December 16, 2022
BEIJING – On Dec 7-10, President Xi Jinping traveled to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to attend the first China-Arab States Summit and the China-Gulf Cooperation Council Summit, as well as to pay a state visit to Saudi Arabia. President Xi also met with the King of Saudi Arabia, the crown prince-cum-prime minister of the kingdom, Mohammed bin Salman, and the heads of state of many Arab and other nations. China today is Saudi Arabia’s number one trading partner, and the kingdom is a major source of energy supply to China.
Interdependence and complementarity between the two countries have been increasing unabatedly. The primary purpose of the trip is to elevate the comprehensive strategic partnership between China, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to an unprecedentedly high level. Indisputably, President Xi’s diplomatic trip to the Middle East is a milestone in international affairs in the sense that, with China going to play an increasingly active role in Middle East affairs, it is bound to reshape the political landscape in the region. The strategic significance of the trip is even more extraordinary for China, especially for China’s security and development in the context of unrelenting and ruthless US and Western efforts to contain China’s rise.
Due to its critical geopolitical location and its rich oil reserves, the Middle East was of great strategic value to the United States and the West after World War II. Both the United Kingdom and France lost their hegemony in the Middle East in the wake of their “Suez” debacle in 1956, and thereafter the US became the hegemon of the Middle East “effortlessly”. For more than 10 years, with the development of shale oil and gas in the US, it has again become an exporter of oil and natural gas, and its dependence on the Middle East for energy and security is also decreasing day by day. The mistakes and setbacks of the US in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria have compelled the US to gradually fade out from the Middle East, and concomitantly its influence has also declined palpably. At the same time, regional powers in the Middle East, such as Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia, have seized the opportunity to fill the space left by the retreating US power even as they also constantly are dueling with each other. Recently, Russia has also gained influence in the Middle East by using troops in Syria and buttressing steadfastly the Bashar al-Assad regime.
The US and Iran have been at daggers drawn since the outbreak of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979. In recent years, the relationships between the US and important countries in the Middle East such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Turkey have also become fraught. Saudi Arabia has always been an important ally of the US in the Middle East. The establishment of the hegemony of the US dollar heavily depends on Saudi Arabia, as the world’s most important oil-producing country, insisting on using the dollar as the currency for oil transactions. However, in recent years, the US has had less demand for Saudi Arabian oil, has been critical of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, disagrees with Saudi Arabia’s policy toward Yemen, and has had an altercation with Saudi Arabia’s crown prince-cum-prime minister over the death of Arab-American journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Saudi Arabia is skeptical and uneasy about the US’ attitude toward Iran on the nuclear issue, unsure about the US security guarantee, unhappy with the criticism of its political system by the West and unwilling to increase its oil production despite intense pressure from the US. Saudi Arabia understandably has plans to reduce its economic dependence on energy exports, vigorously promote industrial diversification, and diversify its ties with other powers.
On the contrary, under the principles of respecting the sovereignty of all countries and “mutual benefit and win-win”, China has been able to maintain good relations with all Arab countries, including those countries that are at loggerheads or even at war with each other, refrain from interfering in the internal affairs of other countries, and has refused to serve as a “peacemaker” between rival countries. It also will not impose its development model and values on others. Therefore, China can continuously develop and expand its economic and trade relations with all Arab countries. Given the high economic interdependence and complementarity between China and Arab countries, the prospects for cooperation between them are extremely bright and broad, and not limited to the energy and trade realms. From the perspective of the Arab countries, under the shadow of diminishing US demand for energy in the Middle East, the secular decline of the West, worldwide stagflation, deglobalization, and protectionism, arduously cultivating closer economic and trade cooperation with Asian countries, especially China, is a logical and imperative move.
This new political environment, featuring remarkably the erosion of US hegemony in the Middle East and northern Africa, is arguably very congenial and auspicious for China to strengthen its economic, trade, cultural and other relations with Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries. The heads of state of Arab countries eagerly awaited President Xi’s visit and gave President Xi a top-grade reception with all the pomp and pageantry. The many agreements signed between China and Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states testify to their determination to upgrade and fortify their comprehensive strategic partnerships.
