During the Arab-Chinese summit in Riyadh, December 9, 2022 (SPA)

China and Arabs: A New International Order and Broader Strategic Cooperation


Tue, 13-12-2022 04:51 PM, Aden

Farida Ahmed (South24) 

Many indicators and signs have emerged since the beginning of this year which enhanced the world's direction towards a new multipolar international order to replace the old system that has remained for more than 30 years. This comes amid relentless US endeavors to foster a unipolar international system which revolves around it and its Western allies. The new trajectory is a result of major transformations in the economic balance of power and considering the global new facts and developments, top of which is the Russian-Ukrainian war which has largely re-arranged the international relationships. Some major states have benefited from the crisis such as China by showing their influence over countries’ economically and exploiting the vacuum left by Washington, especially in the Middle East.

Xi Jinping's visit to Saudi Arabia on December 7th has attracted great momentum. According to China's Foreign Minister, Xi program represents "the biggest diplomatic activity between China and the Arab World since the establishment of the People's Republic of China". [1] The visit included holding three summits (Saudi, Gulf and Arab) with the participation of more than 10 head of Arab states, foremost of whom was the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman whose last meeting with Xi was in February 2019 in Beijing. The most important headlines of the visit at that time included supporting the economic diversification, enhancing the development strategies related to the two countries and strengthening the integration between their interests. [2] Xi’s visit to the Middle East was expected to be at earlier time but there were repeated lockdowns due the Covid-19 Pandemic. 

For the Arab world, China is seen as a safe friend. The Chinese Foreign Ministry tried to confirm this in a 19,000-word report about the “China-Arab cooperation in the new era”. It stressed that Beijing is “a strategic partner and a sincere friend” which will play a constructive role in the Middle East and avoid doing anything that touches the region’s geopolitical interest. [3] This looks like a mutual approach between the two sides, especially in what touches China’s unity and human rights files. Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal Bin Farhan affirmed that “Saudi Arabia always refuses meddling in China’s internal affairs and strictly defends the principle of one united China in addition to the strong support of China’s legitimate position regarding the issues related to Taiwan and Xinjiang as well as human rights." [4] At a deeper level, Riyadh believes that China is more flexible in its dealings, whether the economic or the security one or even the human rights affairs. The Saudi Crown Prince personally faced similar accusations from Washington about his alleged involvement in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The Chinese reluctance to interfere in human rights files of this kind is relatively comfortable for KSA. 

Over the past decade, the two Arab and Chinese sides established 17 cooperation mechanisms as part of the China-Arab Cooperation Forum. Their mutual trade volume increased by 100 billion dollars with a total amount that exceeded 300 billion dollars. The Chinese direct investment in the Arab states rose by 2.6 times during that period as the investment balance amounted to 23 billion dollars. More than 200 of the “Belt and Road” projects were implemented which have benefited about 2 billion people from both sides. [5] This enhanced the strong relationships between the two parties. Moreover, China’s top priorities in the Middle East have focused on 3 main waterways including the Suez Canal, the Bab al-Mandab Strait, and the Strait of Hormuz. According to some reports [6], Chinese naval forces received training on how to resupply their ships from civilian container ships. This refers to expanding the scope of possible military support points around the world. These points could include locations in UAE, Saudi Arabia and the Red Sea which have special importance for Beijing as being considered a gate to Europe.

In general, the latest Chinese visit constituted a new era of cooperation and development. This was embedded in its main headline. The outputs of the summit included 24 points, the most prominent of which are strengthening the strategic partnership between the Arab countries and the People's Republic of China based upon comprehensive cooperation, common development, mutual respect for the sovereignty, territorial integrity of states, and non-interference in the internal affairs of states. The statement stressed on the centrality of the Palestinian issue in the Middle East and the importance of merging the regional and international efforts to find political solutions for the crises and regional issues, especially in Syria, Libya, and Yemen. It also underlined rejecting politicizing human rights issues or using them as a pressure tool against states and meddling in their internal affairs. [7]

American and Iranian concerns

Talks about a post-US Middle East began to emerge in public. This stirred Washington's concerns and would pave the way for the Middle East and the Gulf countries in particular to move forward in a road away from the United States. It is clear that the latter cautiously watched the Chinese visit to Saudi Arabia, especially after the Biden's administration failed to push the Gulf States to increase energy production. Thus, it believes that its influence in the region is no longer strong enough to meet its demands. The difference was illustrated in the warm Saudi reception of the Chinese President in comparison with the cold way by which they received Biden. This has raised questions about the future path of the US-KSA relationships.

Washington's public position towards the Chinese visit seems perplexing. White House National Security Council Spokesman John Kirby said that "the Biden administration realizes that China seeks to expand its influence around the world but its way for doing that threatens the international order that the US along with its allies and partners seek to maintain." [8] In a speech delivered by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in George Washington University, he said that China constitutes the most dangerous long-term threat against the international order and that it is the only country which has the economic, diplomatic, military and technological power necessary to do so along with its serious desire to reshape the international system. [9] This illustrates the US concerns towards the Chinese influence in the region in which Beijing's ambition to expand are no longer a secret. This practically enhances the features of shaping a new international system.

This is not limited to economic cooperation as there is security and military cooperation albeit to a lesser extent. This may become a main priority amid the Gulf States' readiness to discover alternative security arrangements that secure their security and stability, especially that there are threats and files that surround the region, including Iran's nuclear file and Tehran’s proxies in Yemen. During the Chinese-Gulf summit, President Xi indicated that his country seeks to establish a nuclear safety center in the Gulf region.

Indeed, Tehran expressed its anger towards the results of this Chinese visit, especially towards the joint statement issued by the Gulf-Chinese and Chinese-Saudi summits. It supported the accusations against Tehran of interfering in the internal affairs of the region's countries. The statement considers Iran's behavior the main reason behind the state of instability in the Gulf region. Furthermore, Iran's Foreign Ministry announced the summoning of the Chinese ambassador to Tehran, in protest of the statement, which included the status of the disputed islands with the UAE and the nuclear agreement negotiations.

As part of the military cooperation, some reports [10] indicated that China provided the Saudis with some artillery and drones which they have used in their ongoing war against the Houthis in Yemen. In 2017, Beijing gave the KSA a license to produce Chinese drones locally. Previously, China signed more than 15 partnership agreements with countries in the region. It also participates in UN missions to combat piracy in the Gulf of Aden, the Arabian Sea and Egypt. It carried out rescue operations for its nationals in Libya in 2011 and Yemen in 2015. [11] 

This accordingly denotes more cooperation between the Arab and Chinese sides in all fields and the increase of the cooperation level among them in several aspects. However, joint economic cooperation comes on top of that, especially the "One Belt One Road" initiative which includes 68 countries in 5 continents. This apparently will rearrange the balances and relationships of the region's states with other countries through diversified investments in this regard. On the foreseeable side, the Chinese visit will create more space for Beijing's strategic cooperation in the Middle East. The Gulf States in particular have visions they want to achieve. It seems that they found a new road and it is not heading West.

Executive Director of South24

ChinaSaudi ArabiaChinese policySilk roadOne Belt One Road