Discourse Power | December 12, 2022
Xi's Saudi trip: a watershed moment, looking East, a larger role, and version 4.0 of Sino-Arab ties
Greetings from Jerusalem,
Xi Jinping visited Saudi Arabia last weekend for three summits: a Sino-Saudi Leaders Summit, the First China-Arab Leaders Summit with Arab states from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and the First China-GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) Leaders Summit. Today, we look at Chinese experts' reactions to Xi's Saudi visit, with more to come in the next issue, so stay tuned.
Just before we begin, make sure to read the most recent issue of Discourse Power, which featured an original essay by yours truly. It offers the first glimpse of a MASSIVE intellectual project run by the Party leadership that has largely gone unnoticed by outsiders, which reaffirms Xi's status as China's Storyteller in Chief.
In addition, in a quick take for the Atlantic Council's Global China Hub, I discussed how Xi's visit will affect US relations with Saudi Arabia in light of what had transpired since Biden's visit in July. Click here to read it along with additional viewpoints from my outstanding team of colleagues.
Thank you for reading,
“Following the Sino-Arab Summits, China and Arab countries will have greater success in jointly developing the BRI in a higher standard, working together to implement the Global Development Initiative (GDI), and further aligning their development strategies to achieve common progress and development”
Xi's visit, according to Prof. Liu Zhongmin of SISU's Middle East Studies Institute (MESI) and Vice President of both the China Middle East Society and the China Asian and African Society, represents "a historic leap in Sino-Arab relations."
“On December 1, 2022, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued the Report on China-Arab Cooperation in the New Era 新时代的中阿合作报告. The report focuses on deepening strategic cooperation in the midst of unprecedented global changes unseen in a century and offers a comprehensive and systematic strategic concept 战略构想 for establishing a China-Arab Community of Shared Future (lit. "Destiny") in the New Era 新时代的中阿命运共同体.
“The Leaders Summit was the first of its kind, as well as the largest and highest-ranking Chinese diplomatic event dedicated to promoting ties with the Arab world since the PRC's founding; it was a watershed moment in the history of Sino-Arab relations, propelling them to a new and glorious historical stage 更加辉煌的历史阶段.”
“A New Chapter of Strategic Mutual Trust”
“In modern times, both China and Arab countries have experienced the historical misfortune of colonialism and imperialist aggression, and they have supported one other in their respective struggle for national liberation.
“Since the establishment of the New China (the PRC), China and the Arab countries have always stood by one another in the fight to protect national dignity and sovereignty.
“China has provided strong support to the Arab national liberation movement, particularly the cause of Palestinian liberation, and Arab countries have always firmly supported China in preserving national sovereignty and unity.
“We have fought shoulder-to-shoulder 并肩战斗 on the global political stage, such as in the UN and the Bandung Conference (1955). This has greatly safeguarded developing countries' interests and promoted Third World unity and cooperation.
“Following the end of the Cold War, China and the Arab nations actively supported the multi-polarization of global power and the democratization of international relations, as well as the emergence of a new, more just, and democratic order.
“Since the turn of the century, the establishment and development of Sino-Arab collective cooperation mechanisms have greatly aided overall Sino-Arab cooperation. The China-Arab States Cooperation Forum (CASCF) was established on January 30, 2004, by China and the Arab League.
“After 18 years of development, 17 cooperation mechanisms have been established under the framework of CASCF, turning it into an important platform for collective cooperation between China and Arab countries.
“Since the dawn of the New Era, China has established a strategic partnership with the League of Arab States (LAS) for comprehensive cooperation, common development, and future-oriented cooperation, and has established a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership or Strategic Partnership with 12 Arab countries.
“China also upholds fairness and communicates and coordinates extensively with Arab countries. It has actively promoted the political resolution of Middle Eastern hotspot issues such as the Palestinian issue, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Libya, and Sudan, and is committed to establishing a common, comprehensive, cooperative, and sustainable security architecture in the region.
“At the China-Arab Summit, Chinese and Arab leaders not only agreed on a strategic plan to improve the quality of China-Arab relations, but also on major issues such as global governance, development and security, and dialogue among civilizations.
“Between 1970 and 2010, the volume of China-Arab trade increased by a factor of 620…General Secretary Xi Jinping proposed the "1+2+3" cooperation framework in 2014, with energy cooperation as the main axis, infrastructure construction and trade, and investment facilitation as two wings, and nuclear energy, aerospace and satellite technologies, and new energy as three points of penetration 突破口.
