China and Middle Eastern Countries: Towards a Brighter Shared Future
China and the Middle East are both cradles of splendid civilizations. For over two thousand years, the network spun by the ancient Silk Road has connected Chinaand the countries in the Middle East at the east and west ends of Eurasia. The two sides enjoy a long history of close exchangesandfriendship, with no historical grievances in the past or conflicts at present. This truly exemplifies what is meant by the saying “Good friends feel close to each other even when they are separated by vast distance.”On 30 May 1956, the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of Egypt officially established diplomatic relations. That was the beginning of diplomatic engagement between New China and Middle Eastern countries. Over the past 60-plus years, the relations between the two sides have been through several stages defined by deepening mutualunderstanding, setbacks and adjustments, build-up of momentum, and majorbreakthroughs. The two sides have helped each other in an evolving world and carried out sincere cooperation for their respective national development. In this process, they have become like-minded friends, mutually beneficial partners, and good brothers who stick together through thick and thin.
As the second decade of the 21st century begins, the relations between China and Middle Eastern countries have entered a new historical stage of elevated development across the board. The two sides have strengthened political mutual trust, advanced Belt and Road cooperation, stepped up coordination in international and regional affairs, and deepened experience-sharing on governance and people-to-people exchanges.
—Common understanding at the leadership level has charted the course of anever-growing relationship. President Xi Jinping traveled to the Middle East in 2016 and 2018 on state visits to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). He attended the opening ceremonies of the sixth and eighth Ministerial Conference of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum in Beijing and gave three policy speeches on the Middle East. From the Middle East, heads of state or government of 19 countries visited China to explore further cooperation. China has by far established 14 strategic partnerships with regional countries and the League of Arab States, and an innovative comprehensive partnership with Israel, adding strong vitality to the friendship and cooperation between the two sides.
In 2018, President Xi proposed the building of a China-Arab states community with a shared future, an initiative warmly received and welcomed by Arab states. It was incorporated as a consensus between China and Arab states into the outcome document of the ninth Ministerial Conference of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum held in July this year. This is an important chapter in the relations between China and Middle Eastern countries, which opens up new vistas for the future growth of relations.
— Deepening Belt and Road cooperation has put practical cooperation onto a fast track. The shared history of the ancient Silk Road has been translated into a common aspiration for broader cooperation. When China launched the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013, countries in the Middle East voiced unanimous support. To date, 19 countries in the region have signed Belt and Road cooperation agreements with China. The Declaration of Action on China-Arab States Cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative, signed between China and the League of Arab States, is the first of its kind between China and a regional organization. Cooperation in recent years shows that the Belt and Road Initiative has facilitated participating countries’ efforts to attract foreign investment, introduce technologies, advance domestic reform and development, and better participate in globalization. This explains why the initiative has been well received in the Middle East.
Belt and Road cooperation has boosted and added more dimensions to the overall cooperation between China and Middle Eastern countries, which has expanded from traditional fields such as oil and gas, trade, and project to become more wide-ranging. In 2019, bilateral trade reached US$323.6 billion,and two-way investments continued to grow, with Middle Eastern countries remaining the biggest source, or 47% of China’s crude oil imports. China has taken an active part in building industrial parks in the region and sought greater synergy between China-built projects and major local ports like Abu Dhabi and Port Said. China has thuscontributed significantly to trade connectivity and industrial clusteringin the Middle East and the impact of its development on neighboring regions.
— Mutual support on major issues has formed a synergy for justice and equity.Middle Eastern countries have constantly rendered their strong and invaluable support on issues concerning China’s core interests. Likewise, China has firmly supported Middle Eastern countries in safeguarding sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity and pursuing independent development paths that suit their national realities.
Committed to justice and equity, China has taken a constructive part in settling hotspot issues and promoting peace and stability in the region for the good of Middle Eastern countries. On the question of Palestine, President Xi has made a suggestion that reflects international consensus and moral code. It has been widely commended by various parties. On Syria, China is committed to a political settlement and is firmly against a regime change forced against international norms. On the Iranian nuclear issue, China has stood for peaceful negotiations and defended multilateral agreements. To help solve the issue of South Sudan, in addition to providing humanitarian assistance, China has sent its first combat unit to the peacekeeping operation in the country.
In 2002, the Chinese government appointed its first Special Envoy for the Middle East. Over the past 18 years, five successive special envoys have made more than one hundred trips to the Middle East to promote peace talks and worked tirelessly for resolving the question of Palestine and other issues in the region. China’s Special Envoy for Syria and Ambassador for China-Arab States Cooperation Forum (CASCF) Affairs, two roles created later, have also conducted shuttle diplomacy and contributed their wisdom to resolve relevant hotspot issues.This is another example of how China upholds justice and assumes responsibility as a major country. Such efforts have been widely applauded and supported by the parties concerned.
