Historically, there have been no significant rifts between China and the Arab world; both sides share common views on a number of international questions. Yet Sino Arab relations have been relatively cold since the 1980s. With the center of its domestic agenda shifting from politics to the economy, China attaches more importance to its relations with great powers, the United States in particular, and towards its peripheral regions, building a favorable environment for domestic economic development. As a result, China’s investments in the Middle East have been greatly reduced both politically and economically. However, a number of recent developments indicate that, after two decades of relative chill, Sino-Arab relations are beginning to warm up again. This is well illustrated in a host of recent high-level bilateral exchanges.
The recent round of high-level exchanges started with Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit from January 26 to February 5, 2004, to Egypt, Algeria and the Arab League as one part of his Europe-Africa tour. Both Egypt and Algeria are of special importance in the history of Sino-Arab relations. Egypt was the first Arab state to establish diplomatic relations with China (1956); the rest of the Arab states followed Cairo’s lead from the middle 1950s through the 1960s. Algeria was one of three countries that put forward the proposal for the reinstatement of China’s permanent membership in the UN Security Council in 1971. President Hu’s visit demonstrated that the new Chinese leadership attaches great importance to Sino-Arab relations.
Besides the signing of bilateral agreements on economic cooperation, two significant diplomatic steps were taken during Hu’s visit. First, President Hu announced the establishment of the China Arab Cooperation Forum, which offers a mechanism for future China-Arab cooperation, a milestone in the history of close ties between China and Arab states. The establishment of the forum would further promote Sino-Arab relations and raise the level of cooperation generally, as Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing informed a press conference in Cairo.1
Second, President Hu put forward four guiding principles for developing a new type of partnership between China and Arab states:
- to promote political relations on the basis of mutual respect,
- to forge closer trade and economic links,
- to expand cultural exchanges,
- to strengthen cooperation in international affairs with the aim of safeguarding world peace and promoting common development.2
China’s expressed willingness to maintain and expand relations with Arab states encouraged Arab leaders. Less than half a year later, influential Arab leaders reciprocated President Hu’s visit. From June 21 to 25, Syrian President Bashar Al-Asad made a four-day trip to China, the first visit by a Syrian president since the two established diplomatic relations in 1956. President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao held talks with President Asad respectively on June 22 and 23, 2004. The two sides exchanged in-depth views on bilateral relations and issues of common interest, and reached broad consensus. Following the talks between Hu and Asad, the two heads of state signed the China Syria cooperation agreement on water conservancy, a memorandum of understanding on agricultural cooperation, an agreement on economic and technological cooperation, and agreements on cooperation on health and tourism.3 President Asad called the visit historic.4
King Abdullah II of Jordan followed President Asad a month later (July 26-31), his third visit since ascending to the throne. Abdullah II was also well received by the Chinese president and premier. At the meeting with the Chinese president, the two leaders agreed to strengthen multifaceted exchange and cooperation. After the talks, Hu and Abdullah II signed two official documents on economic and technical cooperation.5
OTHER HIGH-LEVEL VISITS
The finance ministers of the six member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) made an important joint visit to China from July 4 to 7, 2004. The two sides signed a Framework Agreement on Economic, Trade, Investment and Technological Cooperation between the People’s Republic of China and the Member States of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC). It is significant that the two sides agreed to launch negotiations on a China-GCC freetrade area as soon as possible so as to develop and strengthen relations between China and the GCC member states.6
There are also frequent exchanges between the two sides in the specific field of energy. Sino-Saudi Arabia exchanges in this field are prominent. On December 30, 2003, shortly after his appointment, the Chinese ambassador in Riyadh, Wu Chunhua, paid a visit to Ali Naimi, minister of petroleum and mineral resources of Saudi Arabia. Ambassador Wu expressed his gratitude to minister Naimi for his contribution to energy cooperation. On March 9, 2004, Xu Dingming, director of the Energy Bureau of the Chinese National Development and Reform Commission (SDRC)7 paid a visit to Prince Saud Bin Thunayan Al-Saud, chairman of Saudi Basic Industrial Corp (SABIC). The visit focused on enhancing cooperation in the energy field. On April 2, 2004, Bo Xilai, the Chinese minister of commerce, met Ali Naimi during his visit to China.
Other important meetings include Vice President Zeng Qinghong’s four-day visit to Tunis from June 20; Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing’s visit to Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman and Egypt and his attendance at the first ministers’ meeting of the China-Arab Cooperation Forum on September 6-14, 2004; Middle East envoy Wang Shijie’s visit to Egypt, Lebanon and Israel on September 6, 2004.
