escalate, you will have to de-escalate first in Gaza. And I think embedded in both crisis or China's approach to both crisis is a deep dissatisfaction, or a challenge to US position, and US biased position in the region. And the Chinese understand very well that the region has less and less appetite for that U.S. position. So, using this opportunity, either actively or subconsciously, to bleed the US leadership on credibility in the region, is something that is not China's creation. But I think China would like to see. In terms of the Red Sea crisis as well. So far, I would say that the Chinese approach has been relatively detached. Why? Because it has not come to affect China's economic interests critically. So, while we know that the Houthis said we're now going to target Chinese ship and the Chinese reaction was, well, we hope that you can identify one is our ship. But for China, in their calculus, the most affected area will be international shipping. But even for the ship that has to take longer route through the cape of Good Hope. The calculus above is an inflated price, or inflated cost of 29%, plus $4 per ton.

Yun Sun [00:18:21] So, in their calculus, this is not too significant yet to generate a much more harsh reaction from the Chinese side. This could change. We know that the Chinese convey the message that Iran should not try to escalate the situation. But I don't believe that message was combined or composed of any tacit or explicit warning to Iran, that what will happen to China's policy if Iran does choose to escalate. So, just conveying the message, like John said, is more rhetorical either way. But I'm sure the Iranians will take some message, because currently China remains potentially, I would say, the most single, most important importer of Iranian oil despite the sanctions. So, if the situation escalated and the oil production and transportation through the region becomes affected by the crisis, I think the Chinese will take a much more hands on and proactive approach to do more.

Yun Sun [00:19:25] Great power competition in the Middle East. So far, what we're seeing, I would say, is a mismatch of the great power competition. China is playing a bigger role in the economic field, there's no doubt. But the US remains to be the sole security provider or the security guarantor in the region. So, we see that the two powers are playing their roles in two very different ways. I mean, two very different arenas. And what does it mean? I think it means that, well, for the Americans, the question is, well, China, you import 53% of your crude oil from the region? aren't you concerned that we could shut it down? And I think that's a question that the Chinese have thought very deeply about, and their answer is, no, not really, we are susceptible to the threat, but we're not vulnerable to the threat, because for you to shut down the Strait of Hormuz and shut down the Chinese energy transportation is going to have much bigger repercussions across your allies in Asia, who also import oil from the region, and also your allies in the region who produces oil that we purchase. So, coming to Thomas's question, what is China's biggest asset in the region? I would say China's biggest asset is the fact that China is the largest customer of Middle Eastern oil. And that carries a lot of implications. That means that China sees itself as a customer. And we know that well, last year, John mentioned that Russia surpassed Saudi as a top supplier of oil to China, and it was a pretty large margin. It's almost 20 to 25% bigger than the oil import by China from Russia, was 20% to 25% larger, than that imported from Saudi. So, it's very significant. China is trying to diversify its oil origins. But at the same time, Middle East remains to be a reason that China cannot be freed from, and the region most likely does not want to be freed from the Chinese demand either, because before Saudi could embark on this vision 2030, there's still this briefing period that countries in the regions do rely on their oil and export.

Yun Sun [00:21:39] In terms of great power competition. My conclusion, and I have a piece coming out about this, my conclusion is that China is not trying to replace the United States in the region, because it knows it can't. China's current defense budget is somewhere around 240 billion U.S. dollars, and the Chinese calculus, as US military spending in the region alone is 75 billion U.S. dollars a year. And remember, Middle East is not China's primacy there. China's primacy there is western West Pacific, and Taiwan is the biggest single most important issue, which means that China does not have the defense budget to maintain or to build a military presence in the region, nor does China want to. So, China is not trying to replace the United States as a security provider or security guarantor in the region. But China is trying to displace the US system. With what? Well, with what the Chinese call, multilateral regional security dialog platform. So, in the Chinese view, the future security of Middle East should be managed by Middle Eastern countries, not by China and not by the United States. China as a large customer of Middle eastern oil, has tremendous influence through that process. So, my conclusion is, no, China is not going to try to replace the United States. But yes, China is trying to displace the United States. Thank you.

