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China In Eurasia Briefing: Beijing Adapts To A New Middle East

Chinese Ambassador and UN Security Council President Zhang Jun speaks during a vote on a draft resolution calling for urgent humanitarian aid for Gaza, at UN headquarters in New York on November 15.
Chinese Ambassador and UN Security Council President Zhang Jun speaks during a vote on a draft resolution calling for urgent humanitarian aid for Gaza, at UN headquarters in New York on November 15.

Welcome back to the China In Eurasia Briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter tracking China's resurgent influence from Eastern Europe to Central Asia.

I'm RFE/RL correspondent Reid Standish and here's what I'm following right now.

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Beijing Adapts To A New Middle East

Recent months of compounding crises in the Middle East have exposed China's limited commitment and ability to play a leading role in the region, and as I explained here, Beijing isn't necessarily well-positioned to benefit from the newfound chaos.

Finding Perspective: Since the beginning of Israel's ongoing war in Gaza, China has gradually taken a backseat toward the conflict.

Beijing has used the large-scale humanitarian crisis and mounting civilian casualties in Gaza as an opportunity to blame the hostilities on the United States's Middle East policies at global forums like the UN and through official statements and state-led media.

But while Chinese diplomats have toured various Middle East capitals and hosted officials from the region in China, Beijing has little to show from such efforts and may have even seen its stock dip in the region.

Beijing frames itself as a "responsible major power" and has looked to play a role as a peace broker, recently calling for a peace conference and a timetable to implement a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine on January 14.

But this positioning has also brought more scrutiny for China to act and deliver solutions, especially from countries across the Global South, and Beijing has so far not met those expectations.

This can also be seen in China's reaction to the Huthi attacks meant to deter commercial shipping in the Red Sea and Suez Canal.

Beijing has decried the attacks, and even though Chinese-flagged vessels have been targeted, it has not been part of the effort to bring the attacks to an end.

This could also grow further against China's interests, with the attacks frustrating Chinese investors who have committed billions to projects around the Suez Canal and stand to profit from safe passage through the waterway.

Protracted conflict in the region could continue to grow and further threaten Chinese personnel across North Africa and the Middle East and the investments that state-owned corporations have been making there for the past decade.

Why It Matters: This is all a dramatic reversal from how things looked less than a year ago.

In March 2023, China brokered a historic deal between regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia and sidelined the United States in the process.

As peace talks spread across the region -- from Qatar to Turkey to Syria -- China's top diplomat Wang Yi declared that a "wave of reconciliation" was sweeping the Middle East in August, with Beijing's alternative vision for a global order taking shape.

But the war in Gaza and the expanding list of crises has undone that narrative. Now, as China faces a very different political and security landscape in the Middle East, it must adapt on the fly.

This opens up lots of questions moving forward.

How will China maintain its official "neutrality" in the region and balance between its longtime partner in Iran and the more economically appealing Sunni Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia? Is China willing to spend its political capital on Israel-Palestine diplomacy? And how can China continue to shape events in the Middle East as the regional conversation shifts more toward security concerns?

Three More Stories From Eurasia

1. Reactions To Taiwan's Election

Taiwan elected a new president on January 13, choosing current Vice President Lai Ching-te (William) and granting his China-skeptic Democratic Progress Party (DPP) a historic third consecutive term in power.

In the wake of the victory, attention has now shifted to how Beijing will react and how Lai's election will be met by countries around the world.

The Details: Lai won a close three-way race with 40 percent of the vote and moved to quell any fears across the Taiwan Strait in China by saying he doesn't support Taiwanese independence.

During his acceptance speech Lai said he supports dialogue and cooperation with Beijing, and during the campaign he was quick to note he is an advocate for continuing Taiwan's self-governing status quo.

Still, Beijing is unlikely to see this as an assurance.

In a January 15 article published in the Communist Party magazine Qiushi, Chinese leader Xi Jinping said a greater effort is needed to win over the Taiwanese: "The patriotic, unifying forces in Taiwan should be developed and empowered. Separatist acts for Taiwan independence should be rejected. The full reunification of the motherland should move forward."

Shortly after Lai's election, David Adeang, president of the Pacific island nation of Nauru, also announced his country would no longer recognize Taiwan as a country and that it now viewed the island "as an inalienable part of China's territory."

The decision is an important move and a signal from Beijing to Taipei as the DPP prepares for a third term in power.

Attention now shifts to whether Beijing will turn to military or economic means to show its displeasure with Lai before he is sworn into office in May.

