Wu Sike (吴思科) Photo: Zhang Yu/GT
Last year saw dramatic shifts in the Middle East, a region where constant changes have become the new norm. How should the significance of these changes be understood? How can the turbulent region achieve peace? And what role should China play in the region? At a seminar held by the Center for Middle East Peace Studies, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Global Times (GT) reporter Zhang Yu talked to Wu Sike (Wu), China’s special envoy on the Middle East issue, over these issues.
GT: The Middle East is witnessing some fundamental changes. For example, Iran has agreed to curb its nuclear program, the UN voted to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons and Egypt is going to vote on a new constitution. Are these real breakthroughs?
Wu: Much has happened in the past three years. Regimes changed, and wars were fought.
Of course, toppling a regime through revolution and street politics infuses dynamism into a country.
But when the revolutionary young people went to the streets, yelling out their pent-up dissatisfaction, they weren’t really thinking about the future they wanted to build.
Now it’s time for people in these countries to reflect on their past and future, and for the political situation to cool down and transit, especially for countries like Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen which are in a relatively peaceful transition.
Libya and Syria, however, went in another direction, ravaged by incessant warfare. But one thing in common is that all countries are struggling to find a constructive solution where the traditional world view and the modern world view can find a common ground.
The biggest change last year occurred in Egypt. Mohamed Morsi, the first democratically elected head of state in Egyptian history, was only in office for over one year and was removed by the military after mass protests.
Syria was on the verge of war but agreed to tackle the chemical weapon issue in a peaceful way, which is more positive and rational than resorting to military action.
The Iranian nuclear issue, after 10 years of consultation, reached a preliminary deal which is likely to curb its nuclear activities. This is a very good beginning.
People are realizing the importance of finding political solutions rather than resorting to violence and military options which are against the interest of all countries.
GT: Some in the West have been criticizing China for not engaging enough in the Middle East. Is this fair?
Wu: This is an inveterate thinking of the Western world, a colonial stereotype that believes everything is in their command. People in the Middle East are strongly opposed to it.
China shares many similarities with countries in the Middle East in terms of culture and history. We understand that we can’t impose on others, especially on issues related to other countries’ sovereignty.
Also, legally speaking, all sovereign states are equal members of the international community. No country is better or higher in status.
China firmly clings to this belief, just as all our government papers stress.
And yet we are not onlookers. We participate actively in the regional hot issues, such as the ones faced by Israel and Palestine, Syria and Sudan, by giving advice and encouraging them to address problems through peaceful talks.
When a conflict occurs within a country and people protest against their government, it is not necessarily true that the people are always right and that other countries should stand on their side. This is sheer bias. We believe these countries have the ability to sort out matters themselves without relying on foreign help.
In the future, China’s position against violence and advocacy of solving problems via peaceful talks will remain unchanged, and we won’t impose on other countries.
When I talked to a rebel in Syria, he told me that they don’t welcome foreign military intervention. Whether it is by land or air, the result is both national and social instability.
Political solutions may take a longer time to solve problems, but countries suffer much fewer losses.
GT: What does China expect of the Middle East?
Wu: China now has a deepening relationship with the Middle East in terms of politics and economy.
A peaceful and stable Middle East is in line with China’s political and economic interests, and when the antagonism between these countries is pacified, it will also be easier for China to deal with multilateral relationships in the Arab world.
The Middle East is an important supplier of energy to China. Therefore, acting as a mediator in the region is not just following the UN’s guidelines, but is in China’s own interests.
Of course, mediation is a slow, accumulative progress. Our efforts today may not have instant effects, but they will pay off one day.
The Iranian nuclear issue is an example. The international community has been engaged in talks for 10 years before recent breakthroughs, those 10 years weren’t useless.
I think countries should have the faith that they can find a solution through peaceful talks.
It’s true that there are deep-rooted conflicts between Palestine and Israel, and between Iran and other Gulf countries. But they should also walk in each other’s shoes. For example, the Jews had historically been unfairly treated. So they should be able to feel what Palestinians are feeling through their own experience.
Today’s world is a small world, with countries sharing more common interests. As neighboring countries, they should be even more aware of that.
GT: What common interests do China and the US share in the Middle East? And what is the biggest disagreement?
Wu: There are more common interests between China and the US than differences, and both parties should avoid a zero-sum mentality.
China, with our rising international influence, has become more and more important to the Middle East, but it is not our intent to replace the role of others or take away their shares of the cake.
The Middle East needs a market it can sell its oil to, and China’s involvement is fair and mutually beneficial. We advocate political solutions and mutual benefits in the energy issue.
The US has a strong interest in the region, with many US oil companies having oil and gas operations there. Therefore, the US also expects the Middle East to develop in a stable way.
There has been a simple-minded view that with the US now less dependent on oil in the Middle East, it will retreat from the area. But actually, the US still has various interests in the region.
In October, I went to the US and talked to US specialists and envoys on the Middle East issue. We found many things in common. We should explore common interests in our thinking and action and should not consider each other enemies.
As the US is less dependent on the oil from the Middle East, other Asian countries and China are now increasingly important to the Middle East as oil buyers.
Politically, Asian countries are more equal and respectful when they deal with the Middle East, which is helpful to the development of the region. Japan, though, may have its hidden agenda in the Middle East.