Chinese President Xi Jinping is visiting Cairo later this week, marking his first official state visit to Egypt. Over the past two years, President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has worked to diversify Egypt’s international partnerships away from its reliance on the United States by building strong relations with France, Russia and now China. However, the nature of Sino-Egyptian relations must be approached from a different perspective than that of France or Russia.
For one, military cooperation between the two countries is practically non-existent and building such cooperation would require much time and resources. It is far more practical and efficient for Egypt to rely on the United States, Europe and Russia for defense and national security issues. In addition, the Chinese have learned from America’s previous wars in the region that military involvement is likely to backfire.
Clearly, present Sino-Egyptian relations are largely based on trade and investments. China is Egypt’s largest exporter, with USD 7.69 billion worth of Chinese products being imported by Egypt in 2013. Chinese companies are investing heavily in the Suez Canal Development Corridor project, as well as in other infrastructure and energy projects.
However, a relationship solely based on economic interests would not satisfy the ambitions of both countries. In fact, China has numerous relations with countries across the globe that are based on economic interests. Africa is fast becoming a favored destination for Chinese products and investments. With Egypt’s current economic difficulties, business interests alone do not provide enough arguments for both countries to maximize the potential benefits of their relationship.
The Chinese model in the Middle East
Last week, China issued its foreign policy paper on Sino-Arab relations ahead of President Xi Jinping’s visit to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran. The document spoke grandly of the deep cultural and economic ties between Arab countries and China. It also outlined the Chinese government’s template for deepening Sino-Arab relations, which would be based on principles of non-interference in internal affairs, the respect of state sovereignty, the promotion of industrialization and economic development, cultural exchange, fighting terrorism and a firm Chinese commitment to the establishment of the State of Palestine based on the pre-1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital.
During his visit to Cairo, President Xi Jinping is expected to ink a number of Chinese investment agreements – which comes at a highly critical time for the Egyptian economy. Cairo has officially asked that the Suez Canal Development Corridor project be included in the ambitious Chinese Silk Road initiative, which would reinforce the Suez Canal’s position as a key logistics hub in the world.
Earlier this week, China has also officially launched the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which is largely perceived as a vehicle to promote the Chinese development model, one that stands to compete with the Western development model. Indeed, China is steadily increasing its global role as a contender to the United States and is rewriting the rules of global governance so as to contain American hegemony.
The Chinese model can serve as a much more devoured blueprint for development by Arab governments. Throughout the past three decades, China has steadily risen to global prominence on its own terms. Its model is based on a deep state involvement in the economy, heavy investments in infrastructure, strong respect for cultural traditions and heritage, and a monopoly of politics through the Communist Party. Today, China believes this model can be exported to countries that are unable to adopt the liberal globalization model of the West. Specifically in the Middle East, it is keen on demonstrating it can play a more comprehensive role than that of simply being an economic partner.
The Middle East, with its current political vacuum, is the ideal opportunity for China to appear on the global stage as a ‘middle-ground’ between oppressive dictatorships and western democracy. Its most significant message, which resonates well with many Arab leaders, is that democracy is not a prerequisite for achieving economic development. Quite the opposite, the Chinese model argues that economic development is a prerequisite for democracy. But to promote this model, it must overcome many obstacles, namely language and cultural barriers, as both Chinese and Middle Eastern peoples remain largely obscure to each other.
Building a Unique Relationship with China
If Egypt were to distinguish itself from other recipients of Chinese investments, it would need to cement its relationship with China. The Chinese-Arab relations policy paper announces that China “will promote dialogue between civilizations and promote exchanges between different religions” as its second priority after economic partnerships. It is thus keen on introducing its culture, its values and its religions to the world. Egypt, historically being the cultural hub of the Middle East, is perfectly positioned to become China’s gateway to introducing its culture to the region.
Furthermore, Egypt needs to revive its role as a regional melting pot, a land that is capable of absorbing various cultural values with respect and openness. It also needs to revive its role as the heart of moderate Islam, an Islam that can not only coexist with Abrahamic religions, but with all sorts of religions and faiths. At a time when Islamic countries and sects are fighting against each other, strong messages of tolerance would highly resonate in the international community and distinguish Egypt from the rest of the region.
If Egypt were to launch a program to teach Mandarin in its public schools, it would create a generation that is equipped to deal with what is soon-to-be the world’s largest economy (by some measures, it already is). And if it were to build a Chinese Folk, Taoist or Buddhist Temple, it would send a strong message that it is an active and influential player in the reform of global governance, and a beacon of moderation and openness in an eclipsed region. It would also launch a ‘rapprochement’ between Islam and Buddhism, which would encourage China to provide greater rights to its oppressed Muslim minority, and boost Egypt’s role within the international Muslim community. Chinese tourists and businesses would feel welcomed and respected in Egypt, at a time when the country is in desperate need for tourists and investments. The Egyptian government would also gain much greater leverage in its relationship with China, than it would have if it were to remain a recipient of Chinese goods and investments.
Most of all, it would represent the true values of Egypt and Islam, which have always been welcoming of all cultures, faiths and religions.
Egypt has much to gain from this symbolic gesture, and not much to lose. It is time our government began taking bold steps that would redefine the country’s global positioning, and capitalize on – what remains of – its cultural and ethical role in the region and the world.