2022: The World This Year

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2022: The World This Year
China and the Middle East: Xi Jinping’s visit towards a “new era” and “China-Arab community”

  Sapna Elsa Abraham

TWTW#196, 31 December 2022, Vol. 4, No. 45


What happened?

On 8 December, Chinese President Xi Jinping made a three-day visit to Saudi Arabia. The visit comes after 6 years. The visit elevated the bilateral relations to a comprehensive strategic partnership with greater emphasis on protecting their core interests, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. During the visit, 34 Memorandums of Understanding and agreements totalling USD 30 billion were inked in the fields of green energy, information technology, infrastructure, and cloud servers. These deals include transportation logistics, petrochemical projects, and a special emphasis on teaching Chinese language. According to Xi, the visit will “usher a new era in China relations with the Arab world.” Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman commented: “Visit will launch a new era”.

On 9 December, several summits with other countries from the region were organised. The first summit of the China-Arab States saw the participation of the leaders of 21 Arab League nations. The summit issued the Riyadh Declaration to construct a China-Arab community with a shared future and to implement the ‘Outline of the Comprehensive Cooperation Plan Between China and the Arab States’.

On the same day, the first China-Gulf Cooperation Countries summit was also held. "Building on Past Achievements and Jointly Creating a Brighter Future of China-GCC Relations," was Xi Jinping's rallying point. Both summits reaffirmed their commitment to cooperation in the fields of energy cooperation, finance and investment, new areas of cooperation, innovation, science and technology, especially cloud computing 5G and 6G, oil and gas trade in Petroyuan, aerospace, promotion of language and cultural cooperation and to assist the region in setting up nuclear technologies for peaceful reasons. China emphasised on the need to respect sovereignty, territorial integrity and promote non-interference in the domestic issues. Special emphasis was on bringing the Arab countries into China’s Belt and Road initiative and Global Development Initiative, and Global Security Initiative. 

What is the background?

First, energy cooperation between China and the Middle East. China is seeking to deepen its ties with the energy-rich region because of the escalating energy crisis, the impact of the Ukraine war, supply chain disruptions, and a need to securely supply to a booming manufacturing sector in China. China is the biggest consumer of energy from the Middle East and West Africa, and more than half of its oil demands are satisfied by supplies from the region. The geographical location makes the Middle East a desired region for China’s BRI initiative. The BRI has become a cornerstone for China’s Middle East strategy which was emphasised in the Arab policy paper of 2016. With the growing sanctions and trade war with the US, China has been struggling to introduce the Petroyuan (RMB) in the international market. China seeks to deepen its relationship with the Middle East to push for the region's energy trade to be conducted in RMB rather than petrodollar. The negotiations for the Free Trade Agreement between China and GCC countries was stalled due to differences and this summit is expected to renew the talks. 

Second, the strained US-Saudi Arabia relations in the background. Saudi Arabia is a close ally of the US in the Arab world. The relationship has entered a difficult phase because of the accusations against Saudi Arabia of violating human rights and OPEC's refusal to expand oil production. Strategists see this as a chance for China to get through the US defences at a time of unease between the countries. China was the top economic partner for Saudi Arabia in 2021, with bilateral trade between the two countries reaching USD 87.3 billion. The two sides agreed to support the Saudi Arabia 2030 vision while going hand in hand with Chinese economic interest. Saudi-China ties are crucial for China-Arab relations as Riyadh has a strong political and economic standing in the Arab world.

Third, Xi’s visit was a turning point in China’s Middle East strategy. In comparison with Africa and Southeast Asia, China maintained a low profile in the Middle East. With the declining influence of the US, China has opted for the opportune moment to promote its influence in the region. China considers these countries as an important source of diplomatic support with the recent example of UAE, Qatar and Sudan voting against the debate on Uyghur Muslims. Countries in the Middle East view China as a great source of investment and trade as the investments are free of restrictions; unlike the support from the US and the West which pushes for democratic and human rights. China has time and again stressed on the non-interference into countries' domestic affairs. In the process of diversification of the economy from oil, the Arab nations view China as a potential source of latest technology development. 

Fourth, security and cooperation aimed at China taking a security provider status. China is attempting to fill the evident gap in US-Saudi Arabia relations by inking agreements in the field of security and defence. Saudi Arabia has been wholly dependent on the US for its security needs, which is a crucial area of domination for the US. However, Saudi Arabia has now become one of the top importers of Chinese weapons. Along with Saudi and China’s joint ventures in manufacturing drones, the PLA Navy visited every GCC country’s ports by the end of 2019. China mentioned in the summits that it wants to form a security framework with the Arab countries. 

About the author

Sapna Elsa Abraham is a Research Officer at the Chennai Centre for China Studies. 

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