The “Silk Road” and the “Maritime Silk Road”—stretching from China to the Mediterranean Sea—connected China to the outside world and facilitated trans-regional trade and cultural exchange for centuries.
In September 2013 President Xi