Will and Capabilities: The PRC-ROC Imbalance in the Middle East

Will and Capabilities: The PRC-ROC Imbalance in the Middle East

Will and Capabilities: The PRC-ROC Imbalance in the Middle East

Although an imbalance has existed between the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) and the Republic of China’s (ROC) Middle Eastern relations since the early 1950s, the nature of this imbalance had changed—even reversed—by the mid-1970s. Initially, the ROC, which is Taiwan’s formal name, had several potential advantages over the PRC. As one of the Big Five founders of the United Nations (UN) and a permanent member of its Security Council (thus holding veto power) as well as in other international organizations, the ROC maintained long-standing diplomatic relations with the United States, most Western powers, and some Middle Eastern countries. For nearly seven years following the establishment of the PRC in 1949, the ROC maintained diplomatic advantages in the Middle East. This encompassed relations, going back to the 1930s and 1940s, with the most important Middle Eastern countries, including Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt (where the ROC had been represented by Ma Bufang [馬步芳], a former Chinese Muslim warlord who later became ambassador to Saudi Arabia). [1] The ROC was also represented later in Jordan, Sudan, Morocco, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)―though in some cases only for a short time. Yet, during these years, the ROC missed opportunities to solidify its Middle Eastern presence. Now—despite its unofficial diplomatic status—Taiwan should find, and use, its relative domestic scientific and technological advantages as fast as possible to restore, at least partly, its earlier presence in the Middle East.

Pre-1971: ROC Advantages, PRC Disadvantages

In the years prior to 1971, Middle Eastern countries’ United Nations votes on the PRC admission were not consistent, as these states were divided in terms of international affiliation, domestic politics, social structure, and cultural-religious characteristics. Every year until 1971, the UN General Assembly voted on interim resolutions to postpone the discussion on China’s representation, and to consider this issue “an important question” that would require a two-third majority to settle. Some Middle Eastern countries—primarily those associated with the United States and the West (notably Turkey, Iran, Jordan, and Lebanon)—voted consistently for the ROC and against the PRC. Conversely, countries which recognized the PRC between 1956 and 1959 (Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Morocco, and Sudan) abstained on votes before their recognition of the PRC and later voted for its admission and, presumably, against the ROC. Saudi Arabia consistently abstained, while Israel’s vote fluctuated between the two, though with few exceptions it voted for the ROC, considering the PRC’s representation “an important question.” [2]

Among these secondary resolutions, two were of primary importance. First, the UN General Assembly voted against the USSR intervention in China on behalf of the communists, and in favor of affirming the ROC as the central government of China (Resolution 505, February 1, 1952). Three Middle Eastern countries supported the resolution (Iraq, Lebanon, and Turkey), five abstained (Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Yemen), and one opposed (Israel, which had already recognized the PRC). By that time, most of the countries which abstained still had official relations with the ROC. The second, Resolution 2758 (October 25, 1971) on the admission of the PRC to the UN at the expense of the ROC, reversed the outcome of Resolution 505. Most Middle Eastern and North African UN members—14 out of 19—voted for the resolution (Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Kuwait, Libya, Morocco, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, Yemen, and South Yemen). Four abstained (Bahrain, Jordan, Lebanon, and Qatar) and only one (Saudi Arabia) opposed, continuing to vote for the ROC.

Even after 1956, when the PRC established diplomatic relations with Egypt, Syria, and Yemen, at the expense of the ROC (followed by Iraq and Morocco in 1958 and Sudan in 1959), the ROC maintained its advantages over the PRC in the Middle East. [3] In addition to keeping its seat on the UN Security Council and its official relations with the leading Western powers, the ROC was still represented in some of the most important Middle Eastern capitals: Ankara, Riyadh, and Tehran. However, despite having vast (potential) political influence, the ROC did not seem to have the will to increase its presence in the Middle East nor the drive to use its UN political capabilities, whatever they were, on behalf of Middle Eastern countries. One reason may have been its dependence on Persian Gulf oil and its careful policy to avoid upsetting Arab oil suppliers. [4] Consequently, the ROC had made no significant attempt to win the goodwill of those Middle Eastern countries that wavered in their attitude toward the ROC and the PRC, especially those undermined by PRC radicalism and support of communist and revolutionary groups. This was also true about Israel, though for different reasons.