“At the CASCF's 8th Ministerial Conference in 2018, China and the Arab League signed the Declaration on China-Arab Cooperation in the Development of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
“China has signed cooperation documents with 20 Arab countries and the LAS so far in order to jointly implement the BRI. More than 200 large-scale projects in the fields of energy and infrastructure have resulted from the cooperation projects, benefiting nearly 2 billion people in both directions.
“The Lusail Stadium in Qatar, the new Central Bank of Kuwait Headquarters, the Merowe Dam in Sudan, the raising of the Roseires Dam and the Upper Atbara and Setit Dam Complex, and many other "Made in China" projects are some examples. All of them have become symbols of Sino-Arab friendship.
“China-Arab two-way direct investment reached US$27 billion in 2021, up 2.6 times from ten years ago, and the trade volume reached US$330.3 billion, up 1.5 times throughout the same period.
“China and the Arab countries have jointly implemented the BRI Science and Technology Innovation Action Plan “一带一路”科技创新行动计划 within the framework of the Science and Technology Partnership Program 科技伙伴计划, and have made significant advances in high-tech cooperation.
“It is expected that following the Sino-Arab Summits, China and Arab countries will have greater success in jointly developing the BRI in a higher standard, working together to implement the Global Development Initiative (GDI), and further aligning their development strategies to achieve common progress and development.”
“A New Song to Honor Inter-Civilizational Ties”
“Under the auspices of CASCF, we have held important platforms for Sino-Arab cultural exchanges and mutual appreciation of civilizations.
“Four Arab countries have announced the incorporation of Chinese language into their public education curriculum as of October 2022, and 15 Arab countries have established local Chinese language institutions. China has established 20 Confucius Institutes and two Confucius Classrooms in Arab countries, and more than 40 Chinese universities have set up Arabic language programs, establishing renewed vigor in Sino-Arab friendship.
“Both the Chinese and Arab civilizations advocate for greater dialogue, tolerance, and mutual understanding among civilizations, peoples, and religions, and they oppose the "clash of civilizations theory," "theory of civilizational superiority," and "Islamophobia," as well as any association of terrorism with any nation, religion, country, or civilization.” (CSSN)
“In the current international environment, striking a balance between the major powers has become one of the dominant features of Arab diplomacy. They have progressed from looking up to the world to viewing it as an equal”
According to Professor Sun Degang of Fudan University's Center for Middle Eastern Studies, the Sino-Saudi relationship has become a model for Beijing's cooperation with the Arab world, while for the Saudis it reflects an important aspect of their "looking East" trend.
Excerpts from Sun’s interview with the Observer, published on Dec. 11:
"It is obvious that China's pragmatic diplomacy is more popular in Saudi Arabia than the Biden administration's values-based diplomacy. China’s diplomacy emphasizes that both China and Saudi Arabia are developing countries and that the relationship is based on friendly interaction and mutual respect for core interests. Meanwhile, the US has been instrumentalizing 工具化 its relationship with Saudi Arabia and has a condescending attitude 居高临下的心态.
“The US regards Saudi Arabia as a so-called "non-democratic country" and frequently abuses human rights issues to hammer the Kingdom, giving the impression that the US is always looking at its political system through tinted glasses.
“Furthermore, the US frequently interferes in the country's domestic and foreign affairs, particularly in terms of cooperation with third parties. For example, after the Russia-Ukraine conflict began, the US forced Riyadh to pick a side, that Saudi Arabia, as a sovereign country, finds difficult to accept.
“A lot of it is due to Saudi Arabia's rising status and close cooperation with China. Saudi Arabia is an OPEC member and the leader of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). It houses the secretariat of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), and its standing in the Arab League is growing. Indeed, power in the Arab world is shifting eastward to Saudi Arabia.
"Furthermore, China is the world's second-largest economy and a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Beijing and Riyadh have had close interactions with the UN, the G20, and other multilateral mechanisms.
“It is a member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and this year it has joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as a "dialogue partner," and conveyed to South Africa its desire to join the BRICS.
“Since 2013, China has been Saudi Arabia's top trading partner, while it has been China's top trading partner in the Middle East for more than 20 consecutive years. China-Saudi Arabia trade volume was $87.04 billion in the first three quarters of 2022, up 37.4% year on year.
"Against this backdrop, it is critical to consolidate and develop the Sino-Saudi Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. This also reflects China's view of the Sino-Saudi relationship as a model for overall cooperation between China and Arab countries.
“Similarly, Saudi Arabia has used the Sino-Saudi relationship as a model to promote cooperation between the Kingdom and Asian nations, particularly India, Pakistan, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, and Malaysia, as part of its "looking east" strategy."
