China in the World’s Hotspot: A Brief Overview on the Middle East and North African Politics of the World’s Emerging Super-Power
As a candidate for the future’s super-power, China has increased its power and influence in different parts of the world. As economically grown, its foreign policy and relationships with other countries are getting better. Its influence has also increased in the MENA region. Although today Chinese relationships with MENA countries are mainly based on trade and construction activities, its impact is growing in diverse areas from cultural to medical.
- Chinese Foreign Policy and Its Background
When Deng Xiaoping came to the power in 1978, he announced reform and opening-up policy in China that enabled its unprecedented economic development. Today, China is the world’s second-largest economy behind the United States of America. According to the predictions China will overtake the US in 2024.
Like its internal politics, in terms of foreign policy, China has given priority to economic development as well. Instead of changing the geopolitical order, interfering with internal politics, or questioning human rights violations, China has aimed to enlarge its market and extend its technology via companies like Huawei.
Simultaneously, President Xi Jinping firstly announced Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013, a global infrastructure framework that aims to invest in nearly 70 countries and international organisations. It is the principal foreign policy initiative of China under Xi Jinping’s administration. In the beginning, the BRI projects mostly concentrated on the countries in South Asia. But today, the initiative extends to the MENA (the Middle East and North Africa) region and Europe.
However, in recent years, Chinese foreign policy has gone beyond the economic concerns and included cultural and military aims. During and after the coronavirus period, we can also talk about the medical influences.
When the Covid-19 outbreak showed up in Wuhan, Chinese authorities took significant measures to deal with the pandemic and brought it under control. However, the rest of the world, especially the US and the European countries struggled to overcome the Covid-19 pandemic. For instance, the US cut funding to the World Health Organisation and has not funded international support to fight the global effects of coronavirus. This situation has given an opportunity to China to fill in the leadership gap that was abandoned by the US and Europe. “As America withdraws, China’s influence is growing,” said Roger McShane, the Middle East editor of The Economist. When the coronavirus was controlled at home, China has sent medical supplies and experts to Egypt, Iran, Iraq, and the other states in different parts of the world. This situation can enable to increase its influence in the world and reshape its foreign policy.
- Chinese Economic and Cultural Influence in the MENA Region
China’s relationships with the countries in the MENA region go back to the anti-colonialism period. For instance, China supported Algerian Independence War against French rule politically and militarily and was the first non-Arab country that recognised the Algerian National Liberal Front. However, today, Chinese influence in this region is different from the past. Instead of being a side of political conflicts, China has developed economic relations in this region and pursued its objectiveness as much as possible.
Today, China has become one of the top trade partners for the countries in the Middle East and North Africa. For example, China became Algeria’s top trade partner in 2013. Again, Egypt is China’s third-largest trade partner in Africa. Both in Algeria and Egypt, Chinese firms have undertaken infrastructure, construction, and finance projects. Algiers Opera House, the Sheraton Hotel, the Great Mosque of Algiers, and the East-West Highway are the most prominent construction projects of Chinese firms in Algeria. Similarly, New Administrative Capital and the Suez Canal Economic Zone are well-known projects supported by the Chinese government.
Chinese investments in these countries are significant to increase its impact on world politics and become a super-power because both Algeria and Egypt have strategic importance. Algeria is a major supplier of oil and gas to Europe, and it is a crucial regional actor in terms of economy and security. At the same time, Egypt controls the Suez Canal, one of the most strategic waterways in the world. It is a vital regional security actor, which is becoming an attractive market for arms sales.
Apart from Algeria and Egypt, China has good relationships with Morocco. There are many financial investments in Morocco, such as the Atlantic Free Zone in Kenitra, Casablanca Finance City, and the Tanger Med Port Complex.
However, Chinese influence in the MENA region is not restricted only to construction and finance projects. Chinese technology firms have also developed projects in this region. For example, Huawei Marine Networks delivered “Hannibal” cable that links Tunisia to Italy in 2009 and Libya to Greece in 2010. Huawei also plans to establish regional logistics centres. There are Confucius Institutes, and Chinese restaurants and markets are becoming widespread across the region. Thanks to lifting visa restrictions the number of Chinese tourists has increased. For instance, 400.000 Chinese tourists visited Egypt in 2017, the number was just 125.000 in 2015. Simultaneously, more African students preferred to study in China than in the US and Britain. According to the Chinese diplomats, “people-to-people exchange” is the key element of the BRI initiative like the ancient Silk Road.
- Chinese Political Relations with the MENA Countries
China and the MENA countries have common political and historical features. For instance, Egypt was the first, and Morocco was the second country to recognise the People’s Republic of China. Both China and MENA countries have authoritarian political systems and are criticised by the other countries over human rights violations many times. Therefore, they give importance to the principle of non-interference in international affairs bilaterally. China also has become an example that shows a combination of authoritarianism and economic growth needed by the countries in this region.
