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China's Syria Talks: Greater Involvement in the Middle East?

24/12/2015 12:16 | Updated 24 December 2016

Once again, China has revealed to the world its willingness to seek greater involvement in Middle Eastern affairs. This has manifested through its recent offer to host talks between the Syrian Government and opposition groups as a crucial breakthrough in the Syrian peace process. It is reported that the Chinese Government would invite to the talks representatives of the Assad regime, along with rebel groups that have no connection with terrorist or extremist endeavours.

The decision was announced in New York by the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi during a Foreign Ministers' meeting of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG). Simultaneously, the UN Security Council decided to approve a resolution grounded on ISSG negotiations laying out a draft plan for a Syrian peace process. Resolution 2254 urged both the Assad Government and opposition groups to begin talks early next year, to be followed shortly after by a comprehensive truce.

In his speech at UN Security Council, Wang expressed his approval of the uncontested clause of the resolution. He stressed the significant drawback resulting from the ongoing turmoil in Syria, and accentuated Beijing's long-held stance that a peaceful solution is the only option for a lasting peace. Moreover, the Chinese Government urged the UN to exert its efforts to help consolidate the rebel movements; an important step in facilitating peaceful talks.

Undoubtedly, China's plan marks a critical transformation in its foreign policy vis-a-vis the Syrian conflict. Even though Beijing has been involved in a series of talks on Syria since the beginning of the conflict, it has largely taken a back seat to Washington and Moscow. China has been blatant in what it does not want to see; that is, the spread of extremism, a humanitarian deadlock, and a Western-imposed regime change. Simultaneously, however, it has been quiet in relation to how to achieve enduring peace. If China is truly interested in hosting peace negotiations, it would be a significant move towards ending the ongoing turmoil.

In previous years, China has invited the Assad Government and rebel factions separately, but this is the first time it has made a direct offer to act as a peace mediator. According to Wang, the UN might also be asked to participate in the Beijing-led negotiations in order to boost the validity of the negotiations.

It cannot be denied that the decision seems to pinpoint real eagerness on China's part to become a crucial stakeholder in Middle East issues. Since the current Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, took office two years ago, China is seemingly revising its global engagements in the hope of reaping a greater global image to match its economic statue. In 2013, China exerted efforts to play a peaceful mediatory role in the Arab-Israeli conflict; additionally, it has become a crucial actor in the Iranian nuclear negotiation talks in the last couple of years.

By exploring several factors, it is not surprising to observe China becoming more active in a number of Middle Eastern issues. Given its status as the world's fastest-growing energy consumer, it is clear that energy is the most crucial force behind China's increasing interests in the region. A report has revealed that China's oil imports will increase exponentially, with Middle East resources accounting for much of this rise. Therefore, energy security is, and will remain, crucial to Beijing and is fundamental underpinning of its foreign policy. Its growing need of secure energy imports will force it to become involved in issues that may affect its energy supply calculations.

Another motivation for the Chinese to increase its involvement in the Middle East affairs is to obtain access to untapped consumer markets in the region for its exports and lucrative investment opportunities. Repeatedly, the government in Beijing has reiterated its commitment to increase trade volume with the Arab world. Moreover, China's increased willingness to participate in the Middle East should also be explored from the geopolitical perspective. As a growing global power, China is interested in projecting power outside its regional sphere of influence. To strengthen its great power aspirations and its position in the Middle East, it is crucial for China to forge greater involvement in the region's major affairs, including the ongoing Syrian conflict.

Furthermore, the recent decision relates to China's plan to establish a new system of trade; known as the 'One Belt, One Road' (OBOR). The project is part of the overall multi-billion dollar Silk Road Initiatives launched in September 2013. Its main objective is to establish a new China-inspired system of international trade and commerce, connecting China's ports with South-East Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa. As the Middle East has a strategic position in the planned routes, it is vital to play a more active role in security issues in the region as it wants to avoid any obstacles.

To the people of the Middle East who have long waited for an effective partner to strive for peace in the region, China's proposed role could be a welcome development.