By Peter Lee
The dominant stereotype of Chinese foreign policy in the Middle East is "amoral oil grubbing mercantilists who never met a dictator they didn't like".
But the job of an amoral, oil-grubbing mercantilist has been made much more complicated and challenging as tensions rise in the region and heightened demands are placed on the People's Republic of China (PRC).
Saudi Arabia, China's largest oil supplier, expects China's support in its campaign against Iran.
Iran turns to China for help in breaking the sanctions blockade that threatens its oil exports, its access to the global financial system, and its domestic economy.
The United States, the European Union, Turkey, the Gulf States and a big chunk of the Arab League excoriate China for seconding Russia's veto of an anti-Bashar al-Assad resolution in the United Nations Security Council.
However, contrary to its image as an opportunistic and reactive player in the Middle East, China has not only dug in its heels on Syria; it has stepped up with a diplomatic initiative of its own.
China also voted against the non-binding Syria resolution drafted for the UN General Assembly by Saudi Arabia, the oil baron that is generally regarded as calling the tune for China on Middle Eastern issues.
On February 23, China also announced it would not attend the "Friends of Syria" aka "Enemies of Assad" meeting in Tunisia this Friday designed to further delegitimize and isolate Assad to pave the way for his ouster, putting it at odds with the West, the Gulf nations, and much of the Arab League.
China had already dispatched Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun to Syria and the Middle East to lobby for Russia's and China's (and Assad's) preferred solution to the crisis: channeling political and opposition activity into votes on a referendum on a new Syrian constitution on February 26, and parliamentary elections four months down the road.
Chinese diplomats have also reached out to the Arab League to argue that the PRC's stance is in line with the league's policy on Syria.
China took the extra step of decoupling its position from Russia's, presenting itself as an honest broker and not an Assad partisan, and reaching out further into the ranks of Syria's opposition to publicize its contacts with Haitham Manna of the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change.
Chinese papers are full of articles asserting the "principled stand" and "responsibility" of China's Syria policy, one that will "withstand the test of history". 
The interesting question is why the PRC is getting out in front on this issue, instead of letting Russia, Syria's long-time ally and arms supplier, carry the ball.
Syria means virtually nothing to China in terms of oil or trade. Assad's fall would discommode China's friend and energy supplier Iran but would also please China's friend and energy partner Saudi Arabia.
So why not simply reprise China's acquiescence on Libya, stand aside, and deliver a final adieu to Assad as he and his regime vanish into the meat-grinder of domestic and sectarian anger, international sanctions, and Gulf-funded subversion and destabilization?
The back-of-the-envelope explanation is that Russia and China were burned by the Security Council's humanitarian resolution on Libya, which turned into a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)-led free for all against Muammar Gaddafi's forces.
However, an abstention on the Syrian resolution, whether or not Russia decided to veto, would have allowed China to have burnished its rather tarnished West-friendly humanitarian credentials while reasserting its abhorrence of foreign interference.
It appears that China has decided it is time to stake out its own position in the Middle East as a great power with its own significant and legitimate interests in the region, instead of trying to shoehorn itself into whatever diplomatic coalition the United States or Russia invokes to deal with the latest crisis.
Yes, China as "responsible stakeholder" appears ready to take the Middle Eastern stage.
The Chinese move is an ironic and predictable counter-point to America's "strategic pivot" into East Asia.
The Barack Obama administration has openly announced its desire to shed the incubus of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars (and quietly signaled that the last thing it wants is to go for a Middle East conflict trifecta with a third war against Iran) and seek its future in the Pacific.
This presents an opportunity for China to fill the leadership vacuum, at least in part, and stake its claim to the Middle East as a crucial fulcrum of the PRC's own Pacific Century future.
The PRC claims two qualifications as a force to be reckoned with in the Middle East.
First, and most obviously, it is the biggest importer of Middle East energy. China and the other Asian importers have a far bigger stake in the stability of the region than the United States.
Second, and less intuitively, the PRC believes that its model of authoritarian rule underpinned by economic development offers the best model for a stable and peaceful Middle East.
Partisans of democracy and Western values will respond with a derisive snort at this idea, especially after the intoxicating spectacle of the Arab Spring.
However, with the apparent exception of happy little Tunisia, the revolutionary upheavals in Libya and Egypt have brought with them enough bloodshed and division to make a lot of people nostalgic for the days when a strong man mediated and suppressed at his discretion the political aspirations of various ethnicities, races, confessions, tribes and classes.
A lot of these nostalgic people, it can be imagined, inhabitant presidential palaces - or just plain palaces - east of Suez and west of the Indus.
Virtually all of the states in the Middle East, including Israel, are either authoritarian or employ a type of managed democracy to keep a lid on things. In fact, they resemble the PRC, which itself struggles to impose unpopular Han dominance on restive populations in Tibet and Xinjiang.
