China and the Arab World: From the Silent Partner to Center Stage
China long sought a middle course for relations with the Middle East between Moscow and Washington, exploiting rifts along the way. Today, with its increasing diplomatic and economic power, it is poised to take center stage in the region.
With the rising involvement of China in the Middle East, understanding their history is more important than ever. That history is long indeed, stretching back to the time of the Pharaohs and early Yemeni Kingdoms. Ties grew after the spread of Islam, and Muslim lands straddled trade routes from East to West until the Portuguese rounded the Cape of Good Hope.
The twentieth century brough a new era for Sino-Arab relations. The newly established People’s Republic sought legitimacy from Arab states, embedding itself in a “third world” context. China then sought to steer independently of Washington and Moscow’s interests in the region, exploiting rifts along the way.
Revolutionary China seeks legitimacy
Arab countries didn’t recognize the People’s Republic of China (maintaining their recognition of the Republic of China, or Taiwan) until Chinese Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai's appeal at the Asian-African Conference in Bandung in 1955. Egypt and Syria were among the first to announce this recognition in 1956, followed by Iraq, Morocco, Sudan, Yemen in 1958, then Algeria in 1962.
In turn, the Chinese government warmly welcomed and acknowledged the interim Algerian government, as well as the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). Reacting to China's recognition, the then-head of the organization, Ahmed Al-Shukeiri, remarked, “What happened today is a unique milestone in international relations... this statement itself marks a revolutionary development in international law.”
Premier Zhou made significant efforts to bring the Palestinian cause to the agenda of the Bandung Conference, despite implicit opposition from Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and some Southeast Asian countries. Zhou stated, “We stand with all Arab causes, and in particular, the Palestinian cause, because we support the struggles of oppressed peoples.”
Following the establishment of diplomatic relations between the PRC and Egypt, China established its first and most significant military office in West Asia and North Africa. Further, in January 1958, Yemen and China signed the first treaty of friendship in the Arab world. In May 1958, an Egyptian military delegation led by General Mohamed Ibrahim visited China, where they met with Chinese President Mao Zedong.
Eight Arab countries, including Algeria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Mauritania, signed a resolution in 1971, supporting the PRC in regaining its rightful seat in the United Nations and its affiliated bodies.
During this phase, as noted by researcher and political writer Ali Abdullah, much of the diplomatic effort was centered gaining recognition for the PRC, with “China's main objective,” he writes, “being international recognition as a legitimate state–the rightful China–leading it to seek closer ties with newly independent countries, including Arab states.”
The communist ally becomes a hindrance
The Sino-Soviet rivalry, however, cast its shadow over Sino-Arab relations. According to Damascus University professor Hikmat Al-Abd Al-Rahman (2013), Gamal Abdel Nasser's refusal to exclude the Soviets from the Bandung Conference led to disappointing outcomes. The Syrian-Soviet rapprochement in 1966 further strained China's political ties with Middle Eastern countries, causing a political rift. Also, Soviet narratives and theories, well-received in the region, contributed to China's isolation and the mounting challenges it faced.
According to Abdullah:
“The Sino-Soviet dispute, sparked by Russian President Nikita Khrushchev's policy of reconciliation with the US, triggered intense political and media activities in most countries, promoting different narratives. This gave rise to 'Maoist' currents within the communist parties of Arab states, creating tensions and complexities for 'progressive' regimes, due to their need for Soviet support on one hand, while fearing a reconciliation policy that might compromise their stance, especially regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict. This became evident after the 1967 June War, where the defeat of these regimes and Soviet pressure led them to accept a ceasefire and abide by UN Security Council Resolution 242, engaging in political negotiations with Israel.”
Later on, China deftly utilized the tensions between the Soviets and Egypt to establish closer ties with Cairo.
Later on, China deftly utilized the tensions between the Soviets and Egypt to establish closer ties with Cairo. This culminated in their signing of a military agreement in 1977, where China provided support to former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in his pursuit of peaceful relations with Israel. As described by former Chinese President Deng Xiaoping, China was part of the “Third World,” and not the capitalist “First World,” bloc led by the United States, and the socialist “Second World” led by the Soviet Union.
Israeli-Chinese ties at this time remained distant. According to Middle East affairs specialist, Eyad Hammoud, “While Israel was the first Middle Eastern country to recognize the PRC in December 1950, the Korean War (1950-1953) and Israeli bias towards American policy in the region hindered a closer Chinese-Israeli relationship. With the departure of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, China began to view the Middle East through a new strategic lens that aligns with its opposition to the Soviet Union.”
