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On the first day of China's annual trade event with Arab states, an expo that aims to bolster natural-energy imports and foster economic relations, some are calling its promotion of a "harmonious" society in the restive Middle East a departure from its traditional policy of non-interference in international politics.
Domestically, the term "harmonious society" is often used in political speeches and public-service ads to illustrate Beijing’s vision of an economically sated – and dissidents say, politically obedient – homeland.
But as the Middle East's revolutionary upheaval continues unabated, Chinese officials are attempting to export the idea abroad to reverse political trends it sees as inimical to its regional economic interests.
Sunday’s China-Arab States Expo 2013, launched by the Chinese commerce ministry, is officially billed to promote "cooperation in the energy industry," and "construct a harmonious and stable society." It remains unclear how Beijing intends to do this, but the gesture comes at a time when analysts say spillover from the ongoing civil war in Syria could threaten China's energies imports from Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Some 60 percent of China's oil imports come from the Middle East. Trade between Arab states and China rose to $222 billion in 2012, and is estimated to grow by 14 percent per year, according to Chinese government figures.
International relations experts say China's call for calm in the Arab world is part of an overarching break with Beijing's traditional policy of non-interference in foreign politics, as economic planners realize the ramifications of investing in insecure political and social climates.
"If you look at how China has dealt with the Middle East in the past, it has been hands-off," said Darmouth College professor Diederik Vandewalle, who specializes in international relations of the Middle East.
But after China saw a cut to imports and loss of investments in countries like Libya at the onset of the revolutions that swept the region in 2011, Beijing is looking to secure its assets there, Vandewalle explained.
"The only way they can do that is by becoming more politically active. [China's] political stance is closely tied to its growing need for energy as a growing superpower," he added.
That is perhaps one reason why China hosted Palestinian and Israeli leaders for the first time in May, a role which it has traditionally deferred to the U.S.-led peace process.
But even as China starts to make its own political overtures in the Middle East, it continues to criticize Washington for its intervention in international conflicts, most recently regarding President Barack Obama's bid for military action in Syria.
China sees an opportunity in majority-Muslim countries, especially after the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and the impending drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2014, said Sebastian Spio-Garbrah, global managing director of frontier markets and political risk at consulting firm DaMina Advisors.
"The U.S. has had strong military presence in the Middle East for the past 30 years...When the U.S. withdraws, other major powers will move in to increase their leverage. I think the Chinese are looking to strengthen their relationship with Middle Eastern countries" by promoting -- if only verbally -- stability in Syria, Spio-Garbrah said.
In the past, China's inroads in Muslim society have taken the form of mosques and Islamic facilities constructed by Chinese state-owned companies in Saudi Arabia, Algeria and at home -- with public funds. Analysts say the constructions were an attempt to garner soft power with energy-rich Muslim nations, after a series of crackdowns on China's ethnic Uighur Muslims soured international Muslim public opinion of the People's Republic.
This week, Beijing announced that Ningxia – the central Chinese region that's the site of Sunday's expo and home to ethnic Hui Muslims – is set to become a "distinctive international destination for Muslim tourists."
By wooing Arabs and Muslims, China aims to bolster its clout and strengthen its economy, already slated to surpass the U.S. in the next few decades.
"What we see is an emerging superpower finding its way around the Middle East, where it has relatively little experience, seeing what works and doesn't," Vandewalle said. "We also see an emerging superpower that wants to leave its imprint on the region."
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