Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

Comprehensive Strategic Partnership: A New Stage in China-Egypt Relations

Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

Comprehensive Strategic Partnership: A New Stage in China-Egypt Relations

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

In December 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Egyptian president Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi held talks to upgrade their countries' bilateral relationship to a "comprehensive strategic partnership." The two leaders pledged to boost political, economic, military, cultural, and technological cooperation along with coordination at the regional and international level.1 Between 2014 and 2016, it appears that a new era of closer political and economic ties has indeed begun unfolding between the two countries.

This study examines the rapid growth of China's bilateral ties with Egypt, in order to understand the extent of economic engagement, high-level diplomatic exchanges, and emerging strategic alliances. Chinese-Egyptian relations have become one of the most important axes of bilateral relations in the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA).2 Egypt is a major regional power with an important and influential role in the Sunni axis and the Arab world, as well as a key ally of Washington, thus also it plays a pivotal role for the U.S. in achieving its broader aims in the Middle East.3

This study further analyzes the motivation behind China's measures to formalize a comprehensive strategic partnership with Egypt in light of the relative decline in U.S. influence and power in world politics, particularly in the Middle East. Additionally, it examines the question of whether China's intensified engagement with Egypt may indeed reduce Washington's sphere of influence in Cairo, which could threaten U.S. interests in the region.

For China, the emerging strategic alliance with Egypt represents an attempt to strengthen its influence and power in the MENA region, expand its commercial activity, and reinforce its strategic standing at the expense of the U.S.4 As Xi said during his visit to Egypt, China is considering its relationship with Egypt from a long-term perspective. "We are ready to work with the Egyptian side to carry forward our traditional friendship, learn from each other, and deepen our practical cooperation in various fields under the Belt and Road Initiative, so as to let our people share development benefits and enjoy a better life."5

Moreover, gaining a foothold in Egypt may prove to be of vital importance to China's economic interests and strategic long-term prospects,6 as Egypt's strategic geographic location makes the country a marketplace of great potential and influence in the entire MENA region.

EGYPT'S PERSPECTIVE ON THE STRATEGIC PARTNERSHIP WITH CHINA

Since the mid-1950s, China and Egypt have maintained equal and friendly relations in political, economic, and cultural exchanges. Egypt was the first Arab and African country to recognize the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1956, supporting the "One China" principle and China's role as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.7 It is true that the relationship between China and Egypt has not always been smooth, and there remain some serious issues between the two countries, such as the trade imbalance between the two since the 1980s, which has worsened significantly over time and, without determined corrective action, seems set to worsen and distort further Egypt's overall trade balance in future8. Nonetheless, the foundation of this bilateral relationship remains relatively solid.9

Although the present study focuses on the motivation behind China's measures to formalize a comprehensive strategic partnership with Egypt, the Arab world's most populous country, it is important as well to understand why the Sisi administration considers relations with Beijing to be essential. There are two reasons: strategically, Cairo wants to deliver a message to its erstwhile U.S. partner alluding to its strategic alternatives and its frustration with U.S. attempts to interfere in Egypt's internal affairs. Strategic cooperation with Beijing also suits Cairo's desire to forge a sovereign foreign policy that proceeds based on purely Egyptian interests and is not bound to international and regional axes. …

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