Author: Arantza Renteria Vizcarra

In a multipolar and globalized world, each country represents an opportunity. Undoubtedly, the People’s Republic of China has guided its foreign policy under this principle, where international relations are supposed to be a win-win cooperation vision towards world peace and development.

Relations between China and the Arab countries began decades ago. Before the 21st century, most of the countries of the Middle East and the Gulf had already signed a strategic plan to strengthen diplomatic ties. Although diplomatic intentions dated since the first China – Arab States Cooperation Forum in 2004, the country officially expressed its regional vision in China’s Arab Policy Document (2016), which established multisectoral goals to promote a new type of international relations and respond to economic, political, and social globalization that constantly changes worldwide dynamics. While this requires a robust state capacity building, compared to the vision of other nations, Chinese foreign policy remains consistent in non-interference in internal affairs, opting for positive results from solidarity and partnership through mutual support.

Contrary to the popular perspective, the Chinese government sees in the Middle East many fields of opportunities despite the regional conflicts that are currently affecting the stability of the region. As the largest foreign investor in the  Middle East and North Africa (MENA), China regards the region as a potential market rather than an important security environment. However, strengthening diplomatic ties between them is vital to achieving peace through reform, development, industrialization, enhancing employment, and improving people’s livelihood. Consequently, China’s policy towards Arab states for comprehensive cooperation and common development essentially covers these fields.

First and foremost, from the Chinese perspective, international trade is the most valuable mechanism to connect domestic and international markets and resources and foster a new development paradigm at a faster pace. Trade has served to strengthen relations between China and Gulf countries, taking into account that Arab countries as a whole have become their biggest supplier of crude oil and China is now the Gulf Cooperation Council’s top economic partner and the largest trading partner of Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. Although China has not developed a Free Trade Agreement with the GCC, this is still the desired objective since negotiations started in 2004. Until now, the two parties have convened nine rounds of negotiations, usually based in Riyadh and Beijing, reaching an agreement on various trade issues.

On the economic wing, the Persian Gulf is geopolitically vital for the realization of many Chinese development and trade projects. Therefore, China’s proposed initiatives of jointly building the “Silk Road Economic Belt” and the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road”, establishing a “1+2+3” cooperation pattern. This vision was reinforced in the ninth Ministerial Conference of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum (CASCF), on 6 July 2020. In the event, Arab countries agreed to implement the execution plan for 2020-2022, which consists of accelerating the creation of the Belt and Road initiative based on the principle of consultation and cooperation for shared benefits.

In the same line, China’s involvement with regional countries increased with the integration of seven Arab countries into the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. This coordination acts under the guidelines of Chinese economic cooperation, which expands investment and financing channels for developing countries, and strengthens cooperation in investment and bidirectional financing through shares and debts, as well as the use of loans, foreign direct investment, and funds. While Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Jordan, Oman, and Turkey are considered the Member States of the institution, Kuwait and Lebanon is still in the process of reviewing its application.

The third aspect to analyze is security and political challenges, regional turbulence that increases one after another, non-traditional security, and regional issues are still ongoing. China is willing to, together with Arab states, become the builder of peace, facilitator of stability, and participator of the development in the Middle East. Concerning internal conflicts, China upholds the “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence”, namely, mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, mutual non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality, and mutual benefit, and peaceful co-existence. When these principles are translated into conflict resolution, it is evidenced that the conflict in both Syria and Yemen cannot be resolved with interventionist methods. While post-conflict reconstruction in Iraq must go hand in hand with solid economic-financial support, essentially, from the Middle East Quartet.

On the other hand, China is committed to supporting the establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free and WMD-free zone in the Middle East. In fact, with the failure of the United States to keep the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in force, China’s proposal on the construction of an Arab training center for the peaceful use of nuclear energy, improving the level of cooperation in the nuclear field, it is becoming more prominent.

Aside from Russia, China is the only country on the UN Security Council that has had a fruitful relationship with Iran since the establishment of the China-Iran comprehensive strategic partnership in 2016. In a meeting held with President Raisi in memory of the 50th diplomatic anniversary, China recognizes that there is a need to rethink the JCPOA approach.

Indeed, the Chinese vision of international relations represents a development opportunity for countries in the Middle East. This vision escapes from the typical conflict resolution under hard power and proposes to replace it with an intelligent power based on the principles of mutual understanding, non-interference, partnership diplomacy, and South-South economic-trade cooperation.

China is more than clear that to address the problems of the Middle East, it is necessary to act with prudence and caution. The Chinese vision has brought the Arab countries closer to a bridge of reintegration and improvement, and there is no doubt that in the coming years they will present new plans to build the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation and expand it through international relations.

The writer is a research intern fellow at  The Diplomatic Insight and Institute of Peace and Diplomatic Studies from Peru.

*The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not necessarily represent the position of this magazine.