“The China-GCC and China-Arab summits overlapped somewhat because the GCC is a part of the Arab League, but the areas of focus were distinct. The latter was primarily concerned with welfare programs, whereas the former was chiefly concerned with high-tech cooperation.
"Prior to the start of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Asian economies purchased the majority of Middle Eastern oil and gas exports, whereas the US imported very little. Middle Eastern nations must locate a sizable buyer while they are still in the energy transition phase. In other words, the Arab world must "look east," toward Asian nations."
“The following four areas are where Arab nations want to work with China as part of their "looking east" strategy:
“Arab nations want to encourage industrialization and replicate China's reform and opening. The Arab nations hope that China can boost investment and take part in local infrastructure construction, particularly road networks, railroad networks, and other infrastructure construction projects, as they transition from an oil and gas-based economy to a more diversified one.
“New infrastructure being built in China is also of great interest to the Gulf nations. They want to benefit from China's advanced experience because it is ahead of the curve in a number of fields, including the digital economy, finance, 5G, and 6G.
“Arab nations desire Chinese assistance in their new energy transition. Chinese electric vehicles are very popular throughout the region, and China also has advanced clean energy technologies, such as civil nuclear energy, solar energy, and hydrogen energy, that can be shared with Arab countries.
“Arab countries hope that China will open up its markets, so as to increase their exports and capitalize on China's new development opportunities. For instance, promote the products of Arab nations using a venue like the 2010 Shanghai Expo.
"The West shouldn't overthink [China's role in the region] 西方想多了. China's cooperation with Arab countries is broad and inclusive, and Arab countries will not rule out collaboration with other global partners.
“In the current international environment, striking a balance between the major powers has become one of the dominant features of Arab diplomacy. They have progressed from looking up to the world 仰视 to viewing it as an equal 平视 [a term used by Xi to describe the changes to China's relations with the US-led West].
“On the one hand, they hope to gain the respect of the global powers and will continue to cooperate with the US and the West on security while holding onto this stock 存量; on the other hand, they hope to strengthen cooperation with emerging economies such as China, India, and Russia in order to increase their dividends 增量." (Guancha)
“I believe it is incorrect to believe that China's visit to Arab countries to hold summits is intended to confront the US, challenge its regional role, or fill a vacuum”
According to Mr. Li Shaoxian, director of the China Institute for Arab States at Ningxia University and former vice president of MSS-linked China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), China is the only major power that positively contributes to the Middle East.
“China and the Arab nations naturally complement one another; they have the energy that we require, and we have the infrastructure and industrial capacity that they need. Any Arab nation can connect with China in a complementary way, regardless of how advanced it is. The summits are the result of both sides' shared needs and expectations.
“China has always sought to persuade and promote peace talks in the Middle East. In a nutshell, we contribute positively, and in actuality, only China does so. Whether it's proposing a solution to the Palestinian issue or a security framework for the Gulf, Arab countries understand that China is acting in good faith and promoting peace and stability in the Middle East. Therefore, they anticipate China playing a larger role in Middle Eastern affairs in the future.” (People’s Daily)
“Relations between China and Saudi Arabia are at their best in history”
Dr. Tang Tianbo, a researcher at the MSS-linked Middle East Institute of CICIR, on why Xi's trip could set the scene for long-term changes.
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The long-term impacts of Xi’s trip, according to Tang:
ENERGY COOPERATION: "China is the world's largest importer of crude oil, and Saudi Arabia is the world's number one exporter of crude oil. The expansion of energy cooperation between the two countries will not only benefit their respective development and security but will also enhance the stability of the global energy market.
"Moreover, Saudi Arabia is vigorously developing new energy sources, while China has comparative advantages in fields such as wind and nuclear power, making it an ideal partner. In the future, Sino-Saudi energy cooperation is expected to achieve "two blossoms" in the fields of traditional energy and new energy."
DEVELOPMENT COOPERATION: "At present, [Saudi Arabia's] "Vision 2030" is accelerating its implementation. Flagship projects such as "New Future City" (NEOM) and "The Line" have broken ground, and related national plans for manufacturing, logistics, tourism, and digital economy have been continuously introduced. This will continue to create opportunities for the two countries to cooperate in infrastructure, production capacity, and science and technology under the BRI framework.
SENDING A GEOPOLITICAL MESSAGE TO THE GLOBAL SOUTH: "Saudi Arabia is an important ally of the United States in the Middle East. However, in recent years, it has upheld strategic independence, withstood American pressures, and firmly maintained its friendship with China.
