China and the Muslim World
Muslim countries see their relations with China as a strategic bond to promote their stability, security and economic development.
Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s recent participation in an Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) conference in Islamabad, Pakistan, is historic. For the first time, the top diplomat of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was invited to address a mega gathering of his counterparts from nations of the 57-member body representing 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide.
During his speech at the 48th Session of the OIC Council of Foreign Ministers on March 22, Wang talked about the “long-standing relationship between China and the Muslim world” and reaffirmed China’s support to Muslim countries in their quest for political independence and economic development.
China has always been etched in the Muslim consciousness as a country with a great civilization based on knowledge, learning and development. For example, there is a famous saying of the Holy Prophet Mohammad 1,400 years ago, which urged Muslims to “seek knowledge, even if you have to go to China.”
Soon after the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, Harvard University professor Samuel Huntington predicted that Western civilization would be at odds with both Islamic and Confucian ones. Interestingly, he also talked of a united front between the latter two.
During his speech at the Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilizations in Beijing in May 2019, Chinese President Xi Jinping mentioned the contribution of Islamic civilization to enrich Chinese civilization and referred to the Holy Mosque in Mecca.
The PRC was founded in October 1949. Months later, Pakistan became the first Muslim country to recognize it in May 1950. The first institutional interaction between China and Muslim countries took place at the 1955 Asian-African Conference in Bandung, Indonesia. The host of the historic event is indeed the world’s largest Muslim country.
In January 1965, when the Palestine Liberation Organization was formed, China was among first countries to recognize it. In the 1960s and early 1970s, China also provided material support and aid to various Muslim countries facing economic and political pressures, including Pakistan, Nigeria, Indonesia, South Yemen and Egypt.
As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, China has been at the forefront of countries that take a proactive approach to the Muslim world. For example, it put forward a four-point Middle East peace plan in 2013, including the establishment of an independent State of Palestine enjoying full sovereignty, with East Jerusalem as its capital and based on the 1967 border, and realizing peaceful coexistence between Palestine and Israel. It also called for more humanitarian assistance to Palestinians.
China has also been principled on the issue of Syria, urging an end to both external interference and civil war. In January 2022, China invited Syria to join cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
On March 30, China hosted the Third Foreign Ministers’ Meeting Among the Neighboring Countries of Afghanistan in Tunxi, Anhui Province, which was well attended.
China is the largest crude oil importer in the world and roughly 50 percent of its imports come from Muslim countries in the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia, Iran and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). There have been media reports that China and Saudi Arabia are engaged in discussions to have their oil trade done partially in the yuan.
In March 2021, China and Iran signed a comprehensive cooperation plan, which will run for 25 years. Defense cooperation between China and the Muslim world is also expanding. The advanced Chinese jetfighter J10C is now in use in countries like Pakistan and the UAE.
The centerpiece of China’s relationship with the Muslim world today is the BRI. Interestingly, the initiative was launched in two phases by President Xi in Muslim countries—the Silk Road Economic Belt in Astana, capital of Kazakhstan, in September 2013, and the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road in Jakarta, capital of Indonesia, in October that same year.
During his speech at the OIC conference on March 22, Wang said China is investing over $400 billion in nearly 600 Belt and Road cooperation projects across the Muslim world. He underlined China is “ready to work with Islamic countries to promote a multipolar world, democracy in international relations and diversity of human civilization, and make unremitting efforts to build a community with a shared future for humanity.”
Wang said China supports an early, more authoritative and representative international peace conference on the basis of the two-state solution as to promote a comprehensive and just settlement of the Palestinian issue. On Kashmir, he said China shares the same hope as the OIC.
Another example of close ties between China and the Muslim world were the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 in February, where Muslim countries, including Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar, had high-level representation—despite the “diplomatic boycott” called by certain Western countries.
China has received much support from Muslim countries on the issue of Xinjiang. In July 2019, when a group of 22 countries, mainly Western nations, sent a letter to the UN Human Rights Council criticizing China on issues related to its Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, not a single Muslim country was a signatory. By contrast, among the 37 countries that submitted another letter defending Chinese policies on the same issues were many Muslim countries, including the six Gulf states plus Pakistan, Algeria, Syria, Egypt, Eritrea, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan.
Moreover, China has no border disputes with any of its five Muslim neighbors.
As the global balance of economic and political power shifts from West to East, and talk increases of a new Cold War, China needs to seek out greater cooperation and connectivity. The country is well placed to forge these new ties, especially given the common threat of the COVID-19 pandemic and the need for connectivity through the BRI across the Muslim world.
Muslim countries see their relations with China as a strategic bond to promote their stability, security and economic development, and the BRI has become the principal vehicle to deliver substantial results. In the coming years, China’s partnership with the Muslim world will be strengthened, given their shared interests and the convergence of their worldviews in upholding a world order based on international law, the UN Charter and the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence.
The author is chairman of the Pakistan Senate Defense Committee and the Pakistan-China Institute.