As the American economic engagement diminishes in the region, the Arab world has emerged as a new a strategic pillar of multilateral engagement for China.
The announcement of the ambitious India-Middle East-Europe Corridor (IMEC)on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Delhi created a lot of excitement and anxieties in and around the subcontinent. An article in 163.com calls the IMEC as an “unfettered imagination” (畅想) that is designed to “compete” with China’s BRI. JinCanrong, professor at the School of International Relations, Renmin University posits that “if they can really accomplish this, it will not be inconsistent with the purpose of the ‘Belt and Road’ initiative. However, it is difficult to say whether it can be achieved. How the United States, some European countries and India will implement it, how to ensure funds, and whether they have sufficient infrastructure capacity to execute it are all problems.” Wang Xiaoyu, an associate researcher at the Middle East Studies Center of Fudan University, identifies “three roadblocks”(三道坎) for the project—achieving consensus, funding, and the China-Arab community of a shared future for the new era.Implying that China-Arab relations are on a solid footing and the establishment of the IMEC will not have much impact on it.
Indeed, as the American economic engagement diminishes in the region, the Arab world has emerged as a new a strategic pillar of multilateral engagement for China. China sees its cooperation with the Arabs as an example of South-South cooperation and also a part of building communities of shared future. In 2014, during his keynote address at the opening ceremony of the Sixth Ministerial Conference of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum in Beijing, Xi Jinping proposed the establishment of a “1+2+3” cooperation mechanism, where “1” refers to cooperation in energy as the core, “2” to “two wings”—infrastructure and the trade and investment, and“3” refers to using three advanced technologies—nuclear energy, space satellites and new energy as breakthrough levers. In December 2022, Xi Jinping visited Saudi Arabia toparticipate in the first ever China-Arab States Summit and the first China-GCC Summit. In his keynote address during the China-Arab States Summit on 9 December,Xi Jinping remarked that “as strategic partners, China and Arab states should carry forward the spirit of China-Arab friendship, strengthen solidarity and cooperation, and foster a closer China-Arab community with a shared future.”
Xi Jinping disclosed that the “two sides have established 17 cooperation mechanisms under the framework of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum. Since he took office, bilateral trade registered a jump of US$100 billion, reaching a total of US$300 billion; China’s direct investment in Arab states was up by 2.6 times, reaching US$23 billion; over 200 Belt and Road projects were carried out, benefiting nearly two billion people of the two sides.”China aims to expand its trade with Arab states to $430 billion by 2027.China has been engaging the Arabs bilaterally as well as multilaterally through mechanisms such as the Arab League, the GCC, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Some of the dialogue mechanisms China has established include the China-Arab States Political Parties Dialogue, the China-Arab States Energy Cooperation Conference, the China-Arab Cities Forum, the China-Arab Solidarity Conference the China-Arab Beidou Cooperation Forum, the China-Arab States Women’s Forum, the China-Arab Health Cooperation, the China-Arab Agricultural Cooperation Forum, the China-Arab University Chancellors Forum, China-Arab Expo, the China Middle East Security Forum, and the list goes on to include film, television, technology transfer, water resources etc..
These mechanisms are guided by the China-Arab States Summit with the purpose of promoting a comprehensive China-Arab cooperation covering areas of political, trade, defence, energy and cultural cooperation. Some of the issues where there is unanimity are strategic autonomy of the Arab states, opposition to linking terrorism with a certain religion and politicisation of human rights issues and weaponisation of sanctions, and the currency swaps. There are consultations on issues such as Palestine, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Lebanon, and the Ukraine crisis etc. Chinese brokered peace deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran is seen as the one that has “changed the geopolitical structure and situation, and is expected to provide opportunities for cooling down and resolving other burning issues in the Middle East” according to analysts like Zou Zhibo, Deputy Director of the Institute of World Economics and Politics, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.Zou also touts Saudi-Iranian reconciliation model as a “new model of great power mediation” for solving other complex issues around the world. The community of a shared future for mankind and the Global Security Initiative advocated by Xi Jinping according to the scholar have aided such an outcome.
The Arab League has emerged as China’s largest supplier of crude oil and the largest trade partner. China is in collaboration with the Arabs in building new infrastructure in the spheres of new energy, cyberspace, big data, AI and e-commerce. The establishment of technology transfer and joint training centres in the Arab states for the peaceful use of nuclear energy, and introducing China’s BeiDou Navigation Satellite System to the Arab states are important elements of such collaboration. Besides, China-Arab cultural ties are also on an upward trajectory. By the end of 2022, there were 20 Confucius Institutes in Arab countries. Both sides have built a China-Arab Digital Library websiteand are engaged in mutual translation of classic, modern and contemporary works. China has pledged that it will invite 100 young scientists from the Arab world to China for scientific research exchanges, 3,000 teenagers for China-Arab cultural exchanges, and 10,000 Arab talents for professional training in poverty alleviation, health and green development.
Furthermore, the BRI is aimed at building capacities and robust trade and security ties. According to the “eight major initiatives” proposed by Xi Jinping during the China-Arab States Summit, China will provide the Arab states assistance projects worth 5 billion yuan (about $719 million) in development cooperation, and include 30 projects from the Arab world in the Global Development Initiative project pool. Both sides are also strengthening cooperation in the area of global governance; the building of a China-Arabcommunity with shared future that talks about promoting security through common development and dialogue has been pitched against the major power rivalry. No wonder, in the expansion of the BRICS in South Africa, four (Saudi Arabia, Iran, United Arab Emirates and Egypt) of the six countries are from the Arab world. As could be seen, the BRI in the Arab world encompasses everything under heaven. The Arabs, according to Ebrahim Hashem, are already in the post-West and post-US era, “demonstrating strategic autonomy” by adhering to the “policy of multi-alignment”, participating in initiative such as the BRICS, IMEC and BRI at the same time.
B.R. Deepak is Professor, Center of Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.