Source: China.org.cn Published: 2018-2-16
Wu Sike, the Chinese government`s former special envoy to the Middle East [File photo]
U.S. President Donald Trump`s new Middle East policies have had considerable impact on regional issues. Where lies the Middle East`s future, and how will any changes influence the world in 2018? To better answer those questions, China.org.cn had an exclusive interview with Wu Sike, the Chinese government`s former special envoy to the Middle East.
China.org.cn: The Syrian crisis saw some positive changes in 2017 as the civil war eased with the establishment of some de-escalation zones as well as President Trump`s decision to maintain a ban on shipping munitions or providing military training to mild opposition forces in the war-torn country. How do you judge the current situation and future course of Syria?
Wu Sike: Last year, the anti-terrorist actions in Syria, indeed, made huge progress. From 2015, Russia started to reinforce its troop levels in Syria for anti-terrorist purposes, and the United States expanded its military presence to support their forces involved in the Battle of Raqqa. The battlefield saw its turning point when the two major countries, both hoping to expand their influence in post-war Syria, launched severe attacks against Islamic State (IS).
The four De-escalation Zones represent tussles between different forces over Syria, with the Syrian government forces backed by Russia now controlling the principal areas, the Kurdish military forces supported by the United States controlling Raqqa and the neighborhood of the Euphrates River, and other opposition groups buttressed by Saudi Arabia controlling the area near the border with Iraq.
Despite the Syrian government`s reiteration of sovereignty, the presence of different forces will be a long-term reality in the country. However, the good news is that the incumbent government has released their plans to regain control in the political, economic and social affairs areas, such as, amending the constitution and holding general elections. These are the impending issues on which the Syrian government is deliberating.
China.org.cn: With the Middle East ushering in a post-Islamic State era, how should Iraq, Syria and the entire international community join hands to protect the world from a resurgence of IS attacks? In addition to the military offensives, what efforts should be made in the political, diplomatic and ideological spheres to eradicate terrorist forces in the region?
Wu Sike: The anti-terrorist missions are far from completed, even though ISIS has been destroyed as a de facto separate state. The terrorist forces may continue to perpetrate in different forms that will be more complicated and difficult to be defeated.
First, armed IS terrorists may lurk in disguise in other places, such as, the Sinai Peninsula, Libya, the Sahara or Afghanistan, or could join with other armed groups on Syrian territory.
Second, the extremist thoughts represented by IS continue to arouse considerable concern. Saudi Arabia and Egypt are calling for a move away from extremism in Islamic doctrines. Besides, more attention is being paid to the international community for concerted counter-terrorist efforts in cyberspace, especially, in the post-IS era.
Terrorism cannot be uprooted overnight; the process takes time. First, the problems of hot spots, such as, Palestine, will bring more uncertainties to the world, especially if the solutions fail to meet expectations and, instead, bring humiliation to the people affected. Therefore, if we want to eliminate extremist thoughts, we need first to provide impartial solutions while dealing with the issues in Palestine and elsewhere. Besides, the countries and regions concerned should be able to choose their own development models, achieving social stability, making economic progress and improving people`s livelihood, so that the hatred caused by inequality and impoverishment can be extinguished as a major source of terrorism.
China.org.cn: The Middle East policies charted by the Obama administration have been overhauled since Trump took office. The U.S. recently announced its recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and determined to move its embassy there from Tel Aviv. How will the host of policies mapped out by the Trump administration influence the Middle East?
Wu Sike: When Trump took office, he overturned the Middle East policies adopted by the Obama`s administration. He vetoed the Iran Nuclear Deal and rebuilt friendships with Israel and Saudi Arabia, the two traditional allies kept at some distance by his predecessor. Besides, he sent in more troops to Syria for counter-terrorist work, and increased support to Kurdish forces. The recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is a move taken by Trump after he judged the pros and cons of the regional status quo in addition to his need to seek the support of the national Jewish community in America. These policies have intensified the volatility and fragmentation of the Middle East and their impact is still working through today.
China.org.cn: Last year, riding the tide of change, Saudi Arab underwent a huge transformation with reform carried out from top to bottom. It readjusted its foreign policy in regard to relations with the world`s major countries. What is your comment on Saudi Arabia`s current situation and how do you foresee its future course?
Wu Sike: Last year, indeed, witnessed a series of changes in Saudi Arabia, such as the promotion of Mohammed bin Salman to Crown Prince, the establishment of an anti-corruption committee, the war against Yemen, the suspension of diplomatic relations with Qatar and the confrontation with Iran.
To promote Mohammed bin Salman to be next in line to the throne is based on the reality that the second generation of the royal family is now aging. Therefore, the transfer of the power to the third generation is a natural process. Mellowed during his reign of over half a century, King Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud has planned the transfer of power to his son in a careful way. Mohammed bin Salman was appointed as the Defense Minister. Before becoming the Crown Prince, he choregraphed a reform plan for a restructured economy focusing on mitigating its heavy reliance on oil and creating an agenda for the period to 2030. Besides, he also has sought to resolve social deadlocks. All those measures, designed to make the country adapt to a changing society, are estimated to have won the support of 70 percent of young citizens. However, the young prince, with his ability being tested while tackling the challenges of power, must face the constraints of certain opposition groups.
In regard to diplomatic relations, the suspension of ties with Qatar may last for quite a while, as the latter still refuses to accept the prerequisites for normalization issued by the Saudis. No matter, whether internal or external affairs, Mohammed bin Salman should have gained more experience when the time comes to hold supreme power of the country. Moreover, I believe he can find a pragmatic and appropriate way to lead his country for years to come.
China.org.cn: How about the fruition of the Belt and Road Initiative, which will soon mark its fifth anniversary in 2018? How do you forecast the future course of the Initiative?
Wu Sike: Many countries and regions are showing their warm response to the Belt and Road Initiative. It is partly because the ancient memory of the Silk Road, which connects the countries and regions along the routes, is profound, intense and innumerable. Besides, the reality has made China and other countries in the region realize the imperative of solving the social problems caused by lack of development which consequently led to the instability in the past seven years since the Arab Spring. In the Belt and Road Initiative, all countries, regardless of their differences in beliefs and institutions, should equally take advantage of the opportunities offered by the Initiative. That`s why they have become so active to participate in it.
At least eight Middle East countries have signed cooperative pacts with China to push forward the development of the Initiative. Besides, seven countries from the same region have become founder members of the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Based on their own explorations, the countries have all found appropriate ways to be involved in the Initiative, such as the high-level committee established between China and Saudi Arabia.
However, where there are opportunities, there are challenges. The main concern in the Middle East is regional security. Therefore, we are proactively helping press ahead with solutions to end regional disputes and confrontations and preparing for the cooperation once peace and stability are achieved in the region. Besides, we are actively involved in dealing with the geopolitical relationships, convincing the major countries, such as, the United States, Russia and European countries, that the Initiative is not a zero-sum game. It is open to all countries and regions without damaging their own interests, but rather sharing interests with partners that are exclusive to none, because in doing so we are increasing the size of the market. To make such achievements, China needs corresponding diplomatic efforts to plan for its future course. In addition to the major powers, China will enhance its relations with other countries and institutions to stimulate cultural and people-to-people exchanges, essential to fulfill the commitments of the Initiative.
Wu Sike was China`s special envoy to the Middle East from 2009 to 2014, and currently a senior fellow of Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China.