Although Israel was the first Middle Eastern country to recognize the PRC, on January 9, 1950, this recognition—officially acknowledged by PRC Premier and Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai (周恩來)—was practically rejected shortly after it was extended. Moreover, because of Israel’s participation in the October 1956 Anglo-British offensive against Egypt, the foundation of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1964, and the radicalism of the Cultural Revolution, the PRC’s attitude toward Israel became increasingly hostile. [5] Potentially, this created an opportunity for the ROC, a loyal ally of the US, to attempt to win Israel to its side. It is unlikely that Israel would have changed its mind, since Israeli Foreign Ministry officials believed—notwithstanding Beijing’s defamations and slanders—that diplomatic relations with the PRC would ultimately be established. [6] Still, a serious ROC proposal to exploit this opportunity and to set up official relations with Israel, especially in the 1960s at the height of PRC hostility to Israel (expressed not only in rhetoric but also in military support of the Palestinians), may have been accepted. Yet, such proposal was never made. This ROC indifference may have affected its relations with other Middle Eastern countries. Dependent on Middle Eastern oil, the ROC failed—or did not even try—to create a counter-dependence, which would have made it more difficult for Middle Eastern countries to side with the PRC later on.

Post-1971: ROC Disadvantages, PRC Advantages

From the early 1970s on, the PRC-ROC balance in the Middle East has changed dramatically. Expelled from official international diplomacy, the ROC lost its political assets, and nearly all its embassies, in the Middle East, which it had failed to use earlier. Now, denied official presence in regional and global capitals, as well as in international organizations, the ROC has gradually begun—belatedly—to build its unofficial presence in the Middle East. As of today, the ROC maintains economic and cultural missions in Saudi Arabia (which moved from Jeddah to Riyadh in 2017 and is also responsible for Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Pakistan, Qatar, and Yemen), Jordan (also responsible for Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, and Syria), the UAE (also responsible for Iran), Turkey (also responsible for Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan), Oman, Bahrain, and Israel. Supposedly non-governmental, these missions actually function as de facto embassies, enjoying diplomatic immunity and benefits that usually apply to official envoys―though with less responsibilities and commitments. The websites of all of these missions have the domain name “roc-taiwan.org,” except the office in Saudi Arabia, which also keeps the previous official “embassy” in its domain name (https://www.taiwanembassy.org/sa/) even today, on Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry website, over 30 years after diplomatic relations were cut off.

Saudi Arabia is Taiwan’s most important crude oil supplier, providing nearly one third of Taiwan’s needs (practically all of Taiwan’s crude oil is imported). [7] Kuwait is Taiwan’s second most important oil supplier, providing around 20 percent of all needs. [8] Other Middle Eastern suppliers are the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, and Oman―altogether accounting for an average of 78 percent of all of Taiwan’s crude oil consumption (in 2012-2018, Table 1). [9] In addition, Taiwan used to import nearly half of its LNG from a single Middle Eastern country―Qatar, declining to around 30 percent in 2017 and 2018 (Table 2). [10] Although the PRC imports much larger quantities of crude oil from the Middle East than the ROC, the share of Middle Eastern oil in the PRC’s total oil import is only around 42 percent. [11] However we look at it, Taiwan is heavily dependent on Middle Eastern oil and gas, more so than even the PRC.

Table 1: Taiwan Crude Oil Import from the Middle East, 2012-2018
(In 10,000 barrels and percent)

Source: Adapted from Taiwan Bureau of Energy, Ministry of Economic Affairs, Energy Statistics Handbook 2018 (October 2019), 54.

Table 2: Taiwan LNG Import from Qatar, 2012-2018
(In 10 million tons and percent of total)

Source: Adapted from Taiwan Bureau of Energy, Ministry of Economic Affairs, Energy Statistics Handbook 2018 (October 2019), 69.

For many years, the ROC has made the usual mistake of a beginning investor, putting all of its eggs in one basket and choosing total dependence on the United States. However, and certainly in a retrospective view, a more sophisticated investor would have spread his investment so that when the market crashes or declines, he does not lose all his investment. Having lost all of its advantages, the ROC failed to create alternative “investments” in advance―and this is exactly what happened in its relations with the Middle East (and other regions as well), where the ROC ignored numerous opportunities. A more proactive approach could probably not have prevented Middle Eastern countries from switching their recognition to the PRC, but it could have created a more solid basis for unofficial relations afterwards. It is too late and unrealistic to fully make up for this loss, as the PRC has established a solid base in the Middle East, but the ROC could still achieve a change by pursuing more creative policies and thinking outside the box.

