Part of a series of ACRPS conferences examining relations between the Arabs and the world
In light of China’s increasing visibility in and around the Arab world and its rising interest in the Middle Eastern energy sector as well as its burgeoning naval presence in the Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea and in the Gulf, the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies will convene “China and the Arabs”. Scheduled for May 21-22, 2016, the meeting will build on a series of ACRPS annual events that explore relations between Arab cultures and the wider world: with Russia (May, 2015); the United States (June, 2014); the Horn of Africa (November, 2011); Turkey (May, 2011); and Iran (December, 2010).
Until very recently, Arab academics and policy makers had only a limited interest in China, in contrast to other “great powers” on the world stage. Yet, a complex set of factors has brought China to center stage in the Arab world. These factors include China’s rapid economic growth and its increasing reliance on hydrocarbons from the Horn of Africa and the Middle East as a source of energy. In fact, China’s rapid economic growth has allowed it to quickly eclipse others to become the world’s second largest economy, second only to the United States. This highlights a gradual tilt of the global “center of gravity” to the East, with China emerging as a regional power in both East Asia and Southeast Asia. Despite the novelty of these developments, Sino-Arab relations stretch back into antiquity, with the first Arab knowledge of China pre-dating the birth of Islam. Commercial relations would come to form the main feature of the relationship between the two sides, but even instances of warfare resulted in exchanges of knowledge: following the Battle of the Talas River in Central Asia in 751, Arab soldiers from the Abbasid Empire were able to take prisoner Chinese individuals with knowledge of paper making, paving the way for what would become a paper mill in Samarkand. This ultimately led to the spread of paper making technology to Europe. Equally, such contacts gave Arab civilization knowledge of saltpeter and gunpowder; this was followed by the introduction of firearms carried by the Mongol hordes in 1258. Eventually, Europeans would learn about the use of fireworks and firearms from Arabic books which discussed the uses of gunpowder. (Li Rong Zhiang, “The History, Present and Future of Arab Relations with China”, The Arab Information Center of China, December 28, 2005, see (link in Arabic): http://www.arabsino.com/articles/10-05-25/2496.html)
It was not only gunpowder that made its way to Europe via the Arabs by way of the Mediterranean; silk and other Chinese consumer products came to the Levant from China via the Silk Road. These trade routes continued to function throughout Mongol dominance of Asia, but were decisively altered by the expansion of early modern European maritime powers, which saw the Portuguese discovery of the Cape of Good Hope and the conquest of Socotra. This was followed quickly by Arab subjugation to the Ottoman Empire, and the overall eclipse of Sino-Arab relations until the post-colonial period and the rise of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Even then, due to the intra-Arab fractures of the Cold War, Sino-Arab relations were not consistent across states: while some Arab states were allies of the PRC, others were rivals. Recognition by Nasser’s Egypt of the PRC as the legitimate representative of China—as opposed to the Nationalists in Taiwan—in 1956 was a major source of tension between Cairo and the Eisenhower Administration. Other Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia, waited until 1990 to establish relations with Beijing. Shortly thereafter, China extended diplomatic recognition to Israel, despite its decades-long support for the Palestinian cause. This disarray was due in large part to China's status as an impoverished and agricultural country in the Third World, despite its possession of nuclear weapons in 1962. The tide turned with China’s 1978 “Open Door” policy and the accompanying period of modernization under Deng Xiaoping that began in 1978. By 2014, China’s total Gross Domestic Product was US$ 10.4 trillion, making its economy the second largest globally, racing ahead of Germany, the United Kingdom and Japan. Assuming that Beijing will be able to overcome its present-day economic and financial troubles and return to the rates of economic growth to which it had become accustomed— around 8% per year—then it can expect to equal the United States in terms of the size of its economy by 2025. Despite this, China remains vulnerable on a number of fronts. This includes the country’s reliance on foreign markets and on the consumers overseas who buy its products. It also includes China’s dependence on sources of energy that are located in areas either controlled by Western powers, or within the sphere of influence of those powers. Today, China imports two-thirds of its oil from the Middle East, thus explaining Beijing’s desire for good relations with the oil exporting Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia, in addition to Iran. Policy makers in both Riyadh and Beijing are also beginning to realize the large common ground which their nations share. These realizations come in parallel with a string of events that have shaken Saudi Arabia’s relations with its long-standing ally the United States, beginning with the fallout of the September 11 attacks. Riyadh has even undertaken to guarantee sufficient and permanent oil supplies to China, paving the way for Chinese investments in the Saudi oil industry and other sectors. In concrete terms, Riyadh already meets 17% of China’s demand for oil and has offered to help China consolidate its strategic oil reserve, with a projected capacity of 100 million tons. Efforts to create joint ventures between Chinese and Saudi industrial giants are already underway, with Sinopec and Saudi Aramco cooperating to construct oil refineries in the Fujian Province and the coastal city of Chengu, and an industrial mega-complex to produce petrochemicals underway. For the United States, any signs of Saudi-Chinese cooperation in the energ and in the petrochemicals sectors could be an indicator that it stands to lose influence