The United States sought to encourage China's adoption of this “new concept,” shaping China's position at the time around exploiting opportunities to diminish Soviet influence in the Middle East without causing significant disturbances in Arab affairs.
Exploiting international disputes
Li Weijian, an analyst at the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, emphasizes that the Middle East represents a strategic extension of the region adjacent to China's western borders. He says that the prevailing comprehensive and nationalist ideological trends in the Middle East directly impact “China's security and stability.”
China did not veto UN Security Council Resolutions 660 and 661, condemning the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. However, when it came to Resolution 678 authorizing the use of military force by member states, China abstained from voting. China also refused to participate in the international coalition, calling for the withdrawal of foreign forces from the region once the war concluded. This cautious policy suggests an attempt to appease all parties.
Meanwhile, Hammoud highlights how the Western embargo on arms sales following Tiananmen Square in 1989 bolstered Chinese-Israeli relations. “Israel emerged,” he writes, “as China's second-largest weapons supplier (after Russia) and a vital source of advanced military technologies. In 1990, Israel opened an embassy in Beijing, and in 1992, diplomatic relations were formally established.”
This shift can be attributed to China’s departure from ideological control over foreign policy, embodying Chinese President Deng Xiaoping’s principle from the 1970’s: “It doesn't matter whether the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.” Hammoud adds, “In line with this principle, China's focus shifted from scrutinizing the means to achieving its goals to prioritizing the fulfillment of its interests. This was evident in China's stance on the peace process, where it supported the 'land-for-peace principle', in a new formulation to appease all parties.”
Furthermore, China had adopted a foreign policy approach based on benefiting from international crises. Chinese foreign policy analyst, Wang Jisi, argued that a “situation where the US finds itself deeply entrenched militarily and diplomatically in the Middle East, to the point where it cannot extricate itself, benefits China's foreign environment.”
Iran and China
Sino-Iranian relations have had a detrimental impact on Arab-Chinese ties. In a statement, former Chinese Foreign Minister Qing Beg asserted that “the Shah has the right to bolster Iran's military capabilities to combat destructive activities in oil-producing countries in the Gulf.” Chinese Communist Party leader Hua Guofeng had met with the Shah before departing Iran following the 1975 Iranian Revolution. This led Ayatollah Khomeini to perceive China as a hostile force at first.
However, China recognized the Islamic Republic of Iran a mere three days after its establishment, deeming Iran of strategic value. The alliance between United States and GCC had established a security system in line with Washington's interests.
Equipped with relatively advanced military equipment and opposing the American presence, Iran served China's objective of thwarting US control over this strategically important region; this diverted Washington's attention from the Pacific.
According to the study, China in the Middle East: The Wary Dragon, China’s willingness to supply arms to Iran during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) eased Iran’s isolation after the revolution. But China also offered expertise and technology to aid Iran’s nuclear program. “Between 1984 and 1996,” the study cites, “China provided critical assistance in establishing the Isfahan Nuclear Technology Center in 1984 and training Iranian nuclear engineers, also supporting Iran in uranium extraction, culminating in a nuclear cooperation agreement in 1990.”
As China's economy experienced steady growth since the 1990s, its reliance on Iranian oil increased. Iran became a promising destination for Chinese investments, elevating its importance in China's strategic calculations. China no longer posed a threat to Iran's Islamic governance model after distancing itself from revolutionary communism in the 1980s. Both nations, however, share a troubling history of human rights violations.
A new era
Sino-Arab relations have come full circle since the Bandung conference of 1955. First by seeking recognition from newly independent Arab states, China embedded itself in a “third world” as opposed to a “second world” Soviet-let bloc. Relations with individual states ebbed, but China mostly steered between firm US and Soviet commitments, taking advantage of rifts as they arose.
However, recent developments suggest that China is now taking more balanced steps in efforts to engage with the region's countries.
China's early and supportive relationship with the Islamic Republic proved crucial to avoid ceding the field entirely to Washington. Despite nurturing relations with its Arab neighbors over time, China's proximity to Iran initially raised concerns. Its potential role as mediator to resolve the Saudi-Iran rift could be an indicator of its capacity and willingness to engage in regional matters, safeguarding its energy security strategy.
Further aiding China's standing is its commitment to non-interference in the internal affairs of Arab states, and refusal to support separatist forces or delve into human rights issues, enhancing Arab states' motivation to foster closer relationships in the immediate and foreseeable future.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not express the official position of the Wilson Center
This article is part of an ongoing collaborative series with Reseef.22.
Hikmat Al-Abd Al-Rahman. (2013). "China and the East between 1955 and 2000"
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