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What to expect from future China-Arab states relations?

By Wang Jin

China and Arab states have an ancient relationship that could date back to 2000 years ago. Nonetheless, during the last decade, China-Arab states relations have witnessed substantial progress, while the cooperation between the two sides have expanded into various fields. With Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia and attendance of the first China-Arab States Summit and China-Gulf Cooperation Council Summit, the relations between China and Arab states will be closer.

This photo shows a screen display about the China-Gulf Cooperation Council Summit on a street in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on December 7, 2022. (Photo/Xinhua)

China and Arab states have supported each other in the struggle against imperialism and colonists. On the one hand, China endorses Arab people’s rights to choose their own economic and political path. For example, China supported Egypt in 1956 to resist invasions from Britain and France, and supported Lebanon against interventions from the US in 1958. China has also been firmly supporting the just cause of the Palestinian people to restore the legitimate rights and interests of their nation. On the other hand, Arab states supported China’s permanent seat on the UN Security Council in 1971, and many Arab states established diplomatic ties with China from the 1950s to 1970s.

Starting from the late 1970s, new opportunities emerge for bilateral cooperation between China and Arab nations. During the past four decades, China accelerated its economic and social development and has become the world's second-largest economy. With the rapidly growing industrial capabilities and expanding market, China attracts more and more Arab businessmen to seek cooperation. The “Made-in-China” products flood the markets of Arab states, while their connections with China are strengthened.

In the past two decades, Saudi Arabia has become the leading state in both Arab world and the Islamic world. On the one hand, Saudi Arabia’s political influence in the Middle East is increasing, and its voice could be heard and respected in regional issues, including Syria crisis, Israel-Palestine peace process, Yemen civil war, Lebanon internal politics and Iraq political crisis. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia keeps positive ties with nearly all Arab states. Riyadh’s financial support become vital to the political stability in Egypt, Sudan, Jordan and many other Arab states.

The relations between China and Saudi Arabia have witnessed remarkable progress during the past decade. When China’s Belt and Road Initiative meets Saudi Arabia’s “2030 Vision”, the friendship would be further deepened.

Majorly motivated by the Belt and Road Initiative, new cooperation mechanisms have been established by China and Arab states. In terms of bilateral relations, China established a comprehensive strategic partnership with Algeria and Egypt respectively in 2014, with Saudi Arabia in 2016 and with the UAE in 2016, and established a strategic partnership with Qatar in 2014, with Iraq in 2015, Morocco in 2016, with Oman and Kuwait in 2018. As of January 2022, 20 Arab states have reached cooperative agreements with China under the Belt and Road Initiative. Significant achievements have been realized in various fields covering energy, investment, trade, finance, infrastructure and high-tech.

In terms of multilateral relations, China and Arab states established the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum in 2004 and launched the China-Arab States Expo in 2013. In 2018, the Declaration of Action on China-Arab States Cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative was signed by China and Arab states in the 8th Ministerial Meeting of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum, which guides the cooperation between China and Arab states hereafter.

For China, of the four main shipping chokepoints, namely Gibraltar, Malacca, Hormuz, and Bal el Mandab, two are in the Arab world. Nearly half of China’s oil and gas imports transit through the Strait of Hormuz, while Bab el Mandab is an important channel for China’s exports to the Middle East, Africa and Europe, as well as oil imports from Algeria, Libya and Sudan. Given China’s growing market demands and economy, the geographic importance of Arab states would be further stressed. During the past decade, China has been involved in local projects of Arab states. China-Egypt TEDA Suez Economic and Trade Cooperation Zone, the China-Oman Industrial Park and the China-UAE Industrial Capacity Cooperation Demonstration Park are the major examples.

In recent years, space technology,health and medical serviceshave become new cooperative fields between China and Arab states. China signed cooperative agreements with Egypt, Algeria, Sudan and Saudi Arabia to co-develop space technologies and satellite technologies. In December 2021, China and Arab states signed the China-Arab States Plan for Satellites Navigation, which would be the foundation for China-Arab states space technologies cooperation in the upcoming years. After the COVID-19 outbreak in early 2020, China’s medical companies Sinopharm and Sinovac signed cooperative agreements with the UAE and Egypt to produce and store the vaccines.

In his visit to Saudi Arabia and meetings with Arab leaders, Chinese President Xi Jinping opens a new chapter for the friendship between China and Arab states. First, new mechanism are established to enhance the political friendship between the two sides. During his visit, President Xi met with leaders from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Palestine, Egypt, Sudan, Iraq, Morocco, Algeria, Lebanon and other Arab states. In these meetings, China reiterated its support to the development of these Arab partners, and both China and Arab states shared their strong confidence towards future cooperation. Meanwhile, both China and Saudi Arabia agreed to upgrade the bilateral relations into comprehensive strategic partnership, while both side agreed to hold leaders meeting biannually. As the leader of the Arab world, Saudi Arabia’s closer ties with China suggest greater prospect for China-Arab relations in the future.

Second, the cooperative areas between China and Arab states will be expanded. In 2013, China put forward the Belt and Road Initiative, which is welcomed by Arab states. In June of 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping outlined the cooperation pattern of “1+2+3”, which features one focus (energy cooperation), two priority areas (infrastructure and trade and investment facilitation) and three high-tech sectors for breakthroughs (nuclear energy, aviation satellites and new energy), and has become the fundamental guideline for China to develop cooperation with the Arab states. In President Xi’s visit to Saudi Arabia, China signed dozens of cooperative agreements covering energy, infrastructure, finance, education, technology and other important fields with Arab leaders. These newly signed agreements and MOUs give fresh impetus to China-Arab states collaboration.

Third, although some obstacles remain, China and Arab states are willing to jointly realize more cooperative achievements. The China- Gulf Cooperation Council free trade agreement talks and settlements of oil transactions between China and Saudi Arabia in the yuan encountered difficulties over the past years, but both China and Arab states have expressed their strong confidence in enhancing coordination and encouraging cooperation in the future. Sensitive issues in the Middle East, such as Iran nuclear issue, Syria issue, Palestinian-Israeli conflicts and Iran-UAE islands dispute were also mentioned in the official documents published jointly between China and Arab states on December 9, 2022. Through these statements and documents, China and Arab states successfully build their consensus towards the future.

Both China and the Arab nations have created splendid civilizations, and both have experienced setbacks and humiliations in the modern times. Therefore, national rejuvenation has become the goal of both Chinese and Arab people. China and Arab nations under the cooperation through the Belt and Road Initiative would surely realize the Chinese Dream and Arab revitalization.

Wang Jin is an associate professor and the assistant director of the Institute of Middle East Studies in Northwest University of China. He is also a non-resident research fellow with the Center for China and Globalization (CCG).

(If you want to contribute and have specific expertise, please contact us at newsguangdong@sina.com.)

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