China’s pursuit of stable sources of energy and access to burgeoning consumer markets largely dictates its diplomacy in resource-rich Africa and the Middle East. An oft overlooked objective of this strategy, however, is Beijing’s aim of enhancing its position as a rising global power, which would require the ability to project influence outside of its immediate regional periphery. To this end, China is busy cultivating multifaceted relationships with regional powers throughout Africa and the Middle East—beyond the energy and business sectors—to include cooperation in the political and security spheres, as well as science and cultural exchanges. Shoring up regional support for the “One China” principle also tops Beijing’s agenda.
Beijing is also fashioning itself as an alternative source of economic development aid, a role traditionally dominated by the United States, Europe and Western-led institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). These Western-dictated aid structures have led to deep-seated resentment among regional governments and populations. In contrast, as a developing country untainted by the colonial legacy of its Western counterparts in the region, Beijing is able to portray itself as a champion of the developing world. To date, this approach has reaped great dividends for China on many fronts.
In this context, Egypt figures prominently into China’s strategic calculus. Egypt is an influential Arab, Muslim and Middle Eastern power that in many respects represents the political and cultural center of gravity of the Arab world. Likewise, it is an African power that is keen on reestablishing the regional influence it once enjoyed on the continent, most notably when President Gamal Abdel Nasser was on the forefront of supporting the national liberation movements that resisted colonialism in Africa in the 1950s and 60s. Egypt is also determined to emerge as the leader of Arabs, Muslims and Africans in the international arena. For example, Cairo’s pursuit of a permanent seat on a reformed United Nations Security Council (UNSC) alongside the five permanent members—a goal supported by Beijing—is often framed as an effort to marshal Arab, Muslim and African interests.
Despite growing tensions and popular opposition to U.S. foreign policy in the region, Egypt remains a staunch ally of the United States and is firmly entrenched in the U.S.-led regional security architecture. At the same time, Cairo resents what it sees as U.S. interference in its internal affairs regarding issues such as the slow pace of political reform and its human rights record. Egypt is also frustrated by what it considers to be the unwillingness of the United States to engage in a genuine Middle East peace process, a key source of resentment among Egyptians and the rest of the region amidst the ongoing violence and instability in Iraq. In contrast, China is widely regarded as an advocate for the Palestinian national cause. In this regard, Egypt sees China as a potential partner that can help enhance its leverage vis-à-vis the United States. Cairo believes that Beijing could someday play a constructive role in Middle East diplomacy, a calculation based largely on its potential to act as a check on U.S. power in the region. Egypt is also counting on Chinese support for reviving its peaceful nuclear program that was suspended in 1986 (Al-Ahram Weekly, November 9-15, 2006).
Sino-Egyptian relations are firmly rooted in the confluence of tangible mutual interests that encompass economics, geopolitics and security. Nevertheless, it is worth examining the nature of the rhetoric both sides use to characterize their rapidly expanding ties and better understand the trajectory of the Sino-Egyptian relationship. Doing so would provide insight into the power of effective public diplomacy. After all, like all forms of public diplomacy, Sino-Egyptian discourse is calculated to achieve specific objectives and to present a carefully calibrated image for international and domestic consumption.
Among other things, China and Egypt see themselves as the proud heirs of great civilizations. As a result, they believe that they occupy a privileged place in the world based on their respective ancient heritages. Sino-Egyptian public diplomacy is imbued with this kind of reinforcing rhetoric, in addition to populist themes that emphasize “South-South” cooperation and solidarity. Moreover, discourse highlighting themes such as mutual respect, equality and a shared sense of pride resonates strongly in Africa and the Middle East, especially in societies that continue to be shaped by patron-client relationships with former colonial and Western powers. In contrast, despite its aspirations of global power, China is keen on portraying its inevitable rise as a benign phenomenon and one that is symbolic of the potential harbored by developing countries. This presents China as a positive example worth following for countries like Egypt.
