China Power

Why is China Dithering While Cairo Burns?

Recent Features

China Power

Why is China Dithering While Cairo Burns?

Events in Egypt are proving to be every bit as complicated for Beijing as they are for the US.

Over the last day and a half, international attention has fixated on the Egyptian military’s bloody crackdown on supporters of deposed President Mohamed Morsi. While the UN, EU, and Western and regional nations were quick to come forth with their own reactions to the events, Asia has remained relatively quiet.

This was certainly true of China, which said little for the first 24 hours or so of the crackdown. On Thursday afternoon, however, the Foreign Ministry released a terse statement:

“China follows closely the situation in Egypt and is deeply worried about the developments. China urges parties concerned in Egypt to bear in mind the interests of the country and people, exercise maximum restraint to avoid further casualties and dissolve differences through dialogue and consultation to restore order and social stability.”

This rather vague and ambiguous statement is typical of Chinese diplomacy. Yet it also reflects the reality that there are many “contradictions” in China’s views of the military crackdown in Egypt, and its broader interests in the Arab country more generally.

Perhaps more than anything, China’s views on the military crackdown itself is full of contradictions. On the one hand, China has little interest in criticizing Egypt given its long-standing policy of not intervening in the internal affairs of other states. Additionally, China does not want to come out too harshly against a military crackdown given the ever-looming possibility that it may one day have to (again) deploy the People’s Armed Police and/or Liberation Army to put down similar, large-scale unrest in China.

Indeed, as Eric Olander and Cobus van Staden point out on the China in Africa podcast this week, Chinese leaders in some sense almost welcome the unrest besetting Egypt. After all, the emergence of the Arab Spring initially prompted concern in Beijing that similar unrest could spread to China. The Communist Party can therefore portray the unrest, chaos, and violence that have engulfed Arab Spring countries like Libya, Syria and Egypt as vindicating its argument that an authoritative state is needed to maintain law and order in China.

These concerns about not criticizing a military crackdown appear to have won out given the Foreign Ministry’s statement about protecting the interests of the country and the people in that order.  

Still, China has other reasons to only offer only tepid support to the Egyptian military’s actions. First, as China has accumulated a greater share of world power, it has gradually sought a more active role on the world stage, and the Middle East proper. In this sense, it does not wish to be seen as an irresponsible world power by supporting a military crackdown, and it especially doesn’t wish to further alienate the Arab street given its immense, long-term interests in securing oil from Arab nations.

Chinese leaders also have more abstract concerns about the events in Egypt since 2011. Specifically, the fact that the Egyptian military quickly broke with Hosni Mubarak and his inner circle back in 2011, and have now easily overthrown and prosecuted the civilian leaders in the Muslim Brotherhood, plays to the CCP’s fears that the PLA could someday refuse to back the Party in a time of crisis.

China’s broader interests are also threatened by the end of Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt. Indeed, as Rosie Collington noted on World Outline recently, China greatly benefited from Morsi’s presidency, and had a lot invested in that relationship.

Morsi courted China aggressively in his attempt to solve the country’s fiscal woes and reduce U.S. influence in Egypt. To that end, he made China the destination of his first trip overseas after becoming president. He was hosted in Beijing by then President Hu Jintao, who declared at the time, “You chose China to be one of the first countries to visit after taking office. This shows that you attach great importance to Sino-Egyptian relations. I believe your visit to China will further boost our cooperation in all fields.”

True to his word, Hu signed no less than eight cooperative agreements with Morsi during the trip. Even before then, during the tumultuous year of 2011 in Cairo, Sino-Egyptian trade rose to US$8.8 billion, a 30 percent increase from 2010, according to Xinhua. Last year it rose to US$9.5 billion.

China has also been pouring investment into Egypt since 2011, at a time when other foreign investors have been fleeing the country. Earlier this year China’s ambassador to Egypt said that since his county’s investment in Egypt had increased some 60 percent since the end of Mubarak’s rule.

“The Chinese investments in Egypt over the past two years increased by about $200 million to exceed about $560 million in total,” Xinhua quoted the envoy as saying back in April. At the time, more investment was expected to be forthcoming.

Many of China’s investments were in the newly opened Rawash industrial and investment zone in Giza, Egypt near the Suez Canal. This is not surprising given Beijing’s obvious interest in securing access to the Suez Canal for commercial and military purposes. Like all modern emerging powers before it, China’s interest in the Suez Canal has grown commensurate with its general rise in the world.

It’s unclear how Morsi’s overthrow and the Egyptian military’s crackdown will impact China’s investments and geopolitical interests in Cairo. One concern, of course, is the Egypt will continue its downward spiral and possibly slip into a civil war. This would be the worst outcome from China’s perspective, hence why the Foreign Ministry statement emphasized the need to “restore order and social stability.”

Another possibility is that Morsi or at least the Muslim Brotherhood would return to power in short order without a civil conflict. This would be the best outcome for China, despite its failure to condemn the crackdown, but appears increasingly unlikely.

Finally, the Egyptian military could quickly restore order and maintain power, perhaps exercising it through civilian, non-Islamists leaders. China would hardly be enthusiastic about this prospect, given the possibility that the military would hold a grudge against Beijing for its eager embrace of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Moreover, the Egyptian military is the institution in the country with the strongest ties to the United States. Thus, U.S. influence in Egypt is likely to be greatest under military rule (or indirect military rule).

That said, Chinese leaders are nothing if not pragmatic and will undoubtedly seek to work with the Egyptian military or whoever is in charge in Egypt. For that reason, with Egypt’s future so uncertain at the moment, China is choosing to dither while Cairo burns.