Thomas Halvorsen [00:23:18] Sorry I was muted there. Thanks so much Yun and John for your analysis, and I'm looking forward to seeing what questions come up from our audience. At this time if you'd like to ask a question, please use the raise hand function in zoom and keep your hand raised until I call and unmute you. Then kindly state your name and affiliation and direct your question to one or both of our scholars on the call. Questions can also be submitted in writing using the Q&A chat box on zoom. To kick things off though, I'll start with a question. Yun, you touched on it briefly, but something that I'd love to talk a little bit more about on this call, is China's relationship with Iran. We've heard in some of our past briefing sessions here, that a lot of the escalating tensions in the region, in the red sea and in Israel, Palestine, in Syria and Iraq are leading slowly but surely to a greater confrontation between Iran and Israel in the US. My question to you is, how does China view Iran's role in the region, and how would it react if tensions were to continue to escalate along those lines? Yun let's start with you. Thanks.

Yun Sun [00:24:33] That's a great question. We know that the Chinese approach to the region generally is a balancing act, right? Some Chinese scholars say there's three camps in the Middle East. There are the allies of the United States, and then there's a resistance led by Iran, and then there is what they call the 3m countries, the modern, moderate, Muslim countries. The 3m countries, and they would like to say that Turkey is one of them. So, for China, the balancing approach pretty much predetermining that China is not going to pick one over the other. Especially between Iran and Saudi, you will see that the Chinese balancing act, Chinese leader visits Saudi and then another Chinese leader will visit Iran, the Saudi crown prince visit Beijing, and then President Raisi will visit Beijing as well. So, it's a pretty well calculated, balancing act between the Shia and Sunni, between Iran and the Gulf countries. But it's a different angle. What you raised is, the relationship between Iran and the United States. And there, from the Chinese perspective, the primary challenge has always been JCPOA, which Trump administration pulled out of. So, coming to the Iran nuclear issue, I'm afraid the Chinese talking point is always going back to the JCPOA, that when is US going to renegotiate, when is US going to come back to the multilateral negotiated approach with Iran.

Yun Sun [00:26:02] I don't think the Chinese want to see a war or escalation of tension. Well, escalation of tension is probably okay, but they don't want to see an active conflict in the region, which will disrupt oil production and transportation. But I don't think the Chinese will solely place responsibility of such an escalation in Iran either. Last but not least, let me mention the economic aspect of it. Well, a few years ago, China and Iran reached that, with a 25-year loop range of, I believe it was a lot of money. It was like 160 billion U.S. dollars for 25 years, or I need to double check the number. But what we're seeing since the deal was signed in 2021, is nothing has really transpired in reality. And if you look at Raisi's visit to Beijing last year. Well, I will say that he brought with him a lot of cabinet members who are responsible for economic development, but they did not harvest the deals and the corporations as they would like to see. So, the Chinese are still extremely cautious about investing in oil, because they're concerned about international sanction. They're concerned about the prospect of JCPOA coming back, and Iran suddenly has more western partners available, and the Chinese will no longer appear to be the most attractive one. So, there are a lot of concerns about the Chinese economic future in Iran, which is why we're not seeing a lot of concrete agreements being signed. But at the same time, I will say the Chinese are buying oil from Iran, but mostly through Malaysia. If you look at Malaysia, Malaysia has been top five of oil exporters to China in the past the two years. And you wonder that well, Malaysia you're not oil production country, where did you get the oil? So mostly, it's a transit of Iranian oil and Venezuela oil. And we know that. So, I would say that China is keeping Iran as a support, maintaining its economic influence over Iran's decision making, but at the same time not giving out everything that Iran wants. So, the strategic alignment is there, and I think the concern about the potential escalation is also real, it has just not come to yet.

Thomas Halvorsen [00:28:14] That's great. John, anything you'd like to add.

John Calabrese [00:28:18] Just I mean, that was great Yun. I think I'd add just two points. One, is that Iran needs China more than China needs Iran. And two, I think I could be mistaken, but I think that, you know, it's kind of ironic or paradoxical that china doesn't want to see a conflict break out, in which, you know, a full-fledged conflict. But, at the same time, I think China has very little leverage, or ability to restrain either Iran on the one hand or the United States on the other. And connecting that point, with the diplomatic process, such as it is in Israel-Gaza conflict, you know, there too China doesn't have the leverage. You know, in a way, it's like on the one hand, it's blaming the United States, and there might be sufficient reason to do that. But on the other hand, it depends on the United States. So, I find those kind of, I don't know what you like to call them, like ironies or contradictions, kind of interesting. And I think that they apply to the role of Iran in the region as well.