—Fruitful people-to-people exchanges have resulted in greater affinity.Recent years have witnessed much mutual-learning and inspiration between China and Middle Eastern countries.Through the China-Arab Research Center on Reform and Development, the China-Arab States Forum on Reform and Development and other platforms, more than 100 professionals from the region have had discussions with their Chinese counterparts on suchtopics as economic reform and development, people’s livelihood, employment, poverty reduction and anti-corruption. Middle Eastern countries have gained deepening understanding about China, while China has also benefited profoundly from the governanceexperience shared by these countries.
Over the past few years, a growing number of young people from the Middle East have chosen to study in China;several thousand professionals from the region have received training in China, and Chinese language courses have become quite popular in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and many other Middle Eastern countries. Mutual visits have been made more convenient, as 17 countries in the Middle East grant visa-free treatment to Chinese diplomatic and official passport holders and 10 countries have visa-free or visa-upon-landing arrangements for Chinese with regular passports.
As China and Middle Eastern countries together enter the third decade of the 21st century, the sudden attack of COVID-19 has brought a severe impact on both sides and the rest of the world, not least by disrupting many political and diplomatic agendas. Nevertheless, COVID-19 cannot stop the growing relations between China and Middle Eastern countries. The two sides have stood in solidarity and helped each other in this trying time and written a splendid chapter in building a community with a shared future for mankind. The relations have stood the test of COVID-19 and scaled a new height.
At the most testing moment in China’s fight against COVID-19, many leaders of Middle Eastern countries made phone calls or sent messages to President Xi Jinping to offer strong political support. Multiple countries and regional organizations in the Middle East issued statements in support of China’s COVID-19 response. Countries in the region donated 12 million face masks and other urgently-needed medical supplies. The Burj Khalifa in the UAE, the highest building in the world, lit up to root for Wuhan. Three world heritage sites in Egypt put on light shows featuring the Chinese national flag. People in the Middle East spontaneously sent videos and songs to wish China well. Such an outpouring of kindness shall always be remembered by the Chinese.
After COVID-19 struck the Middle East, President Xi also calledor wrote to leaders of regional countries to affirm China’s solidarity with them during the difficult times. The central and local governments in China, enterprises, non-governmental organizations and ordinary Chinese all took action. Medical supplies including 18 million masks, 1.2 million test kits, three million protective suits, safety goggles, gloves and shoe covers were sent to Middle Eastern countries.Efforts were also made to facilitate their purchases of medical supplies from China. China shared with regional countries its own experience and technologies without reservation, by holding more than 40 video conferences involving health experts from both sides and sending a total of 90 medical experts to nine countries in urgent need. Under a special arrangement to help the Palestinian people combat COVID-19, in addition to sending medical supplies and experts, China also contributed funds to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and provided health kits to Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, the Gaza strip, Jordan and Lebanon.
On how to make an effective global response to COVID-19, China and Middle Eastern countries think very much alike. The two sides have worked in concert to oppose politicizing and stigmatizing the virus. Thisis an important contribution to building global consensus and pooling resources in fighting the virus.
COVID-19 has accelerated the already profound changes taking place in the world. While peace and development remain the theme of our times,instability and uncertainty have become more prominent. For China and countries in the Middle East, who cherish dreams of national rejuvenation and shoulder missions of achieving national prosperity and betteringpeople’s lives, the current circumstances have brought greater difficulties and challenges than ever. For our two sides, strengthening relations, deepening mutually beneficial cooperation, and pursuing culturalmutual-learning would be the right direction in keeping with the trend of the times and the best choice in the interest of both sides.
The two sides share similar views and aspirationson major issues. Similar experiences and stance have createda strong bond between China andMiddle Eastern countries. Both sides explicitly uphold the principle of non-interference in internal affairs,call for respect for sovereign independence and territorial integrity, and advocate political and negotiated solutions to differences. Both support the UN-centered multilateral system and the multilateral order underpinned by international law, and stand committed to making globalization more open, inclusive, balanced and beneficial for all.More communication, solidarity and coordination between China andMiddle Easterncountrieswill inject more positive energy into this fast-changing worldand help protect the largestcommon interests of variousparties in the world.
