Jordan: China's Gateway to the Middle East

“Jordan is America’s friend here; one of their few friends that is not a member of NATO,” Liu says.

But there are signs that this balance is changing. Unlike the United States, China has good relations with countries across the region, even those who are at odds with each other. For example, China has held bilateral diplomatic and trade relations with both Iran and Saudi Arabia—mutual enemies—for decades. Beijing also maintains good relations with and sells arms to Israel, while at the same time endorses Palestinian statehood and right to self-determination. These relationships are consistent with China’s foreign policy approach, which Liu says favors “equality, mutual respect, and non-interference” over U.S.-style democracy promotion.

“We believe that the Arab world and people will find their own way to develop, instead of accepting what outsiders impose,” Liu said. “Our attitude is to respect the people’s wishes. We let them choose without taking sides like the West does.”

The Chinese talk of “equality and respect,” though, seems to have more to do with the relationship between governments than to the people they represent. In the Middle East, China has long preferred to deal with the political status quo regardless of the country’s human rights situation. When asked what “respecting the people’s wishes” means, especially in cases of authoritarian regimes like Bashar al-Assad’s Syria and King Abdullah’s Saudi Arabia, Liu pauses.

“We do not interfere with domestic matters,” he said. “When there is domestic unrest, we do not comment. This is a diplomatic philosophy based on totally different values from America, who likes to ‘look around in other people’s homes.’ China does not do this.”

In China, the China-Arab States Expo is greeted with talk of historical friendship, based on the Silk Road and cultural connection with China’s Muslim Hui minority. But no mention is made of China’s other main Muslim ethnicity, the Uighurs, whose protests in their native Xinjiang were violently quelled in 2009. With these considerations, is China’s non-interference policy sustainable? At a hearing at the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission this summer, some analysts claimed that the answer is no.

“China has been content to be a ‘market taker,’ seeking to maximize the benefit it derives from conditions it finds around the world,” said Jon Alterman of the Center of Strategic and International Studies. But China’s rising influence is now thrusting it into a ‘market maker’ role, he said, causing trade partners to complain that their relationship with the growing power should yield “greater diplomatic benefits.”

“Chinese diplomacy is being forced out of passively managing risk,” Alterman said.

Beijing’s increasing need for oil exports may also alter its diplomatic strategy. Recently, Al-Jazeera America similarly reported that economic overtures like the China-Arab States Expo reflected China’s concern for its oil markets. Securing a stable environment—free from political instability or war—is central to Beijing’s needs. But at least for Jordan, regional turmoil may actually be a good thing—as an oasis of calm in a turbulent region, Amman stands to benefit from both Chinese and American interest in its stability.

At the China Fair in Amman, conversations do not revolve around human rights, reform, or the situation in Syria. Instead, both the Chinese and the Arab hosts are engaged in business talk, revolving around topics like corrugated cardboard and making deals with suppliers. According to Pillai, the fair’s success is marked by its continuous growth (this year’s edition is 30 percent larger than the 2012 show) and high rate of returning participants. “People come back when they make deals,” Pillai says.

He rejects the stereotype that Chinese goods are cheap and poorly made.

“China has transformed itself over the last ten years,” Pillai says, pulling a Huawei cell phone out of his pocket. “See this? It works everywhere. It works better than your iPhone.”

Jaafar al-Jaberi, a materials engineer for a Jordanian printing supplies company, says he has used Chinese machines since he first entered the business 18 years ago. He checks the quality of the goods personally and chooses Chinese ones over European equivalents. Al-Jaberi points at a corrugated cardboard machine that would cost €350,000 in Germany, he says, but only $50,000 in China.

“If I order this machine in Europe, I have to wait two to three months. They have no labor,” al-Jaberi says. “In China, there are millions [of people]! It takes only one month to get the same machine from China”.

He shrugs and then laughs. “I want to make money. That’s it.”

Alice Su is a journalist based in Amman, Jordan.

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