Down the River Nile: China Gains Influence in Egypt

Publication: China Brief Volume: 5 Issue: 22

China has undertaken an ambitious effort to enhance its energy security and access to vital natural resources to sustain its economic growth, concluding a number of economic and trade agreements with leading oil and gas producers in the Middle East and Africa. More broadly, Beijing has also embarked on a coordinated, long-term strategy to enhance its role as a political and diplomatic power in this region. Toward this end, while Beijing has pursued closer economic ties with Cairo, growing political and military relations with Egypt indicate a geopolitical dimension that is leading to a strategic partnership between the two countries.

The Roots of Modern Sino-Egyptian Ties

Modern Sino-Egyptian ties date back to the first meeting between Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai during the historic 1955 Afro-Asian summit in Bandung, Indonesia that inaugurated the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). At the time, Cairo did not yet recognize the PRC. Nevertheless, Zhou Enlai admired Nasser for his staunch support for national liberation movements in Africa and Asia, vision for an independent and strong Egypt free of foreign interference, and ability to mobilize the Egyptian and Arab masses (People’s Daily, May 29, 2001).

Likewise, Nasser was inspired by China and looked to Beijing for international support after Washington declined his repeated requests for American arms. Zhou Enlai played an integral role in negotiating an arms shipment from the Soviet Union to Egypt. China also supported Egypt’s position during the Suez Crisis in 1956. Egypt applauded China’s successful detonation of its atomic bomb in 1964 as a victory for the non-aligned nations. Nasser is also reported to have approached Beijing for assistance in developing an Egyptian nuclear weapons program.

China Courts Egypt

Egypt, the most populous Arab country, is the political and cultural center of gravity of the Arab world, and Cairo is increasingly using its regional clout to assert itself as the prime advocate for issues affecting the region. Egypt is an outspoken proponent of reforming the UN Security Council, and has expressed a strong interest in assuming the role of representing Africa and the Middle East alongside the five permanent members—a position backed by Beijing (Arabic News, May 23).

On the surface, Beijing’s efforts to court Cairo reflect a pattern of relations rooted in China’s strategy to shore up energy sources in the region. China has spearheaded a number of joint ventures with Egyptian businesses, especially in the oil and natural gas sectors, namely projects dealing with oil and gas exploration, enhancing the productivity of old wells, and manufacturing equipment for the hydrocarbon industry. Beijing and Cairo have also committed to expanding cooperation to include joint ventures in construction, telecommunications, and agriculture [1].

Yet as the growing frequency of the exchange of high-level political and military dignitaries indicates, China’s ties to Egypt extend far beyond the energy and trade spheres and include a geopolitical dimension that is leading to a strategic partnership—some aspects of which conflict with Washington. Indeed, Egypt continues to enjoy close political, military, and economic relations with the U.S. and is counted as one of Washington’s leading allies in the region. Cairo’s staunch ties with Washington are not lost in Beijing, as China treads carefully in maneuvering the complex geopolitics that characterize the U.S.-Egypt strategic partnership and Middle East diplomacy more generally. Likewise, Egypt is not prepared to abandon its staunch pro-U.S. orientation anytime soon (and the associated economic and military aid that comes with it) for a strategic alliance with China. Moreover, there is no evidence to suggest that China is anywhere near living up to such a role in the foreseeable future.

Nevertheless, China is becoming increasingly ambitious in its effort to expand relations with Egypt beyond the energy and economic spheres. For example, Sino-Egyptian cooperation extends to military affairs in the form of regular high-level contacts between Beijing and Cairo, a relationship that stems from the NAM. So far, these contacts reaffirm the growing strategic partnership both countries have built in the political and economic spheres but have yet to translate into more tangible results such as the sale of modern weapons systems, as Washington remains the primary source for Egypt’s armed forces. Significantly, a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) fleet comprised of a guided missile destroyer and a supply ship representing the North China Sea Fleet crossed the Suez Canal in June 2002 and docked in the Egyptian port city of Alexandria during its first around-the-world voyage (Xinhua, June 14, 2002).

Despite signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and advocating a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (NWFZ) in the Middle East—in response to Israel’s robust nuclear arsenal and Iran’s weapons program—Cairo is often cited as a likely candidate to pursue its own nuclear option down the road. China’s history of nuclear cooperation in the region may portend closer ties with Egypt in this area, if Cairo decides on such a course of action. Egypt has already approached China and Russia in 2002 for assistance in the development of a nuclear reactor in Alexandria (“Nuclear Threat Initiative: Egypt Profile,” Monterey Institute of International Studies, May 2003).

Beijing’s overtures in Cairo are finding many eager and willing partners. China and Egypt see themselves as natural leaders in their respective regions and sharing a legacy as the contemporary heirs of great ancient civilizations. Both countries boast having converging interests on an array of key foreign policy issues. China and Egypt see virtually eye-to-eye on the issue of Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Bush Administration’s war on terrorism. Additionally, Beijing and Cairo stood firm in their opposition to the U.S.-led initiative to impose UN Security Council sanctions against Sudan over the crisis in Darfur.

