By Mohamed Elmenshawy
28 Mar 2018
China has not played a significant role in Middle Eastern politics since the country's modernization in the middle of last century.
China’s role was limited to giving moral support to Arab liberation movements fighting against Western colonialism after WWII and offering its general support towards Palestinian and Arab rights within the Middle East conflict.
In return, Arab countries, in general, supported China’s efforts at having a seat in the UN and consequently a seat in the Security Council, as well as the veto power during the sixties and seventies of last century.
In spite of the fact that there is a Western colonial heritage in the Arab countries and in spite of the role of Britain, France and the USA in establishing and sponsoring Israel, Arab countries chose to get closer to the West and its economic and cultural model.
This reality may not stand up to the accelerated developments China is witnessing along with its repercussions that will reach the Arab countries. On the other hand, it was impossible that China would ignore this region with its rich natural resources, especially the energy resources necessary to continuing its progress, namely oil and natural gas.
It also could not ignore the promising and ever-increasing Arab market. Nor can Arabs cannot ignore China, whether they like it or not.
Historically, China focused mainly on dealing with the ruling regimes in an official way and it did not invest in the cultural, academic, media, political, or economic elites and others in the civil society. The Chinese model doesn’t trust NGOs in general.
For basically internal reasons, China did not welcome the Arab Spring revolutions which raised the banner of freedom and democracy and respect for human rights. As a general rule, China does not care much about the countries’ internal policies except in the frame of what might affect its economic and trade relations. It also is not keen on exporting a political model of governance and imposing it on the rest of the world countries.
While different Western circles welcomed the Arab Spring events, China was considered the changes to be a crisis which the Arab countries were confronting. China did not view the overthrow of the regimes of President Hosni Mubarak, Muammer Gaddafi or Ali Abdullah Saleh good news.
Before, China was never a world power, but rather was always content with its regional role in the east and south Asia. It never sought to impose its influence.
However, with the unprecedented ascendance of the Chinese economy, change is in the works. China cannot keep its strategic patience to not meddling in international affairs. It’s real interests in the region are modern interests, not old ones as was the case with the Western countries. It is assisted in this respect by not having a history of conflict with the countries and peoples of the region, such as the case with Western powers.
Despite the popular sympathy which united the Arabs and the Chinese regarding several world issues, China didn’t communicate with the Arab peoples directly. However, during the last two decades, China’s vision towards its Arab interests changed. In addition to increasing trade between both sides, China set up a number of means to benefit from its soft power and launched Arabic language media services. Chinese diplomats also moved to get closer to the Arab political ruling elites, whether royal or republican, which had always been looking up to the Western cultural, educational and social models.
Different reports show that Arab world trade with China is increasing to high rates. The country became the second-largest trade partner with Arabs following the European Union's 27 nations.
Arab countries became the biggest oil exporter to China and the eighth largest trade partner with a volume of exports that reached USD 71 billion in 2016, in return for Chinese imports worth more than USD 101 billion.
A recent report issued by the Arab Investment and Export Credit Guarantee Corporation showed that China surpassed the USA in being the largest investor in the Arab countries, constituting 32% of the total direct foreign investments (worth USD 29.5 billion) while the American investments did not exceed USD 7 billion, or 8% only.
Chinese investment in industrial free zones or in setting up diverse infrastructure projects reflects big ambitions in its future relations with the Arab countries.
A big Chinese population presence has materialised in the Arab world, for instance, more than quarter of a million Chinese are living in Dubai alone.
With the beginning of 2016, China has perceived that it has to draw broad lines regarding its policy in a way that insures clarity of future movement towards the Arabs on both governmental and popular levels.
Issuing the “China’s Policy towards the Arab Countries” document shows the keenness of Chinese leadership to draw future plans for the Chinese-Arab cooperation based mainly on the principal of mutual benefit away from any interference in the internal or political affairs.
The document comprised new bases for mutual relations in all the political, security, economic, commercial, financial, cultural, media, educational and intellectual spheres.
While the Arabs don’t have a unified conception, or even different conceptions, concerning their relations with China, the latter is strengthening its geostrategic presence in the region.
Less than a year ago, China officially inaugurated its first base outside Chinese borders -- in Djibouti, key for its strategic location overlooking the southern entrance of the Red Sea leading to the Suez Canal.
It is too early to say that China will replace Western influence in the Arab countries. Although there are new bases for the Chinese soft power, its influence is very limited for different reasons.
The most important of these is that the Arab governments and peoples are not comfortable in dealing with China in the same way as with Europeans or Americans. Perhaps this maybe can be attributed to language barriers, or maybe because the Arabs did not have extensive contacts with the Chinese language, culture and lifestyle.
Arabs have not yet been introduced to the pioneering Chinese educational institutions, unlike in the Western case. They don’t know the celebrities of Chinese arts and culture, but they know quite well their European counterparts. Thus, the Arab inclination towards the West in the near future will continue, but it would be a mistaken to expect this trend to persist in the long run.
Yes, the Arab elites speak English and perhaps French fluently, but in spite of this, I am looking forward to serious investment in Chinese language and culture soon.
Mohamed Elmenshawy is a political analyst.