The Sino-Middle Eastern relations: history of the past and dynamics of the present (1/3)

.: June 6, 2018

In this serie of three articles, Xiaodong Zhang discusses the interests of China in the Middle East and the relations between China and the countries in this geographical area. In this first part, Zhang explains the background and history of relations between China and the countries of the Middle East, from the proclamation and creation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 to the birth of relations between China and Middle Eastern countries with Israel, to the more modern role of China in this region of the world during and after the Cold War.

The earliest communication between China and the Middle East can be traced back to the Han Dynasty more than 2,000 years ago. Since its founding in 1949, the People’s Republic of China has been eager to develop friendly relations with the countries in the Middle East. The end of the Cold War and the second Gulf War radically altered the political forces in the Middle East and opened new opportunities for the changes in international relations. The issue I will discuss in this article is how China, with its rapidly developing economy, should deal with the countries in the Middle East as our unstable world marches to the twenty-first century.


The Middle East has been a hot spot in international politics since the end of World War II. In addition to regional contradictions and conflicts, the confrontation and contention between the two superpowers cast a pall over the whole area. For new China, the Middle East was a distant and unfamiliar place. The Chinese government and academia did not know or care about Middle Eastern affairs - the Arab-Israeli wars, the oil embargo, etc. Naturally, the impact of China on the Middle East was limited. What China could do was to stress that it, like most Middle East countries, had suffered colonialist and imperialist aggression and rule and, like them, had to defend the integrity of its territory and sovereignty after independence. In addition, China firmly supported the Palestinians and Arabs in their struggle for liberation, which actually was the core of Chinese Middle Eastern policy in those years. As a positive response to this policy, in May 1956 Egypt became the first Middle East country to establish diplomatic relations with China. However, the monarchies that feared Arab nationalism refused to recognize new China for a long time. China also had to give up the chance to establish diplomatic relations with Israel.

It was not by chance that this embarrassing situation came into being. Immediately after the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the West, headed by the United States, adopted a policy of isolation and containment toward China. The United States, to support the Kuomintang regime that had fled to Taiwan, threatened Northeast China by invading Korea, established military bases in several countries of Southeast Asia, and formed an anti-Communist alliance (the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, SEATO). New China, seeking to rebuild its economy destroyed by years of war and facing urgent threats, was unlikely to formulate an adequate Middle East policy. In addition, the United States and Britain cobbled together another military alliance (the Central Nations Treaty Organization, CENTO) to contain the Soviet Union and combat communism. Many Middle East countries took part, thus blocking communication between China and the Middle East.

The 1960s witnessed the steady deterioration of relations between China and the Soviet Union, as well as China’s preoccupation with its Cultural Revolution. In foreign relations, China tried to find allies in the Third World to whom its revolutionary ideology might appeal. Meanwhile, at home, ultra­ Leftism ran rampant, which heavily influenced China’s foreign policy. For example, China’s refusal to adopt a market economy and its undue emphasis on self­ reliance hindered the development of foreign trade and economic relations.

The year 1978 is one of the turning points in modem Chinese history. Since then, China has begun to reach out to the world in a practical and open spirit, deemphasizing ideology and promoting trade and economic exchanges. But the Middle East has been an extremely politicized region that both the United States and the Soviet Union tried to dominate. Under circumstances, a third political or economic force would not have been welcome. Nonetheless, during this period China made efforts to establish diplomatic relations with the countries in the region and obtained some economic opportunities, such as the export of laborers and arms sales. But the Middle East was still on the margins of the Chinese foreign-policy agenda. On most issues, China simply expressed its position, but hardly affected the process of change in that region. Even the trade and economic exchanges that China actively pushed made very limited progress. Until 1985, the total volume of trade between China and the Middle East countries was only $1.7 billion.

Normalization of Relations with Israel

On January 9, 1950, the foreign minister of Israel sent Premier Zhou Enlai a telegram in which Israel announced its intention to recognize the government of the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal government of China. Israel was the first country in the region to recognize new China. However, China rejected establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, simply because Israel, with U.S. support, occupied Arab territories. China regarded support to the Palestinian liberation cause as its unshirkable duty. China’s diplomatic aims were to win the trust and friendship of the Arab nations and the Third World, to cast off the isolation imposed on it by the West and East blocs, and to set up an internationally united front against imperialism and hegemonism. Unfortunately, until the early 1970s, nine Arab countries still refused to recognize the PRC.

With the reform and opening of China and the end of the Cold War, the ideological confrontation in international relations gradually weakened. In addition, both the Arab states and Israel generally recognized the necessity of facing reality after more than 40 years of conflict. As a result, it was logical for China to establish diplomatic relations with Israel on January 24, 1992. The normalization of relations between China and Israel not only laid a solid foundation for further development of relations between the two countries, but also made it possible for China to participate in and influence Middle Eastern affairs.