Despite China’s controversial defense ties with Israel, Beijing is outspoken in support of the Egyptian and Arab position with respect to the Arab-Israeli conflict, namely in its criticism of Israel’s continued occupation of Palestinian territory. Egypt reciprocates with its unwavering support of the “One China” principle and its view that Taiwan constitutes sovereign Chinese territory. Cairo was also a staunch supporter of Beijing’s adoption of the Anti-Secession Law aimed at preventing Taiwan from declaring independence (People’s Daily, March 17, 2005).

China relies on Egypt’s influence over fellow Arab and African countries as a means through which to secure support for its position vis-à-vis Taiwan, a strategy meant to marginalize Taipei in international bodies and other institutions. This aspect of Sino-Egyptian ties exemplifies a key facet in China’s approach to Africa. Egypt is also a leading advocate of greater Sino-Arab cooperation under the auspices of the Arab League, as well as enhanced ties between the African Union and China.

Beijing has pursued a series of agreements that enhance China’s direct access over Egyptian port facilities along the Suez Canal through Hong Kong’s Hutchison Whampoa, Ltd., a firm reported to have close ties with the Chinese government and the PLA. China has also taken advantage of other economic opportunities in the Suez Canal zone (Al-Ahram Weekly, July 15-21, 2004, Issue No. 699). China has demonstrated an interest in securing a presence in and around strategic trade and communication choke points across the globe, as evidenced by its control of both the Atlantic and Pacific sides of the Panama Canal, also under Hutchison Whampoa, Ltd.

The China National Aero-Technology Import and Export Corporation (CATIC) recently partnered with Egypt’s A.O.I. Aircraft to jointly produce K-8E flight trainers, the largest joint venture between both countries to date (Xinhua, August 8, 2005). This venture indicates closer ties between both countries’ defense industries and military.

By courting Egypt, China enhances its regional influence and, at the same time, is better positioned to check U.S. power in a region of vital strategic significance. Beijing’s interest and presence in the Middle East also demonstrates its growing capability to project influence deep in a part of the world that remains in the U.S. sphere of influence. A key element of this strategy may also be a reaction to Washington’s expanded presence in Central and Southeast Asia, regions China considers to be in its sphere of influence.

Cairo Looks to Beijing

China is not alone in recognizing the long-term benefits of a strong relationship with Egypt. As China’s fifth largest trading partner in Africa, Cairo identifies Beijing as a crucial partner to its economic development and a lucrative source of investment. Egypt is also keen on tapping the Chinese market through expanded trade links. Trade between both countries is up by an impressive 28 percent in September 2005 compared to the same period last year, and is expected to reach US$2 billion by the end of year (ArabicNews, September 29, 2005).

Despite an expansion in bilateral trade, business relations continue to be characterized by a large Egyptian trade deficit. In a gesture indicative of the high priority Beijing places on strong relations with Cairo, China offers subsidies to Chinese traders to encourage the purchase of Egyptian goods such as textiles and marble in an effort to placate Cairo’s concerns over the large trade imbalance. China has also promoted Egypt as an “approved” tourist destination for its burgeoning middle class. This demonstrates another important step in the maturing ties between both sides, especially given the Egyptian economy’s heavy reliance on tourist revenue as a source of foreign currency.

Egypt looks to China as an attractive alternative to the “West,” especially in terms of economic and social progress and political development. Cairo sees China as a successful model of modernization that should be emulated in the Arab world and Africa (Al-Ahram Weekly, September 16-22, 2004).

Cairo also relies on Beijing as a source for new technology and cooperation in the scientific research and development sectors, especially in agriculture. Moreover, Egypt is eager to utilize its strategic location and extensive contacts in the region to serve as a gateway for greater Chinese inroads in the Middle East and Africa. China and Egypt also agreed to establish the Egyptian Chinese University in Cairo, the first Chinese university in the Middle East. The Egyptian government also began encouraging young Egyptians to learn Chinese (China Radio International, October 10, 2004).

On the geopolitical front, Egyptian strategists believe that close ties with an emerging China can act as a potential check on U.S. influence in the region. Although Cairo’s stance remains firmly entrenched in the U.S. and the West, Egypt resents growing U.S. pressure to implement democratic reforms and criticism of its human rights record. Given China’s experience with U.S. criticism on these and related issues, Beijing is quite sensitive to Cairo’s concerns, bringing both sides together on another important level.

The Egyptian public is deeply resentful of its government’s strong ties to both the U.S. and Israel and its perceived inability to influence Washington on topics ranging from the conflict in Iraq and Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory—issues that resonate deeply among ordinary Egyptians. Many Egyptians see their government as an illegitimate and corrupt vassal regime propped up by U.S. economic and political support. Therefore, Cairo sees expanding political and economic ties with China as a way of both enhancing its regional role and decreasing its dependence on the U.S., both real and perceived. Egypt also hopes that an emerging China can stand up to the U.S. on these and related issues that affect the Middle East. This suits China, as Beijing is presenting itself as a potential alternative to the U.S.


Relations between China and Egypt will continue to expand and flourish, as both sides reap the benefits of closer ties. This relationship also has the potential to enhance greater Sino-Arab cooperation and Beijing’s overall position in Africa, especially as Cairo assumes the de facto leadership role for the region. China will also continue to see Egypt as a strategic springboard to closer ties with other parts of the Middle East and Africa, a role that Cairo welcomes.


1. David H. Shinn, “China’s Approach to East, North and the Horn of Africa,” Testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, July 21, 2005.