Egypt is the latest Arab country to fall under the spell of China’s globetrotting Premier Wen Jiabao. In June, Premier Wen and Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazef signed an agreement designed to deepen strategic and cooperative relations between the two countries. Under the agreement, Chinese enterprises will increase investment in Egyptian energy, textiles and electronics industries, while Cairo will provide preferential treatment to Chinese enterprises operating in Egypt.
At the two-day China-Arab Cooperation Forum held in Beijing in early June, China and twenty-two Arab states vowed to double trade from approximately US$50 billion in 2005 to US$100 billion by 2010. Chinese President Hu Jintao told Arab delegates at the forum that China seeks to “further develop cooperation in all areas.” China has increasingly focused its attention on the energy-rich Arab world, improving relations with countries to secure the energy needed to fuel its ever-expanding economy. Currently, 40 percent of China-Arab trade is estimated to be oil-related.
Modern Egypt-China relations date back to 1956, when China supported Egypt’s position during the Suez crisis. In 1964, Egypt welcomed China’s successful detonation of its atomic bomb as a victory for “non-aligned” nations. More recently, both countries have opposed the Iraq War, the Afghanistan invasion and U.N. Security Council sanctions against Sudan.
Washington has watched the growing relationship with great interest, as concerns about the future of the Mubarak-led government and Beijing’s influence on Egyptian foreign policy have increased. With $1.7 billion a year in economic and military aid provided to Egypt – making it the second largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid after Israel -- many observers have questioned Beijing’s ultimate intentions and impact on regional security and stability. Over the past year alone, China has initiated military contacts with a growing number of U.S. allies in the region including Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Not to worry, says Premier Wen. “This attempt and efforts to develop relations are not directed at entering into any alliance, and will not compromise the interests of any other countries. I am confident that the U.S. government also recognizes this,” he said at a news conference in Cairo.
But Premier Wen’s words of reassurance come at a difficult juncture in U.S.-Egypt relations. Recently, President Mubarak has withdrawn from contact with key U.S. leaders, reportedly angered by continued criticism of his regime’s human rights record and attempts by the U.S. Congress to redirect portions of Egyptian assistance to international humanitarian efforts. In his place, the 77-year old Mubarak has sent his son Gamal to Washington, with the 42-year old briefly meeting with President Bush and U.S. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney in late May.
Beijing’s involvement in the region has become even more worrisome after the release of a report in June by human rights organization Amnesty International that identified China as one of the world’s most secretive and irresponsible arms exporters, often exchanging arms for raw materials. According to the report, Chinese weapons have helped sustain conflicts and human rights violations in Sudan, Nepal, Myanmar and South Africa. At approximately the same time as the report’s release, Washington froze the assets of four Chinese companies and one American company accused of helping Iran in its pursuit of missile technology.
Evidence is also growing that China would both support and welcome a post-Mubarak Islamist state to counter U.S. interests in the region. A Paris-based intelligence newsletter released in June noted that an intelligence agent of China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS) has covertly aided the ruling Palestinian Hamas government and its military wing, Ezz e-Din al-Qassam, proving once again that China is interested in more than just economic and trade cooperation and is in fact violating its own policy of “non-interference.”
Sheikh Askar, one of 88 members of the Egyptian parliament for the Muslim Brotherhood, is one of a growing number of anti-Mubarak voices that are calling for change. In June, Askar made his intentions absolutely clear, “I want to see Egypt become an Islamic state. Our group [Muslim Brotherhood] will spread the glory of Islam.” If an Islamist government led by the radical Muslim Brotherhood were to supplant Mubarak, Egypt may decide to re-evaluate its relationship with the U.S., turning to China, Russia and even Iran for guidance on regional and global issues. As a result, China could very well decide Egypt’s vast energy resources and strategic location are more important than the controversial military and technology transfers it participates in with Israel.
Lastly, any discussion of China’s regional influence must include the country’s determined pursuit of energy. Egypt has become a significant oil producer and a rising player on the natural gas scene. Moreover, the Suez Canal is a critical component to Persian Gulf oil shipments, connecting the Red Sea and Gulf of Suez with the Mediterranean Sea. Most of the oil carried by tankers through the Suez Canal is destined for Europe and the U.S. With almost two-thirds of all crude oil and refined products transported by tanker, the need to secure these “chokepoints” is a critical part of U.S. national security policy.
Beijing’s foreign policy manifesto, which promotes “non-interference” in the internal affairs of countries, is, in reality, nothing of the sort. The so-called “peace and security” initiatives promoted by Beijing for Africa and the Middle East are merely veiled attempts to dominate strategic resources and markets for use against potential future adversaries, namely, the U.S. and its allies.
It is time for the Bush administration to press Cairo for greater commitments to democracy, human rights and U.S.-led regional security alliances. Otherwise, the U.S. could soon face an Islamist-led Egyptian government in control of the Suez Canal with China as a primary economic and military backer.
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