Revolutionary tide sees new friends for China

It’s been argued by some Western commentators that, despite the West paying the cost in blood and treasure in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s been China that reaped the benefit.

The West, they say, spent the lives and the money, but it’s Chinese firms that won the contracts in the aftermath.

Right now the Western media and public are applauding the rebellions spreading across the Middle East and North Africa. But will the West ultimately reap the benefit, or will the wave of change end up favoring China?

The new leadership candidates favored by the West, such as Nobel Prize winner Mohammed ElBaradei in Egypt, are often better known in the West than domestically, and lack grass-roots political contacts. This makes it hard for them to emerge victors in post-revolutionary power struggles. Exactly who will be in power after the dust settles is therefore unclear, and may not be to the West’s advantage.

As for those existing regimes which survive the unrest, whether through bloody repression or political compromise, how will they view the West afterward? Will they move away from the West and seek new partners?

There are 17 Arab countries in West Asia and North Africa which have been or may be affected by the new wave of revolutions. Several of them are allied in some fashion with the US, or have started, like Libya, to take a more pro-Western path after years of opposition. 

Under pressure from domestic audiences disgusted at the tales of corruption and repression emerging from the aftermath of the regime, the Western powers were forced to abandon their complacent pro-dictatorship stance.

After days of mealy-mouthed words, the US made it clear it was time for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to go. France, a long-term ally of former Tunisian President Zine al-Abidene Ben Ali, refused to offer him a safe haven, and began moves to expel his daughter, a long-time resident of France.

China faces no such pressures. Authoritarian Arab rulers, once comfortable in the knowledge that the West would back them for realistic advantage, may now be wondering what will happen when they become more disadvantageous than asset. They may start to look for new partners outside the West, and China will be ready for them. 

There is obvious complementarity between these countries and China. China not only has a growing demand for external market and resources, but also exports high-quality engineering services.

The Middle East and North Africa are rich in resources, but also keen to build infrastructure, opening up broad development prospects between China and these countries.

Because of this, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), including Saudi Arabia, has started several rounds of talks with China concerning the establishment of a free trade zone.

China’s technological exports to these countries, such as the  Tehran metro and Saudi high speed railway, have also grown, and Chinese companies have acquired resource development rights.

China’s economic and trade cooperation with these countries has become increasingly rich, reaching a historical peak even before the 2008 financial crisis. China now trades more with Qatar and the UAE than the US does, and 57 percent of Saudi Arabia’s crude exports now go to the Far East, compared to 14 percent to the US.

Based on such a foundation, after the pains of political instability, we can realistically expect these countries to seek more extensive cooperation with China in order to reduce their dependence on the West.

There’s no reason for China not to seize these economic opportunities.

The author is a research fellow  at the Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation.

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