Deserving of special mention is that prominent Iraqi political figures of the postwar period attach great importance to China’s role in Iraqi reconstruction as well as in the international community and in dealing with Middle East problems. Shortly after the appointment of the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC), several of its members paid visits to Beijing: Jalal Talabani, member of the IGC and the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (August 7, 2003), Ali Allawi, trade minister (October 9-12, 2003), and Seyyid Muhammed Bahar ul-Uloom, member of the IGC (March 2527, 2004).
Compared with previous exchanges between the two sides, the recent developments in Sino-Arab relations are much more substantial, and the exchanges are multifaceted, involving visits of heads of states and exchanges at the ministerial level, as well as meetings among officials in charge of specific fields.
In addition to the old incentives underpinning Sino-Arab relations such as China’s support for Arab nationhood and its position on the Middle East peace process and Arab support for Chinese unification, the recent Sino-Arab rapprochement is also politically stimulated by new elements within the changed global and domestic context.
Arab Expectations of China
Since the 9/11 attacks, fighting terrorism has become central to the U.S. national-security strategy, and the Middle East as the major source of international terrorism has become its strategic focus. The policy makers of the Bush administration attribute the root of terrorism to authoritarian governments in Middle Eastern countries, and democratizing them has become its policy goal. In 2003, the Bush administration launched the Iraq War with the stated objective of bringing democracy to Iraq, which indicates that in order to implement its plan for the Middle East, the United States will not spare military means.
The Middle Eastern monarchies and other authoritarian regimes, moderate and radical, feel threatened by Bush’s democracy plan. As stated in the foreword of the Arab Human Development Report 2003, “The region has recently encountered grave threats, and the dignity and rights of Arabs, especially the right to self-determination, have been grossly violated.”8 In order to avoid the fate of Saddam’s regime, Arab radicals will likely yield to American pressure as their first policy alternative. Libya has decided to give up its WMD program. Syria is also becoming much more moderate.
The second reasonable alternative for these Arab countries is to seek support from other major international powers. The European Union is one such power, and China is another. The Arab world expects China to play a bigger role in the Middle East as well as in international affairs, in the face of American pressures in the post-9/11 era. China has many positive attributes. It is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and it is a developing power enjoying rapid and sustainable economic growth. In addition, China has traditionally maintained friendship with the Arab world. What is even more important is that China’s views on major Middle Eastern issues are quite different from those of the United States, and much closer – even identical – to those of many Arab states. These qualities make China an obvious preference for the Arab world.
In his pre-visit interview with China’s leading newspaper, the Chinese People’s Daily (Renmin Ribao), Syrian President Bashar Al-Asad implicitly expressed his expectation for China:
China is now a superpower and is very important in the absence of the Soviet Union. China’s role has expanded across the world and has become more important especially for small countries, including Syria. China now is a key element in international affairs. It is very important for several pressing issues and for the Middle East region, for the Middle East peace process, for Iraq and for combating terrorism.9
When meeting the Chinese president, Jordan’s King Abdullah expressed similar wishes. He said that Jordan appreciates China’s stand on the Palestine-Israel issue and the Iraq issue and hopes China would play an even larger role in affairs in the Middle East.10
Chinese Expectations of the Arab World
Although how to define China’s position in the international community is under debate in Chinese academia, “peaceful development” has been gradually and widely agreed upon as China’s “development road in the future” among top policy makers as well as scholars. With China’s rapid economic growth in recent years and the increase in China’s comprehensive national power, some worries have emerged regarding China’s development. The notion of a “China Threat,” in varying degrees, exists in the United States, Russia, Japan and even in some Southeast Asian countries, though it has declined significantly in recent years.
However, Arab countries generally appreciate China’s development, and there is no market for the “China-threat theory” in the Middle East. Muftah O. Madi, chairman of the Arab Ambassadors Council in China and the former Libyan ambassador to China, said at a conference on Chinese-Arab relations on May 27, 2003,
All Arab people are looking at the improvement of China’s international position, the increasing role of Chinese civilization, and the economic and technological progress of China with appreciative eyes, and they wish for the early reunification of China. Likewise, all Arabs believe that it would be good for both parties and the world as well to consult, dialogue [sic] and cooperate with China in all fields.11
As its traditional partners in international affairs, the Arab world will benefit from China’s “peaceful development.” However, to carry out its foreign strategy of “peaceful development,” China also needs the support of the Arab world at both the Middle East regional and global levels. “China is making efforts to promote its international status, and it needs Arab countries’ recognition of its role in Arab affairs.”12
Historically, the role of economic incentives has been marginal in Sino-Arab relations. Nevertheless, the desire for closer economic ties on both sides is currently of equal importance in promoting Sino-Arab relations.
