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China and 22 Arab Countries Reach Consensus on Gaza Ceasefire and Further Cooperation

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China and 22 Arab Countries Reach Consensus on Gaza Ceasefire and Further Cooperation

China is one of the few geopolitically prominent countries that has managed to maintain good relations with Israel, Palestine, and the wider Muslim world. 

China and 22 Arab Countries Reach Consensus on Gaza Ceasefire and Further Cooperation

A family photo ahead of the opening ceremony of the 10th Ministerial Meeting of China-Arab States Cooperation Forum at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing Thursday, May 30, 2024.

Credit: Jade Gao/Pool Photo via AP

The 10th China-Arab States Cooperation Forum (CASCF) concluded in Beijing in early June. The forum is a ministerial-level meeting founded 20 years ago as a China-led effort to engage with the Arab world. Officials from 22 Arab states attended the forum. Several heads of government also graced the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, including Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, Tunisian President Kais Saied, and United Arab Emirates President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. This is the first CASCF that has been held since the historic China-Arab States Summit in Riyadh in December 2022, with the participation of the Chinese president and 21 Arab heads of state.

This year’s forum featured consensus on two fronts: further economic and especially technological cooperation and the need for a ceasefire in the ongoing conflict in Gaza. It emphasized “results-oriented and mutually beneficial cooperation” and strategic mutual trust. The two sides also exchanged reassurances on each other’s “sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and national dignity,” a shared priority and the baseline of their diplomacy. 

The forum issued a joint statement that contains 21 points. China and Arab states condemned Israel’s “ongoing violations against the Palestinian people” and “denounce[d] the violations in Rafah city, the bombing of refugee camps, and the control of the Rafah crossing.” Both sides also condemned the United States’ veto on Palestine becoming a full member of the United Nations. Both parties agreed that Israel must adhere to applicable legal standards, particularly international humanitarian law. They stressed that Israel, as an occupying power, is accountable for the severe humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

China indicated firm support for Palestine’s full membership in the U.N., consistent with China’s voting on on June 10 at the U.N. Security Council on Resolution 2735 (2024), a new draft created after China and Russia vetoed a U.S.-proposed draft tied to the release of hostages on March 22. Xi also pledged $69 million in humanitarian aid for Gaza. China had helped the Palestinian Authority and Hamas hold a dialogue in Beijing earlier this year to facilitate intra-Palestine unity.

China is one of the few geopolitically prominent countries that has managed to maintain good relations with Israel, Palestine, and the wider Muslim world. Strategically, the Arab world and China have been deepening their relationship. The deepening has created a balance against American influence in the region. China is an increasingly important partner, going beyond its usual non-interventionist approach in the region. Arab states see China as a way to diversify their partnerships, and in the case of some, to leverage their relationships with the United States. To both sides, it is a balancing act rather than a big departure from the status quo.

China looks at the Middle East as a stage on which to practice its big-nation diplomacy. It has established a string of bilateral strategic partnerships and comprehensive strategic partnerships in the region since the 2010s. CASCF represents a multilateral effort to engage with the region. Countries like Egypt, Algeria, and Saudi Arabia have also been integrated into the BRICS grouping, and several Arab states have become “dialogue partners” of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. China is a member of both groupings.

The forum took place in the context of other important meetings of a similar nature, including the summit with the Gulf Cooperation Council in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, which Xi paired with a state visit in December 2022. Most notably, Xi succeeded in brokering a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran in March 2023. China and Saudi Arabia’s top-down and policy-driven development approaches are also highly in sync. There is an increasing emphasis on the parallel between China’s Belt and Road Initiative and many Gulf countries’ initiatives, especially Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030.

The Middle East and North Africa is a top destination for China’s exports, and it is seen as the new “wild west” by Chinese businesses planning to go overseas. The region is often referred to as an unexplored “blue sea” by the Chinese media. Arab countries consider China an increasingly viable source of infrastructure, technology, and financing. There are also growing ties with Egypt under Sisi, with China funding and building several infrastructure projects, including $59 billion for Egypt’s New Administrative Capital urban community near Cairo, Huawei’s cloud service, and the $1.24 billion Cairo Light Rail Transit project. In addition, there are a few other ongoing energy projects with the UAE and Kuwait. Many of these projects are co-listed in the portfolio of the Belt and Road Initiative.

The forum identified five domains of cooperation going forward. The first is innovation and technological development. China is keenly aware of the existing international division of labor in the global innovation ecosystem, and it has been working toward becoming a major technology exporting country while struggling against U.S. export restrictions that aim to slow down China’s speed of development. Arab states take China as a prime example for fast, domestically driven, technological development. The forum agreed to 10 joint labs covering fields such as life health, AI, greentech, and agriculture. China is to leverage its existing institutions for training satellite management and other aerospace projects, known as the BeiDou project, which is part of the Belt and Road Initiative. A joint-venture with China is also helping Oman to build its first satellite. 

The two sides are willing to expand projects in finance and banking, including digital currency, bonds, the RMB cross-border payment clearing system, and the acceleration of Middle Eastern industrialization through better financial cooperation. 

Energy is one of the key areas that was highlighted in the forum. The bilateral trade between China and the Gulf totaled $286.9 billion in 2023, 40 percent of which was with Saudi Arabia. China and Saudi Arabia will host the 8th energy cooperation forum in 2025, while deepening cooperation in traditional oil and gas, electricity and storage, as well as cleantech with Arab countries, including solar, nuclear, and hydrogenic energy. The two sides aim to explore opportunities to jointly develop new energy technologies and equipment production with Arab countries and will support Chinese energy companies and financial institutions in participating in renewable energy projects in Arab countries with a total installed capacity exceeding 3 million kilowatts.

Although there are areas of joint private ventures, China is a competitor to many local companies. A poll conducted by ECFR in 2023 found that the population has a closer cultural proximity to and understanding of the political systems in U.S. and Europe than with China. China-Arab states relations are deepening, but it is a diversification rather than replacement of the existing status quo with other players in the world for both sides of this gathering.