Chinese President Xi Jinping delivered a keynote speech at the 8th Ministerial meeting of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum in Beijing to discuss the future of China-Arab relations. President Xi encouraged partners to become members of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which can mutually benefit both sides despite many of the most prominent security challenges (Libya, Iraq, Syria, and Egypt) facing the Middle East.
China and the Arab World are two civilizations connected to the silk road. So far, this gathering has offered comprehensive discussions on conditional friendship and further economic cooperation through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). President Xi announced that China and Arab nations have agreed to frame a future oriented strategic partnership of comprehensive cooperation and economic development.
During the 6th Ministerial meeting four years ago, President Xi invited Arab states to join the BRI, but this time, progress is visible as Arab states have praised the ambitious project. As President Xi addressed in his speech, “China and Arab countries, who are natural partners in Belt and Road cooperation, need to follow the Silk Road spirit of peace and cooperation, openness and inclusiveness, mutual learning and mutual benefit, and seek greater synergy in our respective pursuits of national renewal.”1 This marks the central framework of the China-Arab partnership. At the ministerial meeting, both sides will agree on a joint declaration to further build the BRI. President Xi also called for further cooperation on land and sea projects, infrastructure reform, and a new bank union to fund industrial parks throughout the Arab world.
The China-Arab States Cooperation Forum was founded fourteen years ago in 2004 aiming to promote long-term relationships on issues like the economy, trade, culture, and technology while advancing peacekeeping in such an unstable region. China has become the second largest trading partner of the Arab states. At the same time, the Arab states are some of the largest crude oil suppliers for Chinese oil and gas imports. The energy sector has been a central component of China-Arab strategic cooperation. In addition, medical cooperation and people to people exchanges have been focal points as well.
There are a lot of Arab perspectives in the Middle East, but a majority of the challenges facing these states are economic in nature. There are two segments of Arab states in the region. One segment includes countries that have gone through constant wars and civil unrest like Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.
The other segment includes countries that are trying to pursue reforms in the political and economic arenas like sustainable futures for their populations in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. Sino-Arab cooperation could offer many solutions for Arab states to restore stability and retain the development they want to pursue. However, in the political arena, there is still a great need for investing in trust and developing connections that would enable China to play a beneficial role in the Middle East down the line.
At the end of the day, there are going to be fundamental differences in the region on political and existential issues, but in terms of the wider array of Arab countries, there is a desire to obtain development and cooperation in the future. The Middle East has gone through constant instability and upheaval after the Arab revolts in 2011 where social unrest has led to failed state after failed state in the region, but there is also an elite exhaustion which is allowing Arab states to reorient looking eastward towards increased cooperation with China as a possible alternative to the United States.
There are a few challenges that are worth watching going forward for the Arab states. First was the backdrop or the effect of the Arab revolts that have had different results in different countries like Egypt, Yemen, Syria, and Libya. Secondly, the Arab countries are struggling with adapting to the future of the oil industry and this has been historically difficult for oil-rich countries because economic agents lack the confidence needed to embrace new ideas and take more innovative risks. And lastly, key U.S relationships with Arab countries have been sometimes getting warmer, but other times not necessarily so, for example on the Israel-Palestine Conflict.
In fact, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that “China and Arab states should take the opportunity to firm a strategic partnership and to enhance political trust and resolutely support each other’s core political interests.”2 Since 2014, nine Arab states have joined the Belt and Road Initiative, and on top of that, seven Arab states became founding members of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) since 2016.
As mentioned earlier, China is the second largest trading partner of the Arab states and trade has increased every year since the forum was founded in 2004 with total trade mounting to approximately $190 billion. More importantly, imports and exports have been balanced between China and the Arab states. In his speech, President Xi reiterated that he will offer 100 million Yuan ($15 million USD) to the Palestinians, $20 billion loans to Arab states for economic development, and over a trillion Chinese imports over the next five years.
Competition is bound to happen between China and the Arab states, but it could lead to a lot of mishaps on the ground. Given all the development that is taking place in the Gulf, how can these states become viable and compete in the international arena when they are competing for a small piece of the pie? The benefit of the Belt and Road Initiative is that it is a negotiated and open process where the markets will ultimately decide which infrastructural projects are going to be sustainable and viable, but healthy competition could be good for both sides so we can’t define Sino-Arab ties in black and white terms.
If we look at President Xi’s past speeches to the Arab world and the most recent one in particular, there has always been this theme of a mutual rejuvenation model that is not only Chinese, but Arab as well; and this has garnered a lot of attention from many officials throughout the Arab world. In many ways, this idea of a China model is appealing, especially for the BRI because it gives the Arab states an ideational understanding of the economic path these states want to take in the future such as increasing investment, offering know-how or knowledge on governance practices, and developmental assistance.
There were a few highlights from President Xi’s speech that stood out. The first highlight was President Xi offering assistance to not only the Palestinian cause, but also distributing loans to the Arab states. This indicates that China is increasing its involvement in the Middle East even though China has traditionally remained neutral in the geopolitics of the region.
The second highlight from the China-Arab Cooperation Forum was the shared idea of a rejuvenation model between the two sides. In fact, the BRI will be vital because it goes right through the Middle East and allows China to connect with Eastern Europe. There are security indications from the China-Arab Cooperation Forum as well. China’s base in Djibouti on the horn of Africa will allow China to monitor traffic going to and from the Suez Canal. In addition, China, compared to the other two superpowers (Russia and United States), is the only superpower which has cordial relations with all sides in the Middle East including the Israelis and the Palestinians, as well as the Iranians and the Saudis.
However, being on both sides of the Iran-Saudi rivalry could be a gamble for China. For example, if Iran and Saudi Arabia were on a collision course for a wider confrontation in the region, this would hurt China simply because most of China’s oil imports come from the Persian Gulf and pass through the Strait of Hormuz.
The current economic cooperation between China and the Arab states centers around oil, but in his speech, President Xi emphasized that the Arab states diversify their economies away from oil. In fact, some of the loans China is providing for the Arab world are being used for developing renewable energy and nuclear power, so he is nudging them in that direction.
1. Wang Yi, “Arab countries and China are natural partners in growth” July 10, 2018 Khaleej Times https://www.khaleejtimes.com/editorials-columns/arab-countries-and-china-are-natural-partners-in-growth
2. “Wang Yi: China, Arab states should support each other’s core interests” July 10, 2018 CGTN https://news.cgtn.com/news/3d3d414f77457a4e78457a6333566d54/share_p.html