Therefore, China can present itself as a more natural and sympathetic partner to rulers in the Middle East than the United States, which shocked Saudi Arabia in particular with its abandonment of Egypt's president Hosni Mubarak as the revolutionary agitation reached its climax.
Tellingly, the Chinese media have been virtually silent on the Saudi-directed crackdown on Shi'ite democracy protesters in Bahrain and its suppression of Shi'ite demonstrations inside the kingdom itself, a piece of forbearance that Saudi Arabia perhaps appreciates as much as America's embarrassed silence over the issue.
The first crisis in which China has the opportunity to test-drive its Middle East strategy is Syria.
Though to Western observers it may appear utterly quixotic for the PRC to promote a peaceful political resolution through a referendum and elections conducted by the Assad regime, given the bitterness engendered by the one-year crackdown and the chorus of Western and Arab derision and condemnation, the Chinese hand is not as weak as it appears.
Minorities' fears of sectarian bloodletting, even if self-servingly encouraged by the Assad regime, are genuine. The liberal, democratic, non-sectarian peaceful uprising has been overshadowed by a resistance that is rural, Sunni, conservative, armed and, in some manifestations, alarmingly sectarian, and which has largely stalled without penetrating the main cities of Damascus and Aleppo.
Formal armed intervention on behalf of the Syrian opposition is off the table, largely because of deep-seated doubts about the Syrian National Council, which looks like a stalking horse for the Muslim Brotherhood filled with bickering exiles with little presence inside the country.
Tellingly, the "Friends of Syria" conference scheduled for Friday is expected not to anoint the Syrian National Council as its only friend, merely describing it as "a" (as opposed to "the sole") legitimate voice of the Syrian people.
Simply imploding the Assad regime to spite Iran would appear to be easy, but has not happened.
Turkey is already providing safe havens for the Free Syrian Army, but apparently has not unleashed it. Western Iraq is aboil with doctrinaire Sunni militants happy to stick it to the Alawite regime, and Qatar has allegedly already laid the groundwork for underemployed Libyan militants to find profitable occupation fighting alongside the opposition in Syria, but utter bloody chaos has yet to erupt.
The fact that Aleppo and Damascus have only been ravaged by two car bombs is perhaps a sign of Wahabbist restraint, and may have been taken by the PRC as a sign that the Gulf Cooperation Council's commitment to overthrowing Assad is not absolute.
By the brutal calculus of authoritarian regimes, the Syrian government has shown restraint in its military suppression of the populist revolt and has not completely forfeited its domestic legitimacy. Seven thousand dead over 12 months is no Hama. Assad's uncle Rifaat (now residing in a $10 million mansion in London's Mayfair district and somehow beyond the reach of world justice) killed approximately 30,000 over a few weeks as he besieged, assaulted and purged the Muslim Brotherhood stronghold in 1982.
By Chinese standards, 7,000 dead is, if not a bloody blip, something along the magnitude of the show of state force inflicted on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing and other cities in 1989.
Just as the ruling group in Beijing considers the Tiananmen incident the key act in an authoritarian drama that kept the PRC from sliding into political chaos, and established the political foundation for 20 years of high-speed growth, the Ba'athists apparently regard Hama as the cornerstone of three decades of national stability.
In fact, 30,000 killed apparently doesn't even disqualify one from eligibility as a potential leader of Syria.
Al-Arabiya, the English-language voice of conservative Saudi opinion, interviewed Rifaat al-Assad in his luxurious digs. Rifaat, who has assumed leadership of a Syrian opposition group, the National Democratic Council, generously shared his view on the Syrian problem:
"The solution would be that the Arab states guarantee Bashar al-Assad's security so he can resign and be replaced by someone with financial backing who can look after Bashar's people after his resignation," he argued.Perhaps Bashar al-Assad will extract the lesson that the slaughter needs to get into five-digit figures before he is considered genuine leadership timber by the demanding standards of the Middle East.
"It should be someone from the family ... me, or someone else," he said. 
In a situation in which the opposition political movement has stalled, the situation is degenerating into an armed conflict, and the great powers are apparently unwilling to hurry things along militarily, Chinese support of Assad's referendum and election plan is not unreasonable.
But there are difficulties, the greatest of which is that the door to reconciliation is in danger of swinging shut permanently as the government tries to squelch the defiant opposition and make a defendable case for itself as the indispensable guarantor of Syria's stability and unity.
Significant swaths of the Syrian countryside and many towns are apparently de facto out of government control. The government, which still possesses an overwhelming and relatively loyal military force, appears to have made the decision that trying to reassert government control is either too difficult or too polarizing, and is letting the local opposition run things, at least for now.
Probably the Assad regime is hoping to get some political wind at its back so it can move back into these villages under the banner of reconciliation or stability as part of the referendum/election process, and not a simple reconquest.
Then there is Homs or, more accurately, the Baba Amro district of Homs, which has turned into a symbol of resistance, armed and otherwise, to Assad's rule.