Yun Sun [00:29:35] Can I just add a two finger to that? I think John got a really great point. It's a paradox. On one hand, you see that China is criticizing US for being the source of instability in the region. But on the other hand, China is also free riding, Chinese won’t say it's free riding, because US would do this regardless of whether China is there. The US is doing its policy in the region for its own good, but not for China's good. So, from the US perspective, China is free riding from the security benefits that US is providing. So, on one hand, China criticizes the United States. On the other hand, China also enjoys benefit coming from the United States. And that leads to the interesting question, because we saw I think the most resemblance case is Afghanistan. We saw the same thing. China was saying that while every chaos and all the instability was because of US war in Afghanistan, and the way US packed up left, the Chinese freaked out. How dare you leave so irresponsibly and leaving the infernal of potential security threats to the countries in the region, right? So, I think this actually reflects the reality of the great power competition as we see it. So, US will be damned in the Chinese narrative either way. So, I will say the US should do their own calculus instead of looking at the Chinese narrative, because the Chinese narrative is always going to be critical of the United States. Thank you.

Thomas Halvorsen [00:30:57] Yeah. That's great. That's a great analysis. It looks like we have a question here in the chat. It's from an anonymous attendee. Considering the interests of both the US and China in maintaining stable petroleum prices and supply and desire to maintain safe trade lanes through the region, is there any prospect of the U.S. and China cooperating to contain and settle regional tensions in the Middle East? Is there an opportunity for the two governments to accept a shared responsibility for international stability in a multipolar world, rather than competitors in this case? John. Let's start with you.

John Calabrese [00:31:33] I mean, I think the two have shared interests. I think it's a great question, but you know, it's one of those situations where, how do you get from here to there? The fact that you have shared interests does not necessarily mean that you’re willing or for that matter, necessarily able to coordinate policies. I mean, the red sea situation is kind of interesting, right? Because, I mean, there is a shared interest. And there's also a precedent for, you know, naval cooperation or coordination. I mean, you may recall, that in the, you know, counter piracy operations off the coast of Somalia, the US and China were, you know, more or less, you know, conducting joint operations. And so, it's not like, you know, this can't be done, and it's not like it shouldn't be done. But I guess my question and I punt this one to Yun is, you know, what are the obstacles? And it could be that the relationship, the bilateral relationship has spiraled downward or deteriorated across a whole range of issues to an extent that neither side really can find its way to build on these shared interests, to undertake, like, you know, concrete cooperative steps.

Yun Sun [00:33:05] Well, US and China cooperation is possible, but the only on low is the common denominator issues. Anything above that? I wouldn't hold my breath. The challenge is, yes, there's a convergence of interest between the U.S. and China on stability in the region, but there is also a divergence between U.S. and China on their individual national interests in the region. And here cooperation, I think the more helpful framing, while looking at state to state cooperation is you look at the absolute gains versus relative gains. So yes, absolute gains will be peace and stability in the region, and that applies to both, but how about the relative gains? And also, relative losses? So, what US will have to do, what political capital US will have to pay, for example, to reign Israel and what economic or political capital China will have to pay to reign Iran. And when we talk about collaboration, when we talk about U.S. and China, each individually play their role. These roles are not cost or free. And we're not able to play those roles here because of the political capitals as required with or without China. With China, it could potentially make it more complicated, because what these people would be saying is that, hey, we are sacrificing our American national interest and China free rises with the security that we create.

