Significance of Xi Jinping’s meetings with top Arab leaders in Beijing  

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By P.K.Balachandran

Colombo, May 29 (Counterpoint): In a striking move made in the context of the Israel-Hamas war, China will hold the 10th Ministerial Conference of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum in Beijing on May 30.

The meeting, to be attended by several Arab Heads of States, signifies China’s growing heft in the Middle East as the US loses its grip on the region.

The opening session of the Forum will be attended by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, Tunisian President Kais Saied and United Arab Emirates (IAE) President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

Foreign Ministers or representatives of the Arab states and the Secretary General of the League of Arab States will also be in attendance. The Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi and Mauritania’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Cooperation and Mauritanians Abroad Mohamed Salem Ould Merzouk will co-chair the conference. President Xi Jinping will address the opening session

The Arab Heads of State who will be on a State Visit to China, will hold discussions with President Xi on a wide range of subjects including the on-going Israel-Hamas war, the larger Palestine issue, trade and economic links and possibilities of strategic partnerships.

A free-trade deal between China and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) States is on the cards.

The meeting plans to adopt a “Beijing Declaration” and also the “Forum’s Action Plan for 2024-2026.”

The China-Arab States Cooperation Forum was established 20 years ago. The Foreign Ministers of the 22 members of the League of Arab States, including Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Palestine, Kuwait and Qatar, had been meeting every two years to discuss cooperation “in the fields of politics, economy and security”.

In recent years, senior officials had also met from time to time to talk about deepening ties on energy, technology and public health.

Gaza War

Appropriately, the was in Gaza will be upper most in the minds of the leaders. Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Deng Li said that the goal of the Forum is “to end the Gaza conflict as soon as possible and realise peace, and at the same time promote the international community’s determination to implement the Two-State solution with greater determination and more concrete actions to ultimately achieve long-term peace and stability in the Middle East region.”

However, the proposed free trade agreement between China and the GCC States (UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman) will be a very important item on the agenda, as China’s interest in the region is primarily economic.

It is reported that 90% of the proposals for a free trade deal have already been agreed to.

Chinese Economic Stake

Sino-Arab trade surged from US$ 36.7 billion in 2004 to US$ 398 billion in 2023. China has been the Arab world’s top trading partner for long. China also gets most of its oil from this region. Due to the Suez Canal and the Red Sea, China has a tremendous economic and strategic stake in peace in the region.

The US based Wilson Centre says that China’s foreign direct investment in the Arab States is now US$ 23 billion. Saudi Arabia tops the Arab states in trade with China. At the Arab-China Summit in Riyadh, the Saudi Arabia and China signed 34 investment agreements in multiple sectors including green energy, medical industries, transport, and information technology, among others.

China has signed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) agreements with all the Arab nations. Under BRI, over 200 large-scale projects have been executed.

The Gulf Cooperation Council states with their massive sovereign wealth funds (currently valued at US$ 4 trillion) are now becoming an increasingly vital source of finance capital.

Arab countries are also part of China-proposed Global Security Initiative (GSI). China has strategic partnerships with 12 Arab countries. Seventeen Arab nations have endorsed China’s Global Development Initiative (GDI). 15 are members of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and 14 have participated in the “China-Arab Cooperation Initiative for Data Security.”

Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have joined BRICS, where China, India, South Africa, Brazil and Russia are members.

Middle Eastern countries have become pivotal in Beijing’s push to galvanize the Global South as a counterweight to the U.S. alliance network and advance its vision of a multipolar world order says Dave Aluf in The Diplomat

Non-Interference in Internal Affairs

China’s policy of non-interference in internal affairs has been the bedrock of Sino-Arab ties. In addition, in 2023, China brokered reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

In an article put out by Wilson Center in June 2023, Merissa Khurma noted that many Arabs saw China as a friend. Prophet Mohammad had exhorted Arabs to “seek knowledge in places as far as China”.

China has no expectations on human rights in Arab world, unlike Western governments. Authoritarian regimes in the Arab world welcome China’s blindness to rights. In return, grateful Arab countries do not utter word on China’s treatment of the 12 million  Muslims in its Xinjiang province.

Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, and other Muslim-majority states helped to block a Western motion at the United Nations calling for China to allow international observers into the Xinjiang region in 2019

China launched the CGTV’s Arabic service in UAE in 2009 at a cost of US$ 4 billion to reach 450 million people. In the Arab Barometer’s survey of nine countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) that included 23,000 interviews, China was more popular than the US, with Morocco being the only exception.  

There are more than 20 Confucius Institutes in Arab countries teaching Chinese language and culture. Hundreds of schools are offering Chinese courses.

Merissa Khurma’s article in the Wilson Centre’s website points out that the Chinese emphasize in their media coverage that their country has not been militarily involved in the Arab world, unlike the United States. This goes down well among the Arabs.

China’s Security Interests

China has vital security interests in the region.

“The imperative to secure these critical maritime chokepoints remains vital for China’s economy. The Suez Canal is a key route for China’s westward shipments of goods, including around 60% of its exports to Europe,” Dave Aluf writes and adds that China has given US$ 8 billion to set up the Suez Canal Economic Zone.   

China set up a naval base in Djibouti back in 2017, equipped with a berth capable of accommodating aircraft carriers.

“The Chinese state media regularly showcase the Chinese navy’s efforts in maritime safety off the Horn of Africa, proudly saying that 7,200 ships have been escorted through the region since 2008.”

However, during the on-going Israel-Hamas war, China has not taken substantive action against attacks by Houthi rebels on international shipping in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

“China continues to freeride on the U.S. security umbrella to protect its interests in the Middle East. As tensions escalate, this arrangement will become increasingly untenable for Beijing, and China may well look to increase its regional military presence in the medium-to-long term.”

“China had also turned down a US request to join an international coalition, Operation Prosperity launched to protect civilian ships in the region,” Aluf points out.   


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