Remember how President Obama embarked on a “pivot” to Asia? Well China is pivoting the other direction, to the Arab world. The Chinese are hoping to Arab countries will become profitable economic partners and oil suppliers. China hopes to build up its Muslim dominated Ningxia province as a center of Sino-Arab trade, starting with increased exports of the area’s halal meat:
“The short-term goal of increasing halal meat going to Arab countries is to build up our local economy and workforce,” said one provincial official here, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the strategy of central authorities. “But the real goal is to introduce the Arab world to us and get them comfortable with the idea of building up their relations and investment in China. . . . And energy is not the only reason behind it, but it is a big one.”
In 2011, trade between China and the Arab world rose by 22 percent and by 35 percent in the last year. China has supplemented this commerce with diplomatic events, trade delegations, economic forums, and festivals spotlighting the ethnic background of Chinese Muslims. The advantages of this alliance for China are clear. Deeper ties will help China safeguard its interest in Middle Eastern oil reserves, and spur the country’s economic growth:
With the U.S. and European economies still recovering, the Arab world is an increasingly enticing market for Chinese exports and a potential source of investors for Chinese projects. Middle Eastern countries are also some of the closest positioned to help develop China’s western provinces, which have fallen far behind its flourishing eastern coastal cities during the past three decades of economic boom.
The Muslim population of China and the country’s government rarely saw eye to eye in the past, but Chinese officials hope that the growth of trade ties with the Middle East can bring more prosperity to sometimes restive Muslim areas of China while helping to offset the cost of energy imports through meat and other exports. Meanwhile, there is a geopolitical opportunity as well. The prospect of American energy independence could lead to a reduced American interest in the Middle East; that would be a vacuum that China would very much want to fill. We expect a continued low key but very focused and determined Chinese attempt to deepen its links with the Arab world.