Yun Sun [00:34:29] So, not to say that this should not happen, but I won't hold my breath over the prospect of really significant and substantive solutions to the regional crisis. But again, coming back to the lowest common denominator is always some benefits of analysis. Right. This benefit is so significant, meaning that war has broken out, nobody gets oil, and the regional stability is completely disrupted. I think that will push Beijing and Washington to come together and figure out a more forceful approach and more proactive solution to the region. But anything short of that, we're basically seeing two countries doing their own calculus. Oh, here’s what I have to gain, but here's what I have to lose. So maybe I don't want to do it. And the example that John raised about Somalia. Yes. China has been conducting naval escort missions in the Gulf of Aden since 2008. Why is that? Why is China not doing that by sea? Because there's no dual mandate. The Counter Piracy Naval Escort Mission operation was mandated by U.S. Security Council Resolution in 2008, and there's no such Security Council resolution on the issue of Red Sea and in fact, there won't be. Thank you.

Thomas Halvorsen [00:35:47] That’s great. Thank you both. Just as a reminder to everybody to ask a question, you can raise your hand and I'll allow you to speak and ask your question live. You can also ask it in the chat. In the meantime, I have another question, and it piggybacks on some of the comments that you guys made in your opening remarks. It seems like in the Middle East, The US has a monopoly on sort of security, and the military aspect, and China has a monopoly more or less on, or it has the upper hand on, the economic aspect as the top customer. What can you guys speak to about both countries competition in the political realm? And the narrative building realm? obviously, you mentioned that China has a compelling narrative to make, you know, and a case to make on behalf of the Palestinians, and the US has a long history in the Middle East, how do you see those playing out? And do you see those important to long term geopolitical competition in the region? Having an upper hand when it comes to relationship building and sort of political relationship building in the region.

Yun Sun [00:37:02] I can't give it a try, and then John can correct me. I think the political system aspect of the relationship between China and the Middle East is getting more and more significant, especially in terms of when we look at the political relations between US and these countries. And then remember at the conference MEI hosted last summer, I believe, the former commander or the deputy commander of Centcom basically said, well, our biggest problem in the Middle East is that our politicians keep criticizing our allies. And where do you think our allies will run? Of course, they will align their positions with China. And here I do think that the Chinese lack of regards for liberal democracy or the political system plays a pretty powerful role in strengthening and consolidating relationship with countries in the region. What you call as the convergence of authoritarianism. That's what some people would call it, and some choose to it. But it carries a lot of currency.

Thomas Halvorsen [00:38:11] John, anything you'd like to add?

John Calabrese [00:38:13] Yeah, I mean, I'd agree with that. I don't think it's just merely the fact that, you know, let's just say there's a democracy deficit in both the China and most Middle Eastern countries. But I think there is a tacit, if not explicit, mutual understanding and commitment not to interfere in each other's domestic political affairs. And I think that, China welcomes silence on issues related to certain matters internally, and I think that the same is true in the Middle East. But that's not the, you know, elite or government level. I also think, you know, I mean, to some extent, public opinion does matter even in authoritarian systems. And I think in this conflict, the way that China has expressed itself and its sympathy and its solidarity, the way that Foreign Minister Wang has come out, I think probably in an unprecedented way, and said publicly that China is concerned about, and opposes Israel's collective punishment of Palestinians. I think that those remarks and those kinds of attitudes, that ability to, in a way, claim the moral high ground, I think that, you know, that probably resonates. Again, I'm not so sure you know, how long lasting that resonance will be, or how it might ultimately affect, you know, decision making. But I do think that, you know, those are maybe positive inroads on the political scene that China has made by taking the position that it has.

Thomas Halvorsen [00:39:59] Yeah. That's great. Thank you both. We have another question here in the chat from Sylvia Samore. She asks what are the impacts you see of the current situation in the Belt and Road initiatives and in other multilateral contexts, china is a part of, in particular, BRICS and SCO. John, do you want to take a stab at it and then Yun?

John Calabrese [00:40:23] You know, it'll be a stab. It's a good question. I don't see any direct, positive, or negative impact. I mean, the basic thrust of the Belt and Road Initiative, I think there's been a revamping or revision of the way in which Belt and Road projects their size, their scope. I think that's already happened. I think that that is sort of dissociated from or not connected in any way to the current developments. I do think, though, that interestingly enough, I mean, you know, China has moved toward at least in the memos that I've seen, and in the statements that have been made, toward kind of like new frontiers of cooperation in technology, in space and in all of those things. And I'm not too sure that the conflict is necessarily going to, either in the short or longer term, disrupt, or you know, undermine those efforts.