Trade and Economic Relations

Since 1978, sympathy with and support to Arab causes has been (and will be) the main thrust of the Middle East policy of China, but policy makers increasingly recognized the importance of promoting trade and economic cooperation with the whole region. The Middle East, as a major oil supplier, obviously influences the world economy. In addition, the Middle East and the GCC countries, as the owners of oil dollars, play a role in the financial markets of the world. Therefore, expanding trade and economic linkages with the region gradually became an important objective of Chinese foreign policy. However, it was not easy to enter into the Middle East market, partly because China had no diplomatic relations with some countries, and partly because the products from America, Europe and Japan had monopolized the market. The positive changes in Sino-Middle East relations at the turn of the 1980s indicated that bilateral economic cooperation was moving toward a new stage. By January 1992, China had established diplomatic relations with all countries in the Middle East, which laid a solid political foundation for mutual economic cooperation. Second, the progress of the Arab-Israeli peace process relaxed regional tensions by and large, and economic cooperation was placed on the regional agenda. In the opinion of China, participating in economic reconstruction and seeking commercial opportunity in the Middle East would be helpful to the economic growth of both sides and promote social stability in the region.

Third, in 1993, China became a net importing country of petrochemical products. With China’s economic growth, its need for imported oil will increase significantly, which means more economic linkages between China and the Gulf.

Fourth, while the high proportion of foreign trade in GNP displays the open level of the Chinese economy, it also indicates that this economic growth relies heavily on the world market. Obviously, it will be significant for China to develop such potential markets as the Middle East.

These new changes forcefully pushed bilateral trade forward. In 1993, the trade volume between China and the Middle East (excluding Iran, Turkey and Cyprus) rose to $3.11 billion, an increase of 40 percent over the previous year, when exports totaled $1.89 billion, and imports $12.20 billion.

More Active Participation

After the Gulf War in 1991, the United States, as the sole superpower, dominated the Middle East. The Americans were particularly satisfied with the advances made in strengthening Gulf security and promoting a just and lasting peace between the Arabs and Israelis.1 However, the U.S. position is far from stable and uncontested. Besides regional challenges such as radical Islamism, terrorism and various complex disputes, some Western countries have expressed disagreement with the United States on some issues. Even the Russians, who had withdrawn from the Middle East, are preparing to return to the region. Facing this complicated situation, China has begun to implement a positive policy in the Middle East. China is in favor of the peace process initiated by the United States and actively participates in the multilateral talks on regional security, water, refugees and other issues. Regional economic cooperation is of particular interest to China. From 1994 to 1997, China attended each annual economic conference of the Middle East and North Africa.

In addition, China made known its own position on arms control2 and observed three principles on weapons sales: [1] the purpose of weapons sales is to strengthen the self-defense of the importing countries; [2] weapons sales must not upset the regional balance; and [3] China will not intervene in the internal affairs of other countries by weapons sales.3 In recent years, China signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, promised to observe the Missile Technology Control Regime guidelines and ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention. China’s participation in Middle East affairs and its sense of responsibility for global issues indicates that its self-confidence in diplomacy is steadily growing. I believe that it will contribute to the strengthening of relations between China and the Middle East as well as to the balance of power in the region.

Balanced Relations

In principle, China’s persistent aim is to establish and develop friendly cooperative relations with every country on the basis of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, which is the foundation of China’s foreign policy. However, in practice the situation is very complicated. In the Middle East, those countries that overthrew colonial or feudal rulers were the first to establish diplomatic relations with China. In this case, the similar experiences (suffering from the oppression of colonialism and imperialism) and common goals (maintaining independence and developing the economy) constituted the solid foundation for relations among them. The other countries in the Middle East refused to recognize China because they were following the U.S. lead or hated communism. Meanwhile, it seemed that China rejected the Israeli request to establish diplomatic relations for ideological reasons. This Cold War ideological diplomatic model is today heading for its doom. As most countries pay more attention to economic development, the choice of a foreign strategy tends to be realistic and practical. China has corrected the deviation of its Middle East policy. First, it intends to promote relations with the region in an all­ around way- politically, economically and culturally - and second, it hopes to develop relations with all countries, while avoiding involvement in regional disputes.

Xiaodong ZHANG © Middle East Policy Council (USA)

Xiaodong Zhang is associate professor and director of the Division for International Relations Studies at the Institute of West Asian and African Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and secretary-general of the China Association for Middle Eastern Studies.


[1] XINHUA News Agency, May 31, 1995

[2] People’s Daily, July 5, 1991

[3] People’s Daily, July 7, 1991

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