in one of the most vital regions of the world. Iran also views the growth of relations between China and Saudi Arabia with trepidation, since such ties could result in greater Chinese understanding of Saudi and GCC worries of Iran’s growing military capabilities, in which China is a major partner. Sino-Iranian military cooperation has a solid foundation, and covers certain essential areas such as long-range ballistic missiles. Beijing is also a supplier of military technologies, including anti-ship missiles, to Iran. Additionally, Iran’s role as an energy supplier with access to offshore oil and gas fields in both the Gulf and in the Caspian Sea, as well as its role as a country with accessible land routes that could bypass insecure sea lanes, has made the country vitally important to China. In order to protect its expanding oil import network against a variety of threats, including piracy, China has had to bolster and expand the presence of its naval forces in and around the Gulf. This has brought Chinese military vessels to the periphery of the Arab region, to the Indian Ocean coast and to the Horn of Africa, where its on-land interests can be found in Sudan and in Ethiopia. As a result of these vested interests, China has adopted a broadly negative approach to the revolutions of the Arab Spring, with Beijing using its UN Security Council veto no fewer than three times on to quash resolutions that condemned the Syrian regime’s attacks against its own people. Other factors contributing to Beijing’s anxieties over the Arab Spring include its relations with the United States and worries that the “revolutionary contagion” might move to its own territories. Beijing is also concerned that interventions in countries such as Syria, as a result of the Arab Spring, could legitimize international interventions in the domestic affairs of other countries, including in its own territories. Given the Chinese government’s treatment of certain ethno-religious communities, specifically Muslim Uyghurs in the Xinyang Province, these fears are not without merit. Such worries did not, however, prevent China from supporting Russia’s intervention in the conflict in Syria, where it is battling against “extremist” groups the growth of which Beijing fears. Beginning in 2013, China’s president, Xi Jingping—inspired by the Silk Road of antiquity—unfurled the “Belt and Road Project,” which envisages the emergence of three important trade routes, including maritime shipping lanes that will link China to the Arabian Peninsula, the Mediterranean via the South China Sea, and the Indian Ocean. More crucially, the new initiative will incorporate joint infrastructure projects along the Silk Road of antiquity. The “Belt and Road” project will see the rolling out of vast paved roads and railroads, as well as other vital infrastructure projects that will guarantee the smooth flow of cargo over land, sea, and air. The project will also provide for the security of oil and gas pipelines and the construction of trans-national power grids. In addition to all of this, an “Information Silk Road” will offer a cybernetics equivalent of the main project, as well as the protection of international e- commerce throughout the Road’s path. The project also proposes cooperation in the eradication of trade barriers, in part through the creation of free trade zones. Finally, the new “Belt and Road” will be a “Green Silk Road;” the project calls for trans- national cooperation in the fields of renewable, clean energies, the protection of biological diversity, and the combatting of climate change. While this Chinese venture seems bold and ambitious, and will likely face massive challenges, the “Belt and Road” also represents China’s best hope to solve some of its long-standing and deep structural problems, including its surplus production capacity and weak domestic demand. This is coupled with the stalling in Chinese exports to the West as a result of increasingly protectionist trade policies by Western governments. Thus, the “Belt and Road” offers a chance to think about the possible growth and expansion of Sino-Arab strategic relations. If successful, the expansion could also liberate the Arabs from their exclusive reliance on the West for a host of political, economic and security issues. Sessions within the conference will focus on a number of particular topics related to Sino-Arab relations, including the contemporary state of affairs in addition to the historical development of these relations since the independence of the PRC.
Specifically, the topics include:
- The nature of Sino-Arab interactions throughout history.
- Changing dynamics of Chinese interests in the Arab region as the country grows into a world power.
- Strategic worldview of China when it comes to the Middle East; in particular Beijing’s stance on the Arab states, Iran, Turkey, and Israel.
- Discerning the avenues available for the Arabs to inform Chinese policy; conversely, understanding the avenues available for Chinese input on Arab affairs.
- Understanding China’s approach to the Arab Spring.
- The extent to which Arab policy makers and scholars appreciate and understand Chinese policies towards the Arab region; the factors that shape those policies and the means by which to deal with them.
- Understanding the scope for Arab policy formation to match Chinese policies for the Arab region. Understanding the scope for a Sino-Arab strategic partnership founded on energy and knowledge.
- Possibilities for maturing Sino-Arab relations. In particular, shifting the present focus on energy and economic issues, into political rapprochement that would result in Chinese support for the Arab peoples, not only the Arab regimes.
Thematic panels at the conference:
- Panel One: Historical and Cultural Aspects of Sino-Arab Relations, reciprocal stereotypes
- Panel Two: Sino-Arab Relations during the Cold War
- Panel Three: Sino-Arab Relations in Contemporary Global and Regional Contexts
- Panel Four: Questions of Energy: Pipelines and Transit
- Panel Five: The Belt and Road: Opportunities and Challenges
- Panel Six: Chinese Relations with the United States and India on the World Stage: Repercussions for Arab Causes
- Panel Seven: Chinese Relations with Iran, Turkey, and Israel on the Regional Stage: Repercussions for Arab Cause