Long content to look on from a distance as its rivals vied for influence in the Middle East, China is now thrusting itself into that region's twin crises in Syria and Iran in the latest sign that it is seeking a greater role on the world stage.
Beijing announced Thursday that it was dispatching a senior envoy to Damascus, the same day it voted against a United Nations General Assembly resolution condemning the Syrian government's violent crackdown on protesters and backing an Arab plan for President Bashar al-Assad to step aside. Two weeks ago, China came under heavy criticism for joining Russia in vetoing a similar UN Security Council resolution.
It was also confirmed this week that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – who is locked in a separate, but related, showdown with the West over his government's nuclear program – will visit Beijing in early March.
In recent days, China's government-controlled media have taken to asserting Beijing's right to take its own positions on the Middle East – and to oppose the U.S. and the West when and where Beijing's interests diverge.
The People's Daily newspaper said China was looking to find a "third path" to end the escalating crisis in Syria. "China is obviously seeking to assume an active role. The busiest mediators on the world stage are not necessarily stronger than China," the editorial read.
It has not yet been announced whom vice-foreign minister Zhai Jun will meet with during his two-day visit to Damascus, but the Arabic-speaking Mr. Zhai may have a message to deliver after meeting with a delegation from Syria's opposition last week in Beijing. It's not clear which factions of the Syrian opposition – itself riven by infighting – made the trip to China.
The flurry of diplomatic activity comes as Vice-President Xi Jinping tours the United States on what is likely to be his last visit before assuming the top post of general-secretary of the Communist Party this fall. Mr. Xi will wrap up his trip in California, after a day visiting an Iowa farm and cementing commitments to buy 317 million bushels of soybeans from major U.S. companies in a deal estimated to be worth $4.3-billion (U.S.).
Its Middle East initiatives signal a broader interest in weighing in on global affairs. China's willingness to get involved comes as its reputation in the Arab world – previously that of a trading partner unconcerned with local politics – has taken an unprecedented blow. Beijing's long-standing policy of non-involvement in the domestic affairs of other countries has cast it on the side of the region's besieged autocrats, and against the protesters demanding political change.
Violence, for instance, has continued apace inside Syria since the Security Council veto, leading some in Syria and the Arab world to blame Moscow and Beijing for the mounting casualties. A crowd in Libya pelted the Chinese Embassy in Tripoli with rocks and eggs the day after the UN Security Council session, and Syrian activists burned Chinese and Russian flags at a protest in Beirut.
In its veto in the Security Council, China aligned itself with Russia. In the latest General Assembly vote, it joined Russia as well as North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, Cuba and others who heeded Syria's call to vote "no."
If those taking to the streets in Syria and elsewhere have come to view China as a hostile force, the Syrian and Iranian regimes clearly see a friend. Mr. Ahmadinejad's trip to Beijing is expected to focus on securing an important market for Iranian oil as the U.S. and the European Union move to further tighten economic sanctions against his government.
Still, the growing tension in the region is causing concern in Beijing.
"Iran's nuclear issue, democracy in Syria, conflicts among religious sects, as well as competitions among the world's great powers, have all soured international relations," said an editorial in the Global Times, a newspaper affiliated with China's ruling Communist Party, that ran Thursday. "There has never been such a situation since the Cold War."
Meanwhile, Imad Moustapha, Syria's ambassador to Beijing, told China's official Xinhua news service that any Chinese envoy would be showered with thanks for helping to stand up to "American hegemony."
"The Syrian people are very grateful to China, and Russia," said Mr. Moustapha. "When the Russian Foreign Minister, [Sergey]Lavrov visited Damascus last week, two million people went to the streets of Damascus carrying Russian flags, and chanting 'Thank you Russia.' If a Chinese official will go this week to Damascus he will be greeted by even more Syrians saying 'Thank you China.'"
China says it used its veto on Feb. 6 not to protect Mr. Assad, but to protest against the U.S.-led effort to force a vote at the Security Council before all sides were satisfied with the resolution. China, like Russia, has complained that it was pressured into abstaining a year ago when a similar resolution was passed creating a no-fly zone over Libya in the midst of the civil war there.
Beijing and Moscow complain that NATO interpreted the resolution in the broadest terms possible, using it to justify air strikes that helped Libyan rebels topple the regime of Moammar Gadhafi.
The vetoed Security Council resolution called for a "Syrian-led political transition to a democratic, plural political system." That language was never likely to win support in Beijing and Moscow, two capitals that are nervously watching the ripple effects of the Arab Spring.
With reports from Agence-France Presse and The Associated Press