DUBAI // Zhan Jingbao, China’s new consul general, took to the podium and, in Arabic accented by his native tongue, invoked memories of the old Silk Road that linked his country through trade routes to the Middle East.
“China is a nation with historical ties to the Arab states since ages past,” he said during a recent Chinese New Year celebration at Madinat Jumeirah, organised by the Chinese Learning Centre.
“Cultural exchange” between China and the UAE “strengthens and deepens these ties day after day”, Mr Zhan said.
But the deepening cultural ties underlay a broader move by China to expand its economic and political relationships in the Gulf, experts said.
“We are keen to expand commercial and economic relations between the UAE and China,” he said.
China is the UAE’s second-largest trading partner behind India. Average annual growth in trade from 2005 to 2008 between the UAE and China was 40 per cent, according to Abdullah Saleh, the undersecretary of the Ministry of Foreign Trade, who attended the January 26 celebration.
“China is actively courting the states of the GCC as part of their political and economic expansion across the region,” said Dr Theodore Karasik, the director of research and development at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.
The Gulf countries provide China with the oil necessary to sustain its economic growth, said Mr Saleh, and the rapid development of infrastructure in countries like the UAE needs foreign investors and capital.
Bilateral trade reached US$28 billion (Dh102.83bn) in 2008 before falling to $21bn in 2009 due to the financial crisis.
UAE companies may also invest in China, particularly in property and petro-chemicals, Dr Karasik said.
“There is also potential for UAE companies to go and invest in China, and we already have some Emirati companies who are investing in China in different fields,” he said, including property real estate and petro-chemicals.
Joint ventures between UAE and Chinese companies are also a possibility, particularly in fields such as services, hospitality, logistics, construction, telecommunications and high-tech industry, he said.
“You can’t deny their technology has caught up with the major players”, said Philip Stockley, the head of telecom solutions at Atlas, a UAE firm that is exploring partnerships with the Chinese.
Years of established diplomatic relations culminated in several visits last year by UAE officials, including Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Lt Gen Hamad al Rumaithi, the Chief of Staff of the UAE Armed Forces.
“China is emerging as an important global power, so everybody would like to reach out to it and make sure China understands their concerns,” said Dr Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a professor of political science at UAE University, of the visits.
Though the nature of the military co-operation between the two countries remains obscure, China has hinted that it wants to expand military exchange programmes and training.
China is expected to deliver 17 low-altitude seaplanes to the UAE in May in a deal that Chinese state media said is worth billions of US dollars.
“I think the Chinese are still trying to test the ground and not step on anyone’s toes in the region,” said Dr Abdulla. The UAE has supported key Chinese issues, voicing its support for the “one China” policy that inclusdes the unification of Taiwan with mainland China, and expressed concern at the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize last year to the jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, saying it represented meddling in China’s internal affairs.