Simultaneously, China did not colonise this region and therefore, its initiatives were welcomed by the MENA countries. For example, many Arab politicians consider China as a more reliable partner than America because it does not ask “uncomfortable” questions about human rights. Similarly, according to the poll conducted by Afrobarometer, a pan-African research group, in September 2020, 59% of Africans had a favourable view of China. As stated by Deborah Brautigam, China also welcomed by the African leader because “China still addresses Africa’s hunger for structural transformation in a way that the West does not.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, on March 16, 2017. Photo: Kyodo.
Unlike the other countries’ policies in this region, China does not take sides or intervene in political instabilities in this region, this condition also enables to maintain good relationships with the MENA countries on an economic basis. However, the first exception was the Libyan conflict. In this conflict, China abandoned its non-interference policy and voted in favour of the U.N. Security Council Resolution 1970 that referred Gadhafi and other leaders to the International Criminal Court for their approaches against protestors.
In recent years, China has developed its military influence in this region. In 2015, Chinese and Russian armies exercised in the Mediterranean, and in 2017, China launched its first overseas military base in Djibouti. At the same time, both Egypt and Algeria are among the top buyers of Chinese weapons. It is hard to say these military actions are indicators of abandoning non-interference policy, but it is not wrong to state that China tries to expand its power and influence beyond trade.
China’s relationships with MENA countries have quite a long history. Unlike its counterparts in the West, China has a good reputation in this region. Like its support of anti-colonialism movements in the past, today, its investments have helped develop the nations in the Middle East and North Africa. Recently, we do not talk about only trade partnerships, but also cultural, education, and military relations between China and MENA countries. The Covid-19 period also has strengthened its position because China fill in the leadership gap that was abandoned by the US and Europe by sending medical supplies to these countries and sharing its experience to deal with the pandemic.
- Breholat Obiols, Eugenio. “China’s Influence in the Mediterranean.” IEMed Mediterranean Yearbook, (2010): 23-27. Accessed May 5, 2021. https://www.iemed.org/anuari/2010/aarticles/Bregolat_China_en.pdf
- Buchholz, Katharina. “Continental Shift: The World’s Biggest Economies Ober Time.” Statista, (2020). Accessed May 5, 2021. https://www.statista.com/chart/22256/biggest-economies-in-the-world-timeline/
- Ghafar, Adel Abdel and Jacobs, Anna L. “China in the Mediterranean: Implications of Expanding Sino-North Africa Relations.” Global China: Regional Influence and Strategy Report, (2020): 1-20. Accessed May 5, 2021. https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/FP_20200720_china_mediterranean_ghafar_jacobs.pdf
- Ghiselli, Andrea. “China’s Mediterranean Interests and Challenges.” The Diplomat, (2017). Accessed May 5, 2021. https://thediplomat.com/2017/05/chinas-mediterranean-interests-and-challenges/
- McDermott, John. “Best of Friends.” The Economist: The World in 2021, (2020): 61-72.
- McShane, Roger. “China’s Movement” The Economist: The World in 2021, (2020): 61-72.
Eugenio Bregolat Obiols, “China’s Influence in the Mediterranean,” IEMed Mediterranean Yearbook, (2010): 1, accessed May 5, 2021, https://www.iemed.org/anuari/2010/aarticles/Bregolat_China_en.pdf ↑
Katharina Buchholz, “Continental Shift: The World’s Biggest Economies Over Time,”, Statista, (2020), accessed May 5, 2021, https://www.statista.com/chart/22256/biggest-economies-in-the-world-timeline/ ↑
Adel Abdel Ghafar and Anna L. Jacobs, “China in the Mediterranean: Implications of Expanding Sino-North Africa Relations,” Global China: Regional Influence and Strategy Report, (2020): 2, accessed May 5, 2021, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/FP_20200720_china_mediterranean_ghafar_jacobs.pdf ↑
Roger McShane, “China’s Movement,” The Economist: The World in 2021, 2020, 69. ↑
Ibid, 69. ↑
Adel Abdel Ghafar and Anna L. Jacobs, 3. ↑
Andrea Ghiselli, “China’s Mediterranean Interests and Challenges,” The Diplomat (2017), accessed May 5, 2021, https://thediplomat.com/2017/05/chinas-mediterranean-interests-and-challenges/ ↑
Adel Abdel Ghafar and Anna L. Jacobs, 6. ↑
Ibid, 6-7. ↑
Ibid, 4. ↑
Ibid, 6. ↑
Ibid, 11. ↑
Ibid 6. ↑
Ibid 7. ↑
John McDermott, “Best of Friends,” The Economist: The World in 2021, 2020, 72. ↑
Bregolat Obiols, 26. ↑
Adel Abdel Ghafar and Anna L. Jacobs, 2. ↑
Ibid, 27. ↑
McShane, 69. ↑
McDermott, 72. ↑
Ibid, 71. ↑
Adel Abdel Ghafar and Anna L. Jacobs, 5. ↑
Ibid, 11. ↑