Seeking Closer Ties
As the Arab Human Development Report 2003 indicates, the total volume of GDP of 22 Arab countries at the end of the twentieth century was only $604 billion, a little more than that of a single European country such as Spain ($559 billion) and far less than that of Italy ($1,074 billion).13 The Arab countries have never been so worried about being marginalized by globalization. In order to catch up with this worldwide process, they are intensifying their efforts to enlarge their economic contacts. As a rising economic power, China’s population of 1.3 billion and its booming economy make it a tremendous business opportunity for the Arab world. What is even more important is that, being a developing state, China shares some of the same problems and difficulties that the Arab countries are facing: for example, the challenge of how to keep a balance between political stability and economic reform. China’s experience in successfully managing these problems is a possible example for Arab states.
China also lags behind the European Union and North America in economic relations with the Arab Middle East. In 1995, Europe proposed the Barcelona Initiative, which intends to integrate the countries of Arab North Africa and the Levant into its economic circle. Europe has made significant progress since then. North America also has plans to form freetrade relations with Middle East countries by various means. Some have already started: for example, the free-trade relations between the United States and Jordan. Shortly after the Iraq War, on May 9, 2003, Washington proposed to form a free-trade area with the Middle East states within ten years. Compared with Europe and North America, the responses of East Asia – a major world economic group – and China are rather slow, though the two economies are complementary. Partly to remedy this, China and the GCC countries want to launch negotiations on the establishment of a free-trade area as soon as possible.14
The core of economic relations between the two sides would be energy cooperation. China’s increasing demands for energy resources and Arab countries’ need for stable energy income offer new possibilities. The discovery of the Daqing oil field in 1959 and the start of production in 1963 made China confident of its oil self sufficiency. However, rapid and sustained economic growth in the last quarter century turned China from a major oil exporter to a net importer in 1993, and its deficit has continued to grow. According to statistics released by the International Energy Agency (IEA) on June 13, 2004, China’s oil demand reached 6.53 million barrels per day (mmb/d) in April 2004.15
There are various predictions about China’s future energy deficit; Hu Jianyi, a leading Chinese expert in this field, has made one of the most modest. According to Hu, the significant part of China’s increasing need for oil would come from transportation and petrochemical sectors, and the annual growth of China’s energy demand would remain at the rate of about 5-6 percent through 2020. Hu also argues that China’s domestic oil supply would only increase by 1.6-1.8 percent annually over the long term. Therefore, China’s oil imports would reach 250 million tons (1,825 million barrels) in 2020, and the proportion of oil imports would increase from 38 percent currently to 50-60 percent in 2020.16 The days of energy self-sufficiency are gone forever for China unless substitute energy is found.
The Middle East has about two-thirds of the world’s total proven oil reserves and incomparable infrastructure in oil transportation and refining. Despite its unstable political situation, major oil importers, including the United States, the European Union and Japan, have never been able to significantly reduce their dependence on Middle Eastern oil. China would be no exception. What’s more, as a region with a traditional friendship with China, the Middle East is especially important to China’s quest for energy security. Since 1993, imports from the Middle East have remained a significant proportion of China’s total imports. Before 1996, the proportion remained just below 40 percent; it increased to well above 50 percent in 1996, rising to 61 percent in 1998.17
The stable export of oil at a reasonable price is the security sought by producers and exporters. Thus, the growth of China’s oil demand is good news for Arab oil producers, as has been demonstrated in the past several years. Majid A. Al-Moneef, adviser to the minister of petroleum and mineral resources for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, argues that the oil market rebound after the price collapse in 1998 is attributable in some degree to the growing oil demand in Asia and especially in China, which contributed 56 and 30 percent respectively to incremental world demand 1999-2003.18 It is reasonable to believe that China’s imports from Arab oil producers would be a stabilizing factor for their oil income. What is more, the expansion of downstream and upstream energy facilities and infrastructure both in China and among the Arab oil producers remains a tremendous business opportunity for both sides.
