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China’s Views of the Unrest in the Middle East

by Joshua Kurlantzick
February 3, 2011

Pro-government demonstrators face-off against anti-Mubarak supporters near Tahrir Square in Cairo

Pro-government demonstrators (front) face-off against anti-Mubarak supporters near Tahrir Square in Cairo February 2, 2011. (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Courtesy Reuters)

As the unrest in the Middle East gets more intense, many Egyptians and people in other Arab nations appear to be looking to the response of the United States to the rising tension and violence in the region. That’s understandable, given the outsized role that Washington historically has played in this region, and the fact that Egypt is currently the second-largest recipient of U.S. aid, after Israel.

But how, if at all, will China react to instability and to potentially momentous change in the Middle East? Over the past decade, China has built far closer ties to many of the leading Middle Eastern states, largely to feed China’s growing energy appetites but also in the long run to fulfill Beijing’s rising geopolitical ambitions. Besides its increasingly close ties with Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkey, and Iran, Beijing has also built closer strategic and trade ties with Egypt, among other pivotal Middle Eastern nations. Beijing also has begun to slowly insert itself into the politics of the region, whether by appointing its own special envoy to Sudan or contributing to anti-piracy patrols in the waters between Yemen and Somalia. On a recent visit to Turkey, China signed a plan to create a “silk railroad” following the rough path of the ancient Silk Road.

China’s leadership fears and despises instability above all, both at home and within nations it needs as partners. Still, as the appointment of a special envoy to Sudan showed, Beijing is capable of playing  – or appearing to play – a larger diplomatic role farther from its borders. Yet, so far, Beijing has remained very quiet about the unrest in Egypt, and appears to have censored reporting on Egypt inside China. Beijing seems to be blocking the word Egypt from blogs and microblogs inside China, and state press outlets also seem to be suggesting that unrest is simply the natural result of wanting more democracy.

Though Beijing does not yet seem ready to play any larger role in times of unrest in the Middle East – and China instinctively shies away from appearing to intervene during times of unrest in a country – Beijing can’t insulate itself from any repercussions forever. Two years ago, during the green movement protests in Tehran, demonstrators gathered to shout epithets against Beijing, because of China’s close trade relationship with Iran. Eventually, as China becomes more powerful, it risks such a backlash in other nations like Egypt – just as the United States now does. But China’s leaders, for all their growing confidence in global affairs, still seem at a loss when considering how to handle unrest in states important to China, whether that country is Burma, Kyrgyzstan – or Egypt.

Post a Comment 12 Comments

  • Posted by miriam

    “as China becomes more powerful, it risks such a backlash in other nations like Egypt – just as the United States now does.”
    I do stronly subscribe this statement. Global powers face the dycotomy,values versus”national interest” as in James Baker’s thougthful interview.

  • Posted by RousseauChen

    Is there another country on the planet which likes to intervene in other countries as much as the United States? China is no exception. Russia and EU are not that active as the US. The US is treating Egypt like its own territory or its colony, that is seriously wrong. Watch CNN 24-7 obsession with Egypt while there are so many urgent issues in the US are being ignored. The US has too many problems of its own.
    I guess you may want to argue when Tea Party rallies in many US cities, Mubarak or other world leaders should stand up and say to Obama: Prepare for the transfer of power. By the way, Tea Party is more than the people in the Cairo square, they are actually elected into the Congress and they want Obama to step down.

  • Posted by ME perspective

    China is simply waiting for the geopolitical situation to shift in its favor. Keeping its distance in order to prevent the perception of meddling into other countries business. Once situation stabilizes it will continue developing its long term strategy of becoming an important entity for nations seeking renewed hope for the future, which in turn could lead to further reduction in American influence in the Mid. East. A shift in U.S. approach to the Middle East is needed. The first step for this transformation is for the state department to find a diplomatic path to normalizing its relations with Iran, which requires stepping away from its tough rhetoric towards a trust building policy.

  • Posted by Daniel S

    I don’t think egypt is that important to China, economically or security wise.

    Israel and the US have a lot more to lose from the chaos.

  • Posted by Peter

    Egypt is important to Israel and USA, so how did they handle unrest in states important to them such as Egypt?

  • Posted by Frank Lupotelli

    @Daniel S: Sure, Egypt may not be important to China in economic terms… but the example of a population rising against an authoritarian leader makes it very important in security terms!

  • Posted by Jack Fensterstock

    The coverage from CCTV News is quite accurate as to what is going on in Egypt plus the reaction from Washington. Considering the circumstances, it as good as anyone else’s.

  • Posted by Andi Diplo

    China can afford to stay out. They have little interventionist tradition except on their own ground like in Tibet. They do not believe in ideological interventions. In Tibet they intervened for fear of proliferation to other ethnic groups inside Chines territory.

  • Posted by Daniel S

    @Frank Lupotelli: one difference is that Egypt’s “authoritarian leader” is a US puppet.

  • Posted by Tim Teng

    “Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.”

    – Thomas Jefferson during his inaugural address, 1801

    “The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations, is in extending our commercial relations to have as little political connection as possible… Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalships, interest, humor, or caprice?… It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.”

    – George Washington

    How ironic ChiGov, w/ slight variation, practices what our founders espoused

  • Posted by Nguoiphanbien

    Joshua Kurlantzick has a penchant for anything and all things that are anti-China so this article is of no exception. He has every right to do so but this is not going to make it right though. It is simply not right and not honest to blur the line between dispassioned analysis and ADVOCACY JOURNALISM THAT PRETENDS to be analytical.

  • Posted by RousseauChen

    China has many problems. Yet it functions much better than many US puppets in the Middle East, where women’s rights are totally disregarded. But the double standards adopted by US governments turn a blind eye on this fact. The many US pundits are misled by the US government. Yes, it is not cool to bash the US government in the name of national interest. Bashing China is cool. That is very sad.

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