President Xi’s trip to the Middle East has been tremendously fruitful. This “head-of-state diplomacy” conducted by President Xi has greatly enhanced China’s strategic cooperation with Saudi Arabia, other countries in the Gulf, and the Arab world. Significantly, China and Saudi Arabia agreed to hold summits between the two countries in rotation every two years. In all, President Xi’s trip has greatly expanded China’s international space for security and development in the turbulent world.
In the first place, China’s influence in the Arab world has increased appreciably, which has boosted China’s overall influence in international affairs, further frustrated the efforts of diplomatic encirclement and isolation of China by the US-led West, and enabled China to garner more international support for its position on the core issues of national reunification and its Taiwan region. China’s strengthening of economic and trade cooperation with the Arab countries is also conducive to effectively countering the economic, technological and trade sanctions imposed by the US-led West on China.
Second, in safeguarding national security and curbing separatist forces in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, terrorism, extremism and separatism that endanger national security, China will receive stronger support and assistance from Arab countries, thereby stabilizing the situation in western China. As Islamic countries in the Middle East and North Africa express their understanding and sympathy for China’s imperative needs and actions to protect national security and maintain territorial integrity, it will become more difficult for the US-led West to drive a wedge between China and the Arab countries by maliciously accusing China of practicing “genocide” in Xinjiang.
Third, China will obtain a bountiful and endless supply of energy from Saudi Arabia and other Middle East countries, ensuring China’s energy security and the long-term sustainable development of the Chinese economy. At the same time, Chinese enterprises, especially those engaged in infrastructure construction, food, technology, automobile production, chemicals and mining, will gain a huge and reliable market by “going out”.
Fourth, if Saudi Arabia and other oil-exporting countries in the Middle East eventually are willing to accept renminbi as payment for part of their oil and natural gas transactions instead of insisting on using only the US dollar as a payment tool, it will not only accelerate the collapse of the US dollar hegemony but also speed up internationalization of the renminbi. Such a scenario will be increasingly likely in the future with deeper and stronger economic ties between China and its Arab partners. The dollar has been able to maintain its hegemony since its de-pegging from gold in 1971 because the US succeeded in compelling Saudi Arabia and other oil-exporting Arab countries to accept only the dollar as a currency for oil purchases. If Saudi Arabia and other oil-exporting nations are increasingly willing to accept the renminbi as the payment currency for energy transactions between them and China despite the ineluctable and strident opposition of the US, cracks will appear in the armor defending the hegemony of the US dollar, and the status of the renminbi as an international currency for invoicing, payment and reserve will rise sharply. A fairer world with multiple international currencies will then come into being.
Finally, President Xi’s trip will greatly promote the grand Belt and Road Initiative. The Middle East is the meeting point between the “Belt” and the “Road”, and hence is of tremendous strategic importance. Countries in the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Kuwait are deeply interested in the Belt and Road Initiative and have already expressed their intention to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have also expressed interest in joining BRICS. China and Saudi Arabia agreed to harmonize their Belt and Road Initiative and “Vision 2030” for mutual benefit. The active participation of these Arab countries will inject great impetus into the development of the Belt and Road Initiative, allowing China to gain more room for economic development, and bringing regional cooperation in the Eurasian region and the construction of a “community of shared future for mankind” to a higher level.
President Xi’s trip to Saudi Arabia is also of far-reaching significance to Hong Kong’s future development. Under continuous antagonism from the US-led West, Hong Kong’s development space will be increasingly squeezed, and therefore the city must open new international development space as soon as possible. President Xi’s diplomatic activities with Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries have created a golden opportunity for Hong Kong to follow up and deepen and strengthen its trade, financial and cultural relations with those countries in the future. The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government and all sectors of Hong Kong society should speed up the economic, trade and financial cooperation as well as social and cultural exchanges between Hong Kong and Arab countries with a sense of crisis and urgency. By doing so, the advantages of Hong Kong as an international financial center, the primary offshore renminbi trading hub, a world-class services center, and the bridge connecting the Chinese mainland and the world will be on full display and will propel Hong Kong’s future development as well as help the mainland further strengthen its connection with Arab countries. It will also enable Hong Kong to make new and greater contributions to the country in pushing ahead the Belt and Road Initiative and the grand project of Eurasian economic integration.
The author is a professor emeritus of sociology, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and vice-president of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.