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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

Three key factors in the Arab world's relationship with China

Today, the rise of China compels Arabs to reflect on their objectives from the relationship, argues Tarek Osman

It is almost certain that the Chinese economic story will, in the medium term, see complications arising from concentration of power, demographic imbalances, plateauing productivity, rising cost of living, and dramatic air pollution levels. Getty Images
It is almost certain that the Chinese economic story will, in the medium term, see complications arising from concentration of power, demographic imbalances, plateauing productivity, rising cost of living, and dramatic air pollution levels. Getty Images

For many centuries, Arab exposure to China was limited to paltry trading, primarily through the Arab communities that had settled in western Iran, India and the key hubs along the Silk route. Arguably, the key interaction was Islam’s entry into China. But even that was slow, sporadic and almost exclusively based on forays of Muslim merchants. Perhaps the most significant interaction in the 20th century was that between China’s communist leadership and the Arab nationalist movement, especially with Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser. But that was before China opened up to international trade and capitalist ideas in the 1970s..

Today, the rise of China (arguably the most important geo-strategic development in the period since the end of the Second World War) compels Arabs to reflect on their objectives from the relationship with China.

Three factors are paramount for Arab interests in that relationship.

The first is oil. Irrespective of the welcome efforts by key Arab oil-exporters to diversify their economies, oil will remain the main contributor to all Gulf Arab economies for at least the next decade. And, even if its economy’s growth rate slows down in that decade, China will remain the most important importer of Arab fossil fuels. This relationship must evolve to entail geo-economic coordination. As the key orchestrators of oil supply and prices, the large Arab oil producers must build official mechanisms that incorporate Chinese views on oil economics into their thinking when setting out oil production plans. But this is easier said than done.

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The Arab geo-economic strategy regarding oil was a major success in the period after the 1973 Arab-Israeli conflict until the end of that decade, because it managed to exponentially increase oil prices without antagonising the main oil consumers at the time (the US, Europe, and Japan). But that success was short-lived. The Arab oil economic strategy failed to sustain the wealth creation. Observers lay the blame on extraneous factors, such as the economic slowdown in the West during the 1980s. But a good strategy is one that achieves its results in turbulent times and amid changing circumstances. And this is where the Arabs’ new oil geo-economic strategy must succeed.

China’s rise will not be predicable or smooth. Irrespective of reports comparing Xi Jinping, the current Chinese president, to Moa Zedong in terms of authority, Mr Xi is currently consolidating his powers, a process that will see important political economic changes. Also irrespective of the reports predicting a linear Chinese economic growth in the coming years, it is almost certain that the Chinese economic story will, in the medium term, see complications arising from concentration of power, demographic imbalances, plateauing productivity, rising cost of living, and dramatic air pollution levels. The Arabs’ geo-economic strategy must factor in the impact of these variables on the state of the Chinese economy and the direction of its demand for energy.

This entails a bottom-up understanding of China. Arab regimes, especially those of major oil producing countries, must invest significantly into their diplomatic, cultural and human presence in China. This means much more than large embassies and high-profile state visits. There should be an effort to build a genuine understanding of Chinese society and modern culture, from the inside. As any scenario-developer learns early on, the quality of the scenario planning is a function of the inputs fed into the planning model. And good inputs come from deep, patient and inquisitive first-hand exposure to a country.

The second factor is security. So far, Chinese strategists have not figured out a way of ensuring how to fit and integrate Muslim communities within its internal social dynamics, especially at a time of immense social change. Often, China uses coercion in dealing with these communities. Coercion could work in the short-term, but is guaranteed failure in the future. China’s approach to political Islam, whether peaceful or militant, will become more important for its leadership as the country widens its sphere of influence in Asia, and especially in the countries, with Muslim majorities, in the Asian steppes. Some Arab regimes might be tempted to present themselves to the Chinese as security partners, advising the Chinese on how to contain mainstream Islamist movements and on how to crush militant ones.

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This would be the wrong approach. Much more valuable to the Chinese would be offering them the opportunity to truly understand the Arab and Islamic worlds, for them to devise a strategy to deal with their form of political Islam in a way that fits their own heritage and circumstances. Offering such an opportunity to the Chinese will entail enhanced cultural interactions. It would mean that Arab diplomats and envoys must present China with arguments of how complicated and worthy of reflection their region in. It should be an Arab objective that China evolves its view of the Arab world from being merely a place to secure energy and get support on how to address Islamism towards a more sophisticated and positive view. This will raise the value of the Arab world in any Chinese strategic calculus.

The third factor is geo-strategy. And here we’re back to oil. One of the US’s key leverages over China is the US’s dominance over the security of the Gulf and over the routes Gulf oil and gas take to China. Over time, China will attempt to install itself as a player in the security of oil and gas at origin and in transport. Arab strategists, especially in the Gulf, will find themselves having to balance conflicting US and Chinese interests. Devising a balanced strategy that secures Arab objectives, amidst pressures from two superpowers, will need nuanced understandings of Chinese decision making processes.

These factors combined necessitate upgrading how the Arab world interacts with China. As Arabs, we have one valuable asset in our dealing with the country: we both belong to civilisations that, at heart, feel having been wronged in the past two centuries. This might be a skewed perception. And it certainly entails victimisation. But it remains a common feature that makes China’s view of the Arab world quite sympathetic. We should leverage on this, and develop our China strategy now, as we are increasingly finding ourselves drawn into new webs of interests weaved by that giant rising in the east.

Tarek Osman is the author of Islamism and Egypt on the Brink, and the writer and presenter of several BBC documentary series