In Sum

Until the early 1970s, the PRC had the will to become involved in Middle Eastern affairs, but no capabilities. Conversely, the ROC had the capabilities, but not the will. Since the 1970s, the situation has reversed: the PRC now has the capabilities―but not the will to become involved, while the ROC has lost its capabilities―but not the will. Although still heavily dependent on Middle East oil imports, the PRC has used its political assets to create what I call “counter-dependencies.” Middle Eastern countries need Beijing’s support in the UN, the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency), and other global organizations, enabling China to exert influence on them. [12] Even more heavily dependent on Middle Eastern oil (and LNG), the ROC cannot create “counter-dependencies,” as it does not have the political, economic, or military assets to compete with the PRC―save one: scientific and technological innovation. According to some rankings, Taiwan is number four in innovation capabilities, number seven in scientific infrastructure, and number eight in technology infrastructure―way above Middle Eastern countries. This may enable the ROC to create a “counter-dependency,” which would remain even if and when the PRC would catch up.

The main point: In the past, the ROC missed opportunities to consolidate its Middle Eastern presence. Now, with its unofficial presence, it should find and use its relative advantages as fast as possible and to the best it can, to help Middle Eastern countries reduce their asymmetric dependence on the PRC, if and when they wish to create an alternative with US backup.

[1] On the historical ROC relations with Saudi Arabia, see: Makio Yamada, “Islam, Energy, and Development: Taiwan and China in Saudi Arabia, 1949-2013,” American Journal of Chinese Studies, Vol. 22, No. 1 (April 2015), 77-98; T.Y. Wang, “Competing for Friendship: The Two Chinas and Saudi Arabia,” Arab Studies Quarterly, Vol. 15, No. 3 (Summer 1993), 63-82.

[2] All the data are from: John Kuo-chang Wang, “United Nations Voting on Chinese Representation: an Analysis of General Assembly Roll Calls, 1950-1971,” Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Oklahoma, 1977, available at: https://shareok.org/bitstream/handle/11244/4401/7815387.PDF?sequence=1

[3] On the PRC, see: Yitzhak Shichor, “The Middle East in China’s Foreign Policy 1949-1977” (London and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979). Reprinted 1981, digitally printed version 2008.

[4] Central Daily News (Taipei), March 7, 2001; Evan A. Feigenbaum and Hou yi-Jen, “Overcoming Taiwan’s Energy Energies 2009, 2, 623-645; Trilemma,” Carnegie Endowment for International, 2020, available at: https://carnegieendowment.org/files/Feigenbaum-Taiwan_Energy11.pdf; Yun-Hsun Huang and Jung-Hua Wu, “Energy Policy in Taiwan: Historical Developments, Current Status and Potential Improvements,” Energies, No. 2 (2009), 623-645.

[5] Shichor, “The Middle East,” 114-144.

[6] Director General to the Foreign Minister, “’Gabriel’ Sale to Taiwan,” August 2, 1971, Abba Eban Center for Israeli Diplomacy, the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, container C-20, File F-187; Yitzhak Shichor, “The Importance of Being Ernst: Ernst David Bergmann and Israel’s Role in Taiwan’s Defense,” The Asia Papers, No. 2 (Center for International and Regional Studies, Georgetown University, 2016), 21.

[7] Taiwan Bureau of Energy, Ministry of Economic Affairs, Energy Statistics Handbook 2018, (October 2019), 54.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid, 69.

[11] Ibid, 54.

[12] Yitzhak Shichor, “Fundamentally Unacceptable yet Occasionally Unavoidable: China’s Options on External Intervention in the Middle East,” China Report, Vol. 49, No. 1 (2013), 25-41; idem, “Maximizing Output while Minimizing Input: Change and Continuity in China’s Middle East Policy,” in: Hoo Tiang Boon (ed.), “Chinese Foreign Policy under Xi Jinping” (London: Routledge, 2017), 109-129.