"In view of Saudi Arabia's important position in the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Arab League, the Islamic world, OPEC, and emerging countries, China and Saudi Arabia's equal participation in bilateral cooperation, each with its own beauty and mutual benefit, will set a great example and have a demonstrative effect." (CICIR)
“A brand-new and unheard-of era in Sino-Arab relations is beginning”
CICIR's Middle East Institute Director, Professor Niu Xinchun, says Xi’s trip updated Sino-Arab relations to “version 4.0.” If you pay close attention, you'll see that Niu intimates increased Chinese involvement in regional security.
“The strategic game phase in Sino-US relations has begun. Whereas the Arab world and the US are increasingly drifting apart, Sino-Arab common interests on the global stage have increased, and China has emerged as the Arab world's largest economic partner.
“The significant changes in the global, regional, and Sino-Arab bilateral landscape suggest that it is time for a Sino-Arab relations version update 迭代升级. In this context, the first China-Arab Leaders Summit on December 9 is historic in that it ushers in a new era of comprehensive, stratified, and in-depth Sino-Arab cooperation.
“The period 1949-1978 can be considered the 1.0 version of Sino-Arab relations. It was primarily concerned with great power strategic competition and Sino-Arab cooperation in the fight against imperialism and hegemony.
“The period 1978-2013 was the 2.0 version of Sino-Arab relations, with an emphasis on energy and trade. Arab countries were an important export market for China in the 1980s, as well as a source of foreign exchange and the largest market for Chinese labor exports and construction contracts.
“From 1976 to 1987, the Middle East accounted for 56% of all Chinese foreign economic activity. It surpassed the US as China's fourth largest trading partner, and China ran a large trade surplus. China was able to raise $50 billion through bilateral trade, and Arab nations also provided China with certain development loans. At the time, China desperately needed foreign exchange to attract technology and talent, and Arab countries played a critical role in this regard.
“The significance of Arab oil came to light in 1993 when China turned into a net importer of crude oil, and Sino-Arab economic relations accelerated. China's oil imports from the Middle East nearly quadrupled between 2000 and 2012.
“Since 2014, Sino-Arab relations have entered version 3.0, with bilateral ties expanding beyond energy to include trade, finance, investment, science, technology, and culture. Previously, the US and Europe were in the upstream of the Arab economies' industrial chain, i.e., engaged in energy exploration, finance, insurance, engineering, management, and consulting, whereas China specialized in mining, infrastructure, manufacturing, and processing.
“In recent years, China has gradually moved upstream in the industrial chain by increasing its technological expertise in trade, investment, and engineering contracting.
“Sino-Arab relations are entering their 4.0 version, marked by the 2022 China-Arab Summit, an update from economic and cultural-focused relations to more balanced economic, cultural, and political relations.
“So far, Sino-Arab cooperation has primarily focused on economic, political, and cultural issues, with cooperation in the area of regional security still in its infancy.
“Since 2012, China has been actively involved in Middle Eastern political and security affairs, presenting a four-point proposal to resolve the Palestinian issue in 2013, a five-point peace initiative to resolve the 2014 Gaza Conflict, and a three-point proposal to resolve the Libyan issue in 2015. In the same year, China proposed the "Three Basic Principles" for resolving the Libyan issue.
“China appointed a special envoy for Syria in 2016 and proposed the "six-point proposal," "four-point initiative," "five persists," and "four steps," among other suggestions and measures.
“A major shortcoming in Middle East security is the absence of a regional security mechanism or even a multilateral dialogue platform. Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi proposed in October 2020 the establishment of a multilateral dialogue platform in the Gulf region to manage crises through collective consultation. China proposed the Global Security Initiative (GSI) in 2022, which was met with approval from Arab countries.
“Since the end of the Cold War…America was the "dominant player" in Middle Eastern security, leaving little room for China to participate. The region's upstream industries were monopolized by US and European companies, making participation difficult for China; China imported a large amount of Middle Eastern oil, and energy security became the focus of its Middle East policy.
“With the contraction of the US Middle East strategy, the global energy transition, and the accelerated pace of economic reform in the Middle East, the Arab Middle East is undergoing unprecedented and comprehensive transformation.
“The shared values and common interests of China and the Arab world are gradually expanding, and Arab countries are urgently looking for partners other than the US. Thus, a brand-new and unheard-of era in Sino-Arab relations is beginning.” (Huanqiu Shibao)
Playing in the Background
Here is the lesser-known Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Madina and the greatest slide guitarist of all time, Derek Trucks:
Discourse Power is written by Tuvia Gering, a researcher at the Israel-China Policy Center at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub, and a Tikvah’s Krauthammer Fellow, specializing in Chinese security and foreign policy, and emergency and disaster management. Any views expressed in this newsletter, as well as any errors, are solely those of the author. Follow Tuvia on Twitter @GeringTuvia