The two sides share complementarity and intertwined interests in practical cooperation.With rich energy endowment and vast markets, the Middle East is well placed to achieve greater development. China, the world’s second largest economy, has tested and proven experience for industrialization, cost-effective equipment and technologies, and high-level personnel training and financing support, which could meet the developmentneeds of Middle Eastern countries as they accelerate industrialization and diversify the economy. Despite protectionism and resistance against globalization, the two sides have leveraged Belt and Road cooperation as a way to expand and deepen mutually beneficial cooperation. Efforts by the two sides to form greater synergy intheir development strategies and endeavors and to turn shared needs into new areas of cooperationwill undoubtedlycontribute to an openand connected world and to the global economic recovery.
The two sides share the view that civilizations should treat each other with mutual understanding, inclusiveness and mutual learning.The Chinese, the Arab, the Persian, and the Jewish civilizations all have a time-honored history. They all stand for peaceful co-existence of different civilizations, attach importance to drawing upon other civilizations for inspiration to sustain their own development, and endeavor to make contributions to the progress of human civilization. In the face of claims about“clash of civilizations”and“cultural superiority”, closer cultural exchanges and mutual learning between Chinaand Middle Eastern countries and their efforts to promote dialogue and inclusiveness over misunderstanding and differencesand reject the association of terrorism with certain ethnicities or religions will help uphold what is right and just and foster a more fair, reasonable and diverse system of civilizations and values.
COVID-19 will be defeated. The future holds great promise for China and countries in the Middle East.The two sides may focus their efforts on the following aspects as they jointly think about how to fight COVID-19, achieve further development, and add impetus to their national rejuvenation.
First, striving for an early victory against COVID-19through cooperation. The global fight against the virus has entered a critical period. China will continue to provide assistance to Middle Eastern countries in need and facilitate their procurement in China. The two sides are conducting joint vaccine research and development. When vaccines are deployed, Chinawillprioritize Middle Eastern countries in relevant international cooperation. The two sides could continue to hold video conferences of health experts to shareexperience in COVID-19 response and discuss ways to strengthen medical infrastructure and enhance preparedness for public health emergencies. The two sides should continue to oppose any attempts to politicizeorstigmatize the virus,support the World Health Organization in playing a key role in leading the global response, and jointly contribute to global public health development.
Second, enhancing solidarity and cooperation through firm mutual support.Once the COVID-19 situation gets better, China and Middle Eastern countries could resume friendly exchanges at all levels to consolidate and develop their relations. For example, efforts need to be made to ensure the success of the China-Arab Summit and other important events. It is important for the two sidestostay committed to the principle of non-interference in internal affairs, support each other on issues involving the other’s core interests, and oppose external meddling. China will continue to firmly support the efforts of countries in the region to safeguard their own political security and social stability. Given the complex regional situation, the two sides need to actively push for dialogue as a resolution to differences,resolutely oppose acts of bullying, applying maximum pressure, or ganging up against others, and explore a common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable regional security architecture that could restore peace and tranquility to the Middle East at an early date.
Third, advancing Belt and Road cooperation to the benefit of both sides. China stands ready for high-quality Belt and Road cooperation with countries in the Middle East. The two sides could open “fast tracks” for two-way personnel exchanges and “green corridors” for cross-border flow of goods and put such arrangements to best use to create enabling conditions for the resumption of important cooperation projects. More efforts are needed to implement the consensus of the two sides and focus on cooperation in key areas, including industrial parks and major ports in the region;to consolidate energy cooperation, which is the anchor ofthe overall cooperation, and deepen clean energy cooperation in solar energy and nuclear energy for peaceful purposes; to foster new growth driversfor high-tech cooperation such as 5G, satellite navigation, artificial intelligence, and big data; and to make concerted efforts and take bigger steps for FTA arrangements and investment facilitation.
Fourth, fostering popular support for an enduring friendship through more exchanges. China will work with countries in the Middle East to champion equality, mutual learning, dialogue and inclusiveness between cultures, enhance dialogue among civilizations and cooperation in de-radicalization, and continue to ensurethe successof activities under relevant mechanisms.China will step up exchanges withMiddleEastern countries in various fields such as culture, education, journalism, tourism, health, religion, and youths; provide more scholarships to Middle Eastern countries; introduce more visa facilitationmeasures;open more Confucius Institutes/Classrooms and culture centers in the region; and facilitate cooperation on learning languages of China andMiddle Eastern countries. These efforts willhelp the people of the two sides to understand each other better and forge a closer bond of friendship and cooperation.
The giant tree of friendship between China and the countriesinthe Middle East is rooted in the fertile soil of mutual respect and mutually beneficial cooperation. It would only emerge stronger from wind and rain.With solidarity and cooperation, China and Middle Eastern countrieswill be able to defeat COVID-19 and embrace a brighter future for their relations and, on that basis, make greater contributions to peace and development in the world anda community with a shared future for mankind.
Zhai Jun is Special Envoy of the Chinese Government for the Middle East.