Brotherly Ties That Bind
The rhetoric used to mark the 50th anniversary of the establishment of Sino-Egyptian relations in May 2006 is typical of Chinese public diplomacy in Egypt. During a June 2006 press conference in Cairo, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao stated: “China and Egypt both have great civilizations…and are both creators of human glory and progress and defender [sic] of mankind’s cultural heritage, and we both pursue lofty values and ideals,” (People’s Daily, June 19, 2006). He added that China “feels indebted” to the Egyptians, the first nation in Africa to recognize the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1956. He quoted a Chinese proverb in a sign of heartfelt appreciation: “We should never forget the benefits we are offered or forget the favor received.” Premier Jiabao went on to remind his Egyptian audience that “the hat of neo-colonialism simply doesn’t fit China,” a response meant to refute reports of Chinese human rights abuses in the African business sector (Xinhua, October 5, 2006).
There are signs that Beijing’s calculated rhetoric towards Egypt resonates beyond the official state level and is reaching ordinary Chinese. Zhang Boyin, a retired professor at Beijing University described his first trip to Egypt in 2006 as a “dream come true.” He went on to proudly repeat Mao Zedong’s adage regarding the significance of Africa to China: “it is our African brothers who carried us into the United Nations,” (Xinhua, October 5, 2006). China is tapping this momentum by expanding Sino-Egyptian contacts on the popular level. For example, Beijing is encouraging outbound Chinese tourism to Egypt, as well as to Africa more generally. China is also rapidly expanding cultural contacts to include educational exchanges in Egypt and elsewhere in Africa to include the promotion of the Chinese language and culture through the establishment of local “Confucius Institutes” (Xinhua, October 5, 2006).
Egyptian public diplomacy in China mirrors its counterpart’s emphasis on the “special” nature of Sino-Egyptian ties. In a statement just prior to his November 2006 visit to Beijing to attend the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stated: “For me, visiting China is like going home. Egypt sees China more as a brother than as an ordinary friendly nation.” In a show of appreciation for Beijing’s growing engagement in Africa in recent years, Mubarak added: “The development of Africa-China friendship should be credited to the fact that Africa-China relations are based on equality, mutual respect and reciprocity,” (Xinhua, October 31, 2006). In this regard, both China and Egypt are quick to highlight what they label as the revival of “South-South” cooperation, a subtle message meant for U.S. and Western audiences (Al-Ahram Weekly, November 9-15, 2006).
Ordinary Egyptians generally harbor positive opinions towards the Chinese. For the most part, Egyptians see China as a potential check on U.S. power in the region, a sentiment stemming from deep-seated opposition to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. However, there is evidence that China is attracting popular support and admiration among Egyptians for other reasons. For example, the recent inaugurations of the region’s first Confucius Institute, in partnership with Cairo University, and a joint Egyptian-Chinese University are drawing interest among a wide cross-section of Egyptians. Speaking about the Confucius Institute, American University of Cairo Economics Professor Adel Bashai remarked: “we have a lot to learn from the Chinese…the biggest benefit is to know the culture and religion…to know how they got to where they got.” The number of Egyptians studying the Chinese language is also growing rapidly. Chinese is now taught at a number of major universities across Egypt, including al-Azhar, one of the world’s leading centers of Islamic scholarship” (Daily Star [Egypt], December 28, 2006).
Sino-Egyptian relations are poised to develop further in the coming years and effective public diplomacy will play a critical role in sustaining these ties. Beijing will continue to see Cairo as a strategic gateway toward expanded ties with the Arab world and Africa. Likewise, Egypt will look to China as a means of gaining leverage in its increasingly precarious position vis-à-vis its primary ally, the United States. Egypt will also try to harness China’s momentum in assuming a greater leadership role in an attempt to represent Arabs, Muslims and Africans on the global stage. However, despite their mutual emphasis on furthering “South-South” cooperation and enhancing “brotherly ties,” there are limits to this relationship. Beijing and Cairo are not prepared or willing to jeopardize friendly and constructive relations with the United States in the foreseeable future in the hopes of cementing closer relations that threaten to directly undermine Washington’s stake in the region. Indeed, despite the rhetoric, the expansion of Sino-Egyptian ties is driven as much by the intent of ensuring friendly relations with the United States as it is bolstering the existing Sino-Egyptian bond.