China Power

China and the Arab World

China is set to continue a pragmatic approach to relations with the Arab world—democratic governments or not.

The military strikes against Libya following the establishment of the UN-backed no-fly zone have taken many Chinese by surprise. Most of the media in China had understandably been focused on covering the earthquake in Japan, but the commencement of air strikes has meant attention has quickly shifted.

There are two main reasons for the interest in the Libya situation here in China. First, if Col. Muammar Gaddafi—who has ruled Libya for 42 years—steps down because of the military attacks, there could be serious repercussions in an already unstable part of the world that affects Chinese interests. Second, the use of military force by the West to express support for democracy will likely have a ripple effect in other nations.

The latter reason is likely weighing most heavily on people’s minds, and is the reason why China recently (albeit briefly) took the initiative in reaching out to officials in several North African countries.

Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Zhai Jun, for example, visited Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and Saudi Arabia earlier this month—all countries that had recently either changed government or experienced domestic unrest. Meanwhile, Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, the envoy of Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz, visited China on March 18 and met with Chinese President Hu Jintao.

In addition, Wu Sike, China’s special envoy to the Middle East, is set to visit Israel, the Palestinian Territories, Syria and Lebanon from March 23 until April 2—all countries that are key to any chance of lasting peace in the Middle East.

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These visits by high-level delegations are a useful information gathering exercise, allowing the Chinese government to secure some first-hand information to allow it to decide on the future course of China’s Middle East policy.

My guess is that China’s leaders will be pragmatic as events unfold in the Arab world—the non-interference policy will be maintained and economic partnerships will be forged with any new governments swept to power by democracy movements.

In addition, I expect the Chinese government to continue to maintain good relations with regional groupings such as the Arab League, the African Union and the Gulf Cooperation Council. Good ties with all of these will help ensure that any new, pro-West governments won’t be tempted to shift course too radically in a way that adversely affects China.

International relations is all about governments working to secure their own interests and reaping any potential benefits. China might have regretted the fall of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, but it’s unlikely to sacrifice good ties with Egypt just because there’s an unexpected new leadership. This principle applies not just to Egypt, but to North Africa and the Middle East as a whole.