By Abdulkhaleq Abdulla
2011, the year of the “Arab Spring,” was an epochal one in contemporary Arab history. 2011 will also likely go down as a turning point in the Arab world’s perception of China and its relationship with the rising Asian power.
For the past 60 years, the Arab world has generally considered China a friend and supporter of Arab causes. During the past three decades, many Arabs admired China for its achievements, particularly its economic success. As such, China was viewed as an economic role model and topped the list of Arab friends.
But in 2011, something unsettling began to occur. Though the economic aspect of the Arab-Chinese relationship is still booming, the political aspect is no longer as strong. Arab perceptions of China have deteriorated, with China now being viewed as supporting the status quo rather than change. Consequently, China’s reliability as a friend, particularly in regard to its future status as a superpower, is up for debate.
Three issues have caused this shift: China’s reaction to the “Arab Spring,” which has been characterized by a hesitation to support the region’s democratic aspirations; China’s veto (along with Russia) on the UN Security Council resolution that called for Syrian president Bashar al-Asad to step down; and China’s behavior toward economic sanctions on Iran, which has been uncooperative. These political moves have brought about a more negative view of China, though it is important to stress that this change is only in terms of perception, as the fundamentals of the Arab-Chinese relationship (principally economic) are still sound.
A number of novel events from the past year illustrate this perceptual change. After the UN Security Council veto, Chinese flags were burned in Arab cities. Such an act was nearly unthinkable until this moment. Indeed, the American flag has been the flag of choice for burning in the Arab world. But this enmity toward the West is changing. With the EU and the United States’ support for the Arab uprisings, the list of Arab friends and enemies is shifting. The United States and the EU are now considered friendlier than before, with China and Russia on the other side. Perhaps Chinese and Russian flags will become the Arabs’ more permanent flag of choice for burning.
Articles in major Arab newspapers have also named China and Russia as new “enemies of the Arab people.” And on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media, Arab citizens have been writing phrases (in response to the UN veto) such as “shame on you, China, for standing by a brutal regime.” Such a comment would have been inconceivable only a year ago, and it indicates the belief that China is responsible for prolonging the Syrian people’s agony.
Lastly, and more particularly, for the first time Saudi Arabia is not pleased with China. King Abdullah, normally a rather low profile ruler and one who is committed to “looking East” to diversify Saudi’s security and oil profile, went public in his criticism of China and Russia for their double veto. Apparently King Abdullah was so angry with China that he termed the country’s veto “unethical.”
In sum, the Arab-Chinese relationship is going through a difficult time. Before 2011 the Arabs were ready to welcome China as the next superpower that would serve as a counterbalance to U.S. domination in the region. Now, many have second thoughts about the appeal of this prospect. Essentially, Arabs are viewing China as on the “wrong side of history” for failing to support their democratic aspirations, for supporting a brutal regime in Syria, and for allowing Iran to develop nuclear capabilities.
Despite these wrong moves, there is no evidence that China’s vast interests in the Arab world are in any imminent danger. While some have called for a boycott of Chinese products and to stop investment in China, these calls likely have had little, if any, significance on the ground. However, they are indicative of a new and accepted discourse. Moreover, if China continues to make political blunders, an eventual economic price may have to be paid. The calls for boycott could become a reality, with strategic partnerships and investments hindered.
Dr. Abdulkhaleq Abdulla is a professor of political science at United Arab Emirates University. He is the chairman of the cultural committee at the Dubai Cultural and Scientific Association and a member of the Global Agenda Council on Population Growth. He was a member of the Dubai Cultural Council, the General Coordinator of the Gulf Development Forum, the director of the research center at Al Khaleej newspaper, the editor of the Gulf Strategic Report, the editor of the Journal of Social Affairs, and the lead author of the Arab Knowledge Report 2008. He holds Ph.D. in political science from Georgetown University and an M.A. from American University in Washington, D.C.