As Chinese President Xi Jinping prepares to lead a large delegation to meet with Arab leaders in Saudi Arabia on Dec. 9, Western media conveys a sense of dread.
The Chinese leader’s visit “comes against the backdrop” of the Biden Administration’s “strained ties with both Beijing and Riyadh” over differences,” Reuters reported. The same line of reasoning was parroted, with little questioning, by many other major Western media sources.
And, since these analyses are often shaped by Western interests, they tend to be selective in reading the larger context. If one is to rely exclusively or heavily on the Western understanding of the massive geopolitical changes around the world, one is sure to be misled.
Western media wants us to believe that the strong political stances taken by Arab countries — neutrality in the case of war, growing closeness to China and Russia, lowering oil output, etc — are done solely to ‘send a message’ to Washington.
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Seen through a wider lens, however, these assumptions are either half-truths or entirely fabricated. For example, the OPEC+ decision to lower oil output on Oct. 5 was the only reasonable strategy to apply when the global market’s demand for energy is low. Additionally, Arab neutrality is an equally reasonable approach considering that Washington and its Western allies are not the only global forces that matter.
In 2004, China and the Arab League established the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum. CASCF officially represented the Chinese government and all 22 members of the Arab League, eventually serving as the main coordination platform between China and the Arabs.
This has given China the advantage of investing in a collective strategy to develop trade, economic and political ties with the entirety of the Arab world. On the other hand, Arabs, too, had the leverage of negotiating major economic deals with China that could potentially benefit multiple Arab states simultaneously.
An extremely important caveat is that CASCF was predicated in what is known as the “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence.”
Based on the Westphalian norms of state sovereignty, the five principles seem to be founded on an entirely different paradigm of foreign relations, compared to the West’s approach to the Middle East and the Global South, in general, extending from the colonial periods to the neocolonialism of post-World War II: mutual respect for “territorial integrity and sovereignty”, “non-aggression”, “non-interference”, and so on.
Chinese-Arab relations continue to follow this model to this day, with very little deviation. This validates the claim that collective Arab political attitudes towards China and Xi’s visit to the Middle East are hardly an outcome of any sudden shift of policies resulting from the Russia-Ukraine war of recent months.
This is not to suggest that Arab and Chinese relations with the US and the West had no impact on the nature of the speed of Chinese-Arab ties. Indeed, the Chinese model of ‘peaceful coexistence’ seems to challenge the henceforth modus operandi at work in the Middle East.
In 2021, China announced projects to build a thousand schools in Iraq, a piece of news that occupied substantial space in Arab media coverage. The same can be said about China’s growing economic — not just trade — influence elsewhere in the region.
China’s Road and Belt Initiative, announced in 2013, fits seamlessly into the political infrastructure of Arab-Chinese ties, which were built in previous years. According to media reports, Riyadh was the largest recipient of Chinese investments within the BRI during the first half of 2022.
Considering all of this, it would be unfair — in fact, misguided — to suggest that large political entities like China and Arab countries combined are shaping their foreign policy agendas, thus staking their futures, on knee-jerk political reactions.
Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of The Palestine Chronicle. He is the author of six books.