China braves politics of Middle East

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It’s been a busy week for China as the country builds momentum, influencing a greater share of international trade and doing business with more countries.

Right after hosting the ninth Brics Summit, a meeting of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa in Xiamen, the country welcomed the Arab states for a large-scale economic and trade conference.

Two African countries, Mauritania and Egypt, were also on the guest list. The China-Arab States Expo, approved by the state council of China, drew representatives from 47 countries and regions.

It is jointly organised by China’s ministry of commerce, the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade and the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. Since 2010, three sessions of the China-Arab States Economic and Trade Forum and two sessions of the China-Arab States Expo have been held in Ningxia.

The host province is governed by, and has been home to, predominantly Hui Muslims for more than a 1000 years.

The Chinese are spending close to $4 billion (R52bn) on an Islamic theme park in Yinchuan: the Hui Culture Park, also known as World Muslim City. It is believed the Chinese hope it will improve ties with the Middle East.

A statement from the organisers said Chinese president Xi Jinping acknowledged the China-Arab States Expo as an important platform for China and Arab states to build the Belt and Road initiative. The latter is a plan to rejuvenate the old silk road which Xi is staking his reputation on.

The China-Arab States Expo this week was themed “Towards a new model of partnership featuring results-oriented and win-win co-operation for the general purpose of friendship, co-operation, development”.

A total of 321 deals related to science and technology, finance, energy, agriculture, health, tourism, culture and education were signed during previous events, with the total contract worth tens of millions of US dollars.

China-Arab trade reached $171.14bn in 2016 and agreements on projects worth $40bn were signed between the two sides, up 40.8% from 2015. China’s non-financial direct investment in Arab countries surged 74.9%, according to Xinhua news agency.

Sino-Arab ties are spelt out at length in a document drawn up by the Chinese titled “China’s Arab Policy Paper”.

The paper traces the history of China-Arab relations from the ancient Silk Road to the founding of the China-Arab State Co-operation Forum in 2004 and outlines China’s plan for expanding the co-operation.

According to observers, China’s alliances are specifically with countries who are members in the League of Arab States.

These countries serve as the basis of the China-Arab State Co-operation Forum. China’s relations have mainly been defined by its hunger for oil.

The policy paper notes: “Arab countries as a whole have become China’s biggest supplier of crude oil.” Saudi Arabia is China’s largest supplier of oil. The Arab world – Iraq, Kuwait, Oman and the United Arab Emirates – accounts for over 40% of China’s total oil imports.

Geopolitical magazine The Diplomat’s analysis of the document is that China’s “1+2+3” formula for Sino-Arab co-operation pins energy co-operation at the “core” of the relationship. Building infrastructure, trade and investment are described as the “wings” supporting that core.

The “3” refers to “three breakthroughs” – a wish list for future co-operation in nuclear energy, new and clean energy, and aerospace. China’s Belt and Road Initiative serves as the framework for the three-pronged co-operation.

China has been in negotiations since last year for a free trade agreement with the Gulf Co-operation Council, comprised of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

With Chinese diplomacy, the country’s stance on the ongoing crisis, between the council and its allies and Qatar, is for the two sides to work out their differences.

Although China wishes to remain neutral, whether it likes it or not, as economic interests grow, it may well get sucked into the snake pit of Middle East politics.

By MELANIE PETERS
IOL

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