Russia has been emphasizing its Muslim identity for a while now. Obama got into the act in Cairo, pitching America as a Muslim country. And now China has decided to get into the act… for business reasons naturally.
China’s government has thrown considerable diplomatic and political resources during the past five years into building up Middle East ties. Lavish conferences have been sponsored across the country, ethnic festivals held to celebrate Chinese Muslims’ heritage, and trade delegations sent out from both sides, including two visits to Saudi Arabia by outgoing Chinese President Hu Jintao.
Last year, Sino-Arab trade increased by 35 percent to $196 billion, according to Chinese officials, and in the first half of this year, trade rose 22 percent over the same period in 2011, to $111.8 billion. The Sino-Arab trade remains dominated by oil, but Chinese exports such as textiles and home appliances have made a strong showing, according to limited data released by Chinese officials.
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.
Perhaps most important, on a strategic level, China wants to protect and strengthen its access to the Middle East’s oil and energy resources, which are fueling the country’s economic growth.
“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.”
So far so bad… but here’s where China really goes into the hole.
The decision by central authorities to make Ningxia a focal point for bridge-building efforts aimed at the Middle East gave local business leaders a much-needed boost of hope.
It is hard to find a province more in need of development. A desert region largely left behind during China’s economic boom, Ningxia has the country’s third-smallest gross domestic product and few exports that it can rely on besides a fruit called wolfberry.
One thing it does have in abundance, however, are Muslims. Two million members of the predominantly Muslim ethnic minority called Hui live here, making up a third of the province’s population. The Hui are thought to be descendants of Arab and Persian traders going back to the ancient days of the Silk Road.
Local officials are starting small, with exports of such products as halal meat. But there are ambitious — and perhaps overly optimistic — plans to eventually turn the province into a gleaming financial hub for trade with the Arab world.
Chinese officials really need to take a harder look at the world beyond their own borders. Russia’s own experience should be adequately educational.
Muslim oil tyrannies would love a foothold into China’s Muslim areas, more than they have already, in order to further Islamize and radicalize them.
China will lose far more dealing with an upsurge in violence than it will from the trade agreements and while China has thus far had no trouble handling its Muslim minority, giving them serious training and skill from the gulf would shift the balance. Furthermore China’s stability is uncertain and its future is not set. Muslim violence right now would not bring it down, but in combination with other tensions and domestic uprisings, it might be more than the PRC could deal with.