China and the Middle East

A Historical Study on China’s Evolving Position

The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies has published China and the Middle East: A Historical Study on China’s Evolving Position, by Hikmat Al-Abd Al-Rahman. The book seeks to understand China through Arab issues at the global level and explores the future of Arab-Chinese relations and their impact on China's position towards fateful Arab issues. It explores the contradictions that accompanied China's commercial ambitions and the pragmatism that resulted from post-1978 reforms.

The book (328 pp) comes in seven chapters and a conclusion. The first chapter explores the role and future position of China within the global system of international relations, assessing its growth and the possibility of becoming a dominant global power. This relates to recent studies examining the beginning of Chinese decline and the potential effects of a decline of growth both domestically and abroad. The author notes the disagreement between political theorists and international relations specialists over this role. Many studies indicate that China is strongly qualified to be the number one international player in the world given the transfer of global might from the US to Asia, and the emergence of China as the largest industrial centre and the second largest economy in the world. Despite its great potential, many believe China is not qualified to play this global role, considering its ongoing battles with corruption, high unemployment rates, the sharp contrast in economic development between the interior and coastal regions of China, as well as separatist movements in many Chinese regions.

In the second chapter, the author traces Arab-Chinese relations since 1949, when the republican regime, which had prevailed since 1919, fell to the People's Republic of China. The author presents a brief summary of Arab-Chinese relations by breaking up the history of these relations into several stages, beginning with the 1950s and 60s, immediately following the establishment of the People's Republic of China, in which the country moved from the stage of openness to the stage of diplomatic isolation. The second stage is China's gradual return to the Middle East while the third looks at the 1980s, when China was keen to show its desire to adopt more clear and independent stances regarding the Middle East. In the fourth stage, China worked to consolidate its presence and enhance its influence in the Arab region by becoming an essential supplier of arms to countries restricted by arms embargoes enforced by Western countries and to build their friendships with some Arab countries. In the fifth and final stage of Arab-Chinese relations, the early twenty-first century, China relied on its political and diplomatic presence, without having any mediator role, as an important economic and political partner for the Middle Eastern countries.

In the third chapter, the author deals with Chinese strategy and diplomacy to achieve its goals in the Middle East, questioning the extent to which there is a real and clear strategy for Beijing towards countries in the region. According to the author, China does not have an integrated strategy, but it has multiple strategic priorities in the Middle East, commensurate with its interests and relations with its country and the active forces in it alike, such as continuing economic development, global energy strategy, energy security, and military modernization. Meanwhile, it invests in the weak links of US influence as a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the failure to find a settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the popular anti-American sentiment in most regions of the Arab world, to expand Chinese influence at America’s expense.

The fourth chapter deals with the Belt and Road Initiative, which has garnered a limited response from the Arab countries. This can be explained by looking at two things: the first is the ambiguity of the project and its objectives, and the second is the fear of its impact on the most important global corridors that fall within the Arab countries, especially the Suez Canal, which in turn has a negative impact on the Egyptian economy. Chapter five assesses the factors affecting Beijing’s attitudes towards Arab issues: energy security, trade and investment, the role of the US in China's Middle East policy and its actual influence on Chinese positions, domestic factors in China and the region, China's ambitions for regional hegemony based on a historical legacy dating back to the imperial era and its astonishing economic growth and, finally, the complex interrelated relations between China and the three major players in the region; Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel. Chapter Six evaluates China's stance on Arab regional issues: the Arab-Israeli conflict, the second and third Gulf wars and Arab Gulf security. It also provides a historical review of Chinese-African relations, especially with Sudan and an analysis of China's position on the Darfur crisis and the secession of southern Sudan.

The seventh and final chapter focuses on addressing issues and interests that Arab countries hope and expect China to support them on and the extent to which Beijing can support Arab causes in global forums. It also addresses the most important Chinese interests that the Arab region can support and contribute to achieving. The author believes that China's moves in the Middle East were mostly influenced by pressure from the regional and international context. China has never taken specific initiatives or clear stances, behaving cautious with caution and often resorting to a “non-position” by inviting all parties to dialogue and negotiation without initiating any frameworks.

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