Besides China’s growing energy imports from Arab countries, bilateral cooperation in the energy sector has also increased in the last decade. In the mid1990s, the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) began to invest in Sudan. Currently it has established oil facilities with a capacity of 14 million tons, a good example of China’s overseas energy-development strategy. In 1997, CNPC signed cooperation agreements with the former Iraqi government on the development of two Iraqi oil fields. This was interrupted by the Iraq War and post-war situation. The latest development is the cooperation between China Petroleum and Chemical Corporation (SINOPEC), another major Chinese energy company, with Saudi ARAMCO on the gas block in the southern part of Saudi Arabia. This marks a milestone in the cooperation between SINOPEC and ARAMCO, and between China and Saudi Arabia as well.
The recent warming of Sino-Arab relations is actually a resurgence, but within a new global and regional context. In addition to traditional factors, there are new trends underpinning Sino-Arab relations. Under pressure from the American drive for democratization and political reform, the Arab world expects China, the traditional friend, to play a mitigating role in the Middle East. As it pursues peaceful development, China needs the support of the Arab world in the international community. Both sides want to promote their own economic development through closer economic relations, with energy cooperation at the core.
Unlike the ideological foundations that shaped Sino-Arab relations during the Cold War era, this time the foundations of the relationship are stronger and far-reaching. And unlike any period in the history of Sino-Arab relations, economic links will perhaps be even more important than political considerations. Therefore, it is not a question of whether but how China will play a role in the Middle East.
This tendency has already been demonstrated in China’s two recent moves in the Middle East after more than a decade’s relative disengagement, following which China tried to avoid significant involvement in the solution of specific problems except for some condemnations and statements. In September 2002, China appointed Wang Shijie, a veteran diplomat and former Chinese ambassador to Bahrain, Jordan and Iran, as its first Middle East envoy. On November 5, 2002, Ambassador Wang started his first mediation in the Middle East. Since then, Wang has visited various Middle East countries involved in the Middle East peace process, including Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Palestine and Israel. During his several visits to the Middle East, Ambassador Wang explained the Chinese position on Middle East problems, tried to persuade the relevant parties to come back to the negotiating table, and demonstrated China’s willingness to make further contributions to Middle East peace.
The other significant move by China concerns Iraq. Despite China’s limited involvement before and during the Iraq War, when the draft resolution on Iraqi sovereignty transference was debated in the UN Security Council in May 2004, China raised its proposal, which mainly focuses on the real power of the Iraqi interim government and the date of the U.S. military pullout. China’s proposal was supported by Russia, France and Germany, and the final resolution (1546) reflected China’s opinion on the issue.19
Though China’s role in Middle East affairs is still limited, its potential should not be underestimated. Unlike the United States, whose Middle East policy has aroused widespread suspicion in the Arab world, especially after the Iraq War, China has a good image in almost all Arab countries. Unlike the European Union, China has no history of antisemitism, despite its occasional condemnation of Israeli-targeted killings of Arab activists and Palestinian leaders. It is reasonable for both the Middle East countries and the international community to expect a larger role for China in the Middle East.
Though China usually supports Arab interests, it seems unlikely that Beijing would directly confront the United States regarding major Middle East issues. Compared with France and Germany, traditional American allies, China’s stance on the American-led Iraq War was much more moderate, even more so than China’s position on the Gulf War of 1991. The most recent Chinese voting in the UN Security Council indicates the same tendencies. China abstained from the two resolutions intending to impose sanctions on Sudan regarding the Darfur Crisis on July 30 and September 18, 2004, and one resolution demanding that Syria withdraw from Lebanon on September 2. China’s future diplomacy will be based on some coordination with the United States. On the other hand, as the current trouble in Iraq shows, unilateralism is not the right path in today’s international affairs, including those of the Middle East. China’s positive role, encouraged by the international community, would certainly benefit the region and the world.
The current China-Arab rapprochement does not mean that China will distance itself from Israel. China and Israel set up normal diplomatic relations in 1992, after Israel’s “Odyssey” to China.20 Since then, both sides have treasured the friendship, and China is very rational about its relationship with Israel. Bilateral relations are generally sound despite Israel’s reception of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan separatist, in 199421 and China’s occasional condemnation of Israeli operations against the Palestinians. Most Israeli leaders, including presidents Chaim Herzog, Ezer Weizman and Moshe Katzav, prime ministers Yitzak Rabin and Benjamin Netanyahu, and foreign ministers David Levy and Shimon Peres, have visited China. On the Chinese side, the following officials have visited Israel: President Jiang Zemin (April 12, 2000), Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress Li Peng (December 1, 1999), and Vice Premier and Foreign Minister Qian Qichen (September 1992, as foreign minister and state councilor, and April 12, 2000, with President Jiang Zemin as vice premier and foreign minister).