Yun Sun [00:41:36] If anything, I would say that we're probably going to see the strengthening of cooperation between China and the Gulf countries. I don't think Israel has been regarded as a key member of Belt and Road anyway, but I do believe that Israel's recalculation will be manifesting itself in the future policies. But now China has pledged basically it's support to again to the Arab world, to the Gulf countries, to their position on Palestine issue. I think the strengthening of the political solidarity is going to manifest in economic arenas as well. In terms of BRICS and SCO, SCO is primarily Central Asia. I haven't seen SCO playing a big role in the Middle East. In terms of BRICS, people always that oh BRICS, all these emerging markets and new countries creating these international organizations, and I think a cynic will say that, yeah, but what have they done? Having more members, having more discussions and get together every year, to talk about how they're not happy with the current international system, but unable to strike a consensus among themselves as for what a new system should look like. Well, it is important, right? It's important that countries like UAE and Saudi and Egypt are now included in BRICS. So, it's expanding membership. But, the Gaza crisis, I don't see any role being played by BRICS.

Thomas Halvorsen [00:43:17] It's a good point. We have another question here in the chat. Do Middle East governments put pressure on China over their treatment of weaker Muslims?

John Calabrese [00:43:28] Well, I mean, if their public silence is any indication. The answer is no. And I think I'd go back to, you know, what I said earlier, which is I think that there is a tacit, if not an explicit mutual commitment to stay out of one another's business to the extent possible. And I think the only country where both domestic public opinion and at the kind of elite, or leadership level, where the treatment of the Uyghurs has been a thorny or vexing issue, is the case of Turkey. But other than Turkey, I can't think of another government or any part of government in the Middle East that's been even, you know, mildly critical. Again, maybe behind closed doors, but I have no way of believing that that's the case, and I'd be skeptical if it were.

Yun Sun [00:44:26] So, if you go back to history in 2009, after the Ürümqi riots on July 5th, some ayatollahs in Iran had been critical of time. And then in 2014, another example is ISIS, which actually singled out for the treatment of our Muslim brothers. So that was a one-time reference, which raised a lot of red flags for the Chinese. So those are the two public displeasures that we've seeing from the region about China's growing issue. There have been other examples of tacit support of, not necessarily direct, not necessarily explicit criticism, but more implicit support of the Uyghur population. Like, for example, you might recall that back in 2013 and 2014, the Chinese were vigorously asking Southeast Asian countries like Thailand and Cambodia to deport who they believe are weaker populations, weaker refugees that were left in Southeast Asia. Turns out that they operate Turkish passports. And the question is, well, where did they get Turkish passports? So that was an issue that the Chinese government very vigorously fixed was Istanbul. We also see that the countries like Saudi, Qatar, UAE, and Egypt providing religious studies to Uyghur populations, Uyghur Muslims in China, basically inviting them, take them out of China, and bring them to the region to do religious studies. So that issue had also been, I would say a little bit of a friction point between China and these countries, especially about the management of these religious students. But I think that issue has also gone away in the past. I haven't heard anything in the past 5 to 6 years. So, yes, there is a history, but no, it is not a sticking point between China and the countries in the region at this moment. Countries in the region, they're very pragmatic, right? Yeah, well, you're not treating Uyghur's very well, but you're treating me well, and you are my big customer in terms of oil. So, I probably would just look out way.

Thomas Halvorsen [00:46:52] Yeah, yeah, that makes sense. Well, thank you both. We're just coming up to our closing time, so I'm going to wrap things up now, but if anybody has any more questions, please email them to me. I'd be happy to send them over to John and Yun to answer at a later time. I hope you'll join me in thanking both John and Yun for participating in this week's session on China. We really appreciate your insight and your willingness to share your morning with us. If you've missed any of our sessions or wish to catch them again, you can find them on our website, along with transcripts at Thanks again for joining us for this week's session and be on the lookout for an invitation to next week's briefing in the coming days. If you find these calls valuable and want to learn more about other resources MEI can provide, please don't hesitate to reach out to us. We'd be more than happy to connect. Thank you all, and I hope you have a great rest of your day.

John Calabrese [00:47:54] Thanks a lot.

Yun Sun [00:47:55] Thank you.