Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1279, (21 - 27 January 2016)
Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Issue 1279, (21 - 27 January 2016)

Ahram Weekly

China in the Middle East

As Chinese President Xi Jinping visits Egypt today as part of his three-legged regional tour, China is positioning itself for a new political role in the Middle East, reports Dina Ezzat

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Chinese President Xi Jinping has arrived in Egypt today, the second leg of his Middle East tour that started on Tuesday in Saudi Arabia and should end in Iran on Saturday.

This is a significant tour as it sees a Chinese president making a first visit to Egypt in 12 years and a tour of three regional countries to offer mediation in order to resolve the political conflict between the two oil-rich states of Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Beijing had officially offered its political mediation to both Riyadh, whose oil remains one of China’s top imports, and Tehran, which has offered itself as a huge terrain for ambitious Chinese investments after the lifting of the international sanctions against it earlier in the week.

China had sent a senior diplomatic envoy to both capitals earlier in the year. During the final weeks of 2015, it acted to host a meeting on developments in Syria, a top regional issue for both Saudi Arabia and Iran.

“The Chinese president is basically trying to rework the status and role of Beijing in the Middle East as part of a growing Chinese realisation that the economic interests of China, which have always been the focus of its attention away from its direct geographical neighbourhood, are being challenged by political developments in the Middle East as in Africa and elsewhere,” said a senior regional diplomat.

“The question, however, is whether or not this attempt will pick up in the future,” he added.

He argued that it was still too early to tell, but to judge by “the facts on the ground it seems very unlikely that China, despite its traditional good relations with Iran, will be able to deliver even the beginning of a political compromise between the two countries.”

The diplomat said he was seeing “no sign of any serious interest” either in Tehran or in Riyadh.

“I think it is too difficult, especially for the Saudis who have repeatedly criticised, at least in public, Chinese policies on Muslim minorities to accept Chinese mediation in a conflict with any country, especially Iran,” he said.

The same diplomat said that traditionally the Saudis had declined all attempts at mediation with Iran made by friendly countries and organisations.

“In any case, I think that the conflict between the two countries, which is being exercised in the military sense in five countries in the region, has now reached a zero-sum game, or almost, because the Saudis want to eliminate the Iranian influence in these five countries — Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Bahrain — while Iran will not let go of the regional influence that it has worked and invested in for years to gain,” the diplomat argued.

At the end of the day, regional diplomats who follow the Saudi-Iranian diplomatic row agree that there is no basis for a compromise, but that it is to be expected that several international powers, including the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, will offer their mediation.

The visit of the Chinese president comes a few days after Beijing issued its first policy paper on the Arab countries, in which it underlined its commitment to help these countries maintain their stability and territorial integrity.

According to political scientist Mustafa Kamel Al-Sayed, the policy paper is designed to appeal to the Arab countries where China is eyeing serious economic opportunities.

“The Chinese might be showing an interest in Arab affairs, but the fact of the matter is that China has been working on very close military, scientific and trade cooperation with Israel and when it comes to the Arab world its interest is probably in political statements rather than anything else,” he argued.

According to Al-Sayed, the visit of the Chinese president should be looked at in the light of the “Road and Belt Initiative” that aims to establish a railway and maritime route across Asia to allow Chinese commodities and investments to reach out to Europe and the Mediterranean and into Africa.

“Chinese foreign policy is very pragmatic and very economy and trade-oriented,” he argued.

The visit of the Chinese president to the region comes in the wake of the inauguration of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which has been widely welcomed except perhaps in the US.

By virtue of this move, China has announced its willingness to take on more international development and economic responsibilities.

According to Al-Sayed, it is essentially through this new lender, rather than through its new policy paper on the Arab countries, that Beijing will be able to create a new niche in the region.

“It will be in a position to offer loans that are less costly than those of the World Bank and that cover much wider areas of development than those the Bank allows,” he said.

Political scientist Hassan Nafaa argues that politics will likely be given more attention by Beijing than has been the case until recently, but that this will not come anywhere near the amount of attention it gives to the economy.

“You could say that politics will be used to serve the economic interests of China, so that when China says it wishes to help resolve the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran it is in fact saying that it is worried about regional stability which might influence the exports of raw materials, especially oil. It might also influence the chances of Chinese overseas investments to expand and for Chinese exports to find new markets at a time when the Chinese are trying hard to reverse the slowdown in their economy,” Nafaa argued.

However, he added that China would likely not go far in its political engagements and its approach would be similar to that it has adopted at the UN Security Council. This is reflected in the policy paper it has presented on the Arab countries, he said.

China, Nafaa argued, is concerned about political stability in the region given that it has joined other international players in fearing that any further political deterioration will allow more terrorist cells to be active.

“This would be particularly disturbing for the Chinese government, which has traditionally been excessively apprehensive over the adoption by its Muslim minorities of anything that might be remotely construed as radical thinking,” he said.

 Al-Sayed agreed that China was trying to give its economic interests a new look by showing more interest in politics.

“The banner that the Chinese are trying to reclaim is that of the spirit of Bandung [a Third World grouping of the second half of the 20th century], but we are not in the 1950s anymore and there is no new Mao Zedong,” he said.

In Egypt, the first leg of the visit saw the Chinese president join with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi in examining a wide range of avenues for potential cooperation.

The Egyptian minister of international cooperation had already visited Beijing late last week to prepare for the visit to Egypt and to take part in the inauguration of the AIIB. Egyptian government sources agreed that the economy was the top priority for the Egyptian-Chinese talks and that politics would come second.

According to one informed source, Cairo has been keen to rekindle a previously dispelled Chinese interest in starting a free industrial zone in the Suez Canal Zone and in providing Egypt with technical and financial assistance to upgrade its railways and to pursue more efficient agriculture.

According to a source in the Ministry of International Cooperation, “there are endless projects that Egypt would like to pursue with China.”

According to a source at the Foreign Ministry, “working with China should be relatively easy because we agree for the most part when it comes to regional politics and we don’t have to go through the hassle of democracy and human rights negotiations as we do with western states.”

Nafaa argued that Cairo should maximise avenues of cooperation with China, especially since “Egypt has a big asset that could be attractive to the Chinese, namely its geographical position that could encourage Beijing to start many projects in Egypt to reduce the cost of its exports to Africa.”

Al-Sayed said that in order to capture China’s economic interest, Egypt would have to show a business-oriented approach that went beyond the expression of good will.

Sources at the Ministry of International Cooperation and the Foreign Ministry have been projecting expected commitments on several projects that range from railways to the launching of the country’s new administrative capital.

China is also expected to lend Egypt’s Central Bank $1 billion to help shore up its foreign reserves during the visit by the Chinese president, Egypt’s ambassador to Beijing Magdi Amer told the press in the Chinese capital earlier in the week.

Amer added that the Chinese president was also due to sign a $700 million agreement with the state-owned National Bank of Egypt to provide a line of credit to finance future projects, as well as a $100 million loan agreement with Banque Misr aimed at financing small and medium-sized projects.

Egypt would also seek the support of China, which has considerable investments in Ethiopia, in the conflict it has with the latter country’s Grand Renaissance Dam.

“I think Cairo stands a good chance to get this support, essentially because its demands to avert any sudden drop in its share of the Nile’s water is perfectly legitimate and also because Egypt has been adopting an approach of following a win-win path,” Nafaa said. 

Meanwhile, Egypt and China will also take the opportunity of the president’s visit to pursue closer cultural cooperation, with the expected launch of a year-long celebration of cultural relations between Egypt and China in 2016.

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