2. The Georgia Angle To Taiwan's Election

Georgia -- the small Caucasian country of some 4 million people -- follows one of the strictest policies of isolation toward Taiwan in the world, with Tbilisi refusing entry to the island's citizens.

Ahead of the recent vote, my colleague Luka Pertaia from RFE/RL's Georgia Service visited Taipei to report on Georgia's complicated relationship with Taiwan.

What You Need To Know: Georgia's strict stance toward Taiwan has its roots in the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, breakaway Georgian regions occupied by Russia that have declared independence.

As Sergi Kapanadze, Georgia's former deputy foreign minister, explained to Luka, the strategy has been that maintaining zero relations with Taiwan would placate China to provide some form of moderation and be a diplomatic bulwark against the Russian-backed areas receiving further recognition.

But Tbilisi's stance is seen in a new light as successive Georgian Dream-led governments have encouraged China to expand its footprint in the country and deepen bilateral ties.

This adds another wrinkle to Georgia's bid to join the EU -- Tbilisi received official candidate status in December -- and risks leaving it as an outlier amid growing concern in European capitals and the West over Taiwan's precarious position with China.

3. The Central Asian Angle On Taiwan's Election

In another sign of their strong ties with Beijing, Central Asia's foreign ministries reiterated that they view Taiwan as part of China, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported.

What It Means: Central Asia has been a priority region for China, and the countries do not engage with Taipei. Instead, the region is becoming increasingly tied economically to Beijing.

In a statement issued after Lai's election, the Uzbek Foreign Ministry said, "The government of the People's Republic of China is the only legitimate government of China, and Taiwan is an inalienable part of Chinese territory," adding that Tashkent "supports all the efforts of the PRC government to implement the reunification of China."

This was followed by similar statements from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.

Dealing with Taiwanese elections is tricky even for Western officials.

U.S President Joe Biden offered a firm rejection of Taiwanese sovereignty, saying after the vote that Washington does "not support independence."

Meanwhile, most of the European Union refrained from referring to the election as a presidential one and did not mention Lai's name in their congratulatory messages.

This diplomatic dance highlights the complicated lengths that countries must go to -- even those nations supportive of Taiwan in the face of Chinese pressure.

In the case of Central Asia, the unambiguously pro-Beijing language highlights where the region sees its future.

Across The Supercontinent

Re-Export: Reviewing newly released customs data, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reports that for the first time in history China has become the main supplier of cars to the country.

However, the data also shows most of the Chinese cars are then re-exported to Russia.

'Reasonable Skepticism': RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service also reported the country's debt now sits at $6 billion, with $4 billion owed to China. Speaking to RFE/RL, former Kyrgyz Economy Minister Emil Umetaliev said Bishkek needed to show "reasonable skepticism" when taking out future Chinese loans.

"China is firmly defending its interests, and there are examples of smaller countries losing out," he said.

Telecoms In Tajikistan: In November, Tajikistan announced plans to link with China's telecommunications network in order to improve the mountainous, landlocked country's internet access.

Now, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reports that Huawei, the Chinese telecoms giant, will build 5G base stations across the country.

One Thing To Watch

During her short stint as U.K. prime minister, Liz Truss never shied away from criticizing Beijing, and she continued that stance after leaving office.

When she visited Taiwan in July, she called for an "economic NATO" to tackle Beijing's growing authoritarianism, and earlier this month she urged British Foreign Minister David Cameron to take "robust action" after two British citizens were named as co-conspirators in the controversial trial of Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai.

But a recent Politico investigation shows she secretly lobbied the British government in August to "expedite" the sale of defense equipment to China.

That's all from me for now. Don't forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you might have.

Until next time,

Reid Standish

If you enjoyed this briefing and don't want to miss the next edition, subscribe here. It will be sent to your inbox every other Wednesday.

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    Reid Standish

    Reid Standish is an RFE/RL correspondent in Prague and author of the China In Eurasia briefing. He focuses on Chinese foreign policy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and has reported extensively about China's Belt and Road Initiative and Beijing’s internment camps in Xinjiang. Prior to joining RFE/RL, Reid was an editor at Foreign Policy magazine and its Moscow correspondent. He has also written for The Atlantic and The Washington Post.

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About The Newsletter

China In Eurasia
Reid Standish

In recent years, it has become impossible to tell the biggest stories shaping Eurasia without considering China’s resurgent influence in local business, politics, security, and culture.

Subscribe to this biweekly dispatch in which correspondent Reid Standish builds on the local reporting from RFE/RL’s journalists across Eurasia to give you unique insights into Beijing’s ambitions and challenges.

To subscribe, click here.