Assad's Western and domestic opponents have put the onus on Russia and China for enabling the Homs assault by their veto of the UN Security Council resolution, a toothless text that would have called for Assad to step down.
However, the significance of the veto was not that it allowed Assad to give free rein to his insatiable blood lust for slaughtering his own citizens, as the West would have it.
The true significance of the veto was the message that Russia and China had endorsed Assad as a viable political actor, primarily within Syria, and his domestic opponents, including those holding out in Baba Amro, should think twice before basing their political strategy on the idea that he would be out of the picture shortly thanks to foreign pressure.
It is difficult to determine exactly what the government's objectives are for Baba Amro. Hopefully, they are not simply wholesale massacre through indiscriminate shelling.
Recent reports indicate that the government, after a prolonged and brutal softening-up, has decided to encircle the district, send in the tanks, and demonstrate to the fragmented opposition that "resistance is futile", at least the armed resistance that seems to depend on the expectation of some combination of foreign support and intervention to stymie Assad and advance its interest.
Whatever the plan is, the Chinese government is probably wishing that the Assad regime would get on with it and remove the humanitarian relief of Homs from the "Friends of Syria" diplomatic agenda.
The difference in coverage of Homs between the Western and Chinese media is striking.
Even before the deaths of journalists Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik, the agony of Homs has been the subject of wall-to-wall coverage in the West. A Google News search for "Homs" yields over 6,000 stories.
Even as the siege grinds on and horrific reports and footage fill the Western media space, Chinese media coverage seems to echo the old saw about the tree falling in the forest, as in "if a mortar shell falls in Homs and it isn't reported, maybe nothing important is happening".
Chinese references to Homs are usually along the following lines:
Libyan websites disclosed the death of three Libyan Islamists at the Baba Amro neighborhood in Homs last Monday. Other websites cited similar cases about the killing of a number of fundamentalists who came in from Iraq, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan to fight in Syria.The message that Syria and China hope the domestic opposition will extract from Homs in the next few weeks is that, in the absence of meaningful foreign support, armed resistance has reached a dead end; it is time for moderates to abandon hope in the local militia or the gunmen of the FSA and turn to a political settlement.
Even foreign press have reported the killing of five Wahabbi terrorists in the Damascus suburb of Zabadani, including the Kuwaiti Fuad Khaled, better known as Abu Hozaifa, during clashes with security men.
Media reports also said that no less than 1,000 gunmen from al-Qaeda have infiltrated into Syria and most of them stationed in Damascus suburbs and the central city of Homs. 
To Syria's foreign detractors, the message will be that the genie of armed resistance has been stuffed back into the bottle thanks to "Hama Lite"; and the nations that live in Syria's neighborhood might reconsider their implacable opposition to Assad's continued survival.
In particular, China would need to make its vaunted good offices available in the matter of getting Saudi Arabia to overlook its hatred for all things Assad, perhaps by serving as guarantor that Syria would no longer funnel aid to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
China is playing a dubious hand.
After one year of a brutal crackdown, that on top of decades of bullying and torture by Syria's security apparatus, even members of the moderate opposition will probably be disinclined to put their future in the hands of the Ba'ath and the new constitution.
Internationally, Assad has been officially designated the current Monster of the Century and the intangible psychic benefits and real political and strategic advantages of terminally ostracizing his regime, no matter what it means for Syrian society, will probably be too tempting to ignore.
However, if Assad can manage the Baba Amro endgame and put Homs behind him, and gets some of the genuine opposition to participate in the summer elections, perhaps China will offer Syria a much-needed economic boost: supporting the war and sanction-crippled economy and, through it, Assad's regime by a program of aid and investment that will defy the sanctions regime that will undoubtedly continue to dog the regime.
If Assad can survive through the long, hot summer of 2012, China will count it as a victory for its approach to the Middle East - and a rebuke to American pretensions to moral and diplomatic leadership in the region.
It's a long shot, as Global Times, China's voice of brawny nationalism, acknowledged:
China has chosen a difficult role as a mediator. If neither the West nor the Arab League cooperates, the Syrian opposition can hardly heed the appeals of China. The chance of a prompt and peaceful settlement is slim. ...Yes, the West might not be ready to have China play a leading role in the Middle East. But China can afford to be patient ... especially since the consequences of any miscalculation and failure will be borne by the citizens of small and distant Syria.
It's unnecessary for China to see a quick effect. The time for the opposition to agree to a compromise is yet to arrive. But if the Assad administration continues to hang on, chances of a peaceful negotiation will grow. ...
Any progress made by Chinese efforts to promote a peaceful settlement will mark a significant diplomatic achievement. China will not become deeply involved in the way the US has become with the Palestinian-Israeli dialogue. The West will not allow that to happen, either. What China wants is for the principle of settling a crisis through peaceful channels to be understood and supported.