Having experienced rough weather, Sino-Israel relations have never been so mature as today. The Phalcon deal22 is a typical example. Though Israel cancelled it in 2000 under U.S. pressure, China showed great understanding for Israel’s dilemma. Sino-Israeli relations have emerged from this shadow, as two important visits from top Israelis have shown. One is the visit led by Israeli President Moshe Katzav at the end of 2003, the other is the one led by Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in June 2004. Olmert said, “Israel’s ties with China have recovered from a botched arms deal four years ago, and trade is set for firm growth.”23
In order to achieve the goal of peace and to be an influential mediator in the future, China needs to maintain good relations with both parties. One of the considerations leading to China’s final decision to set up diplomatic relations with Israel is just that: in order to play a role in the Middle East peace process, China needs to be on good terms with all sides, especially with Israel. As a responsible power, China would respect the legitimate interests of all the nations in the region, including Israel.
Israel also attaches great importance to its relations with China and China’s status in the international community. Israel apparently hopes that China might make use of its influence in Arab countries to do some diplomatic work. Former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres once said that Israel attaches great importance to China’s voice.24
1 Website of China Daily, available at http://www2.chinadaily.com.cn/en/doc/2004-01/30/ content_301812.htm.
2 Website of the Chinese People’s Daily (Renmin Ribao), available at http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/ 200401/31/eng20040131_133583.shtml.
3 Available at the website of Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/zxxx/t140609.htm.
4 President Bashar Al-Asad’s interview to the Chinese People’s Daily (Renmin Ribao), available at http:// www.sana.org/english/reports/21.6/president_bashar_al-Assad-Interview.htm.
5 Available at http://english.sina.com/news/china/6812565.shtml.
6 The Joint Press Communiqué between the People’s Republic of China and The Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC), available at the website of Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/wjdt/2649/default.htm.
7 Energy Bureau under National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) is the top authority coordinating China’s energy related activities. China does not have an energy ministry. NDRC is the former National Planning Commission.
8 United Nations Development Program (UNDP), Arab Human Development Report 2003.
9 President Bashar Al-Assad’s interview to the Chinese People’s Daily (Renmin Ribao).
11 The Home of the Arab (Alabo Ren Zhi Jia), July/August 2002, p. 40.
12 Hussein Ismail, “Sino-Arabic Relations in the Changeable World with Foundation of Their Cooperation Forum,” Arab World (Alabo Shijie), No.3, 2004, p. 4.
13 United Nations Development Program (UNDP), Arab Human Development Report 2003, p. 137.
14 The Joint Press Communiqué between the People’s Republic of China and The Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC), available at http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/wjdt/2649/t142542.htm.
15 International Energy Agency, Oil Market Report, released on June 13, 2004, available at the website of IEA.
16 Hu Jianyi, “Energy Development in China and its Cooperation with the Gulf Area,” A Presentation Collection for Seminar on International Energy Security and Cooperation (Shanghai Institute for International Studies [SIIS], 2004), p. 102.
17 Customs General Administration People’s Republic of China, Yearbook of China Customs Statistics, Relevant Issues from 1990 to 2002.
18 Dr. Majid. A. Al-Moneef (advisor to the minister, Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and professor at Riyadh University), “Energy Security in the East-West Asian Context,” A Presentation Collection for Seminar on International Energy Security and Cooperation (SIIS Publication, 2004), p. 12.
20 Since for much of the pre-relations period the initiative on formal ties rested with Israel, the establishment of diplomatic relations was like an Israeli long march to China rather than a bilateral drive towards normalization. Therefore, P. R. Kumarawamy called the process Israel’s Odyssey to China. See P. R. Kumaraswamy, Israel’s China Odyssey (New Delhi: Institute for Defense and Studies and Analyses, 1994).
21 Batsheva Tsur, “Officials Snub Dalai Lama, Fear Harming Relations with China,” Jerusalem Post, March 21, 1994.
22 For the details of the Phalcon deal, see Jonathan Adelman, “The Phalcon Sale to China: The Lessons for Israel,” Jerusalem Letter, No. 473, March 1, 2002; and Yitzhak Shichor, “Mountains Out of Molehills: Arms Transfers in Sino-Middle Eastern Relations,” Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA), Vol. 4, No. 3, Fall 2000, p. 73.
23 “Syria’s Asad Cuts Short China Visit to Avoid Meeting Olmert,” Haaretz, June 26, 2004.
24 He Hongze and Ding Gang, “Tang Jiaxuan Meet with Peres,” People’s Daily (Renmin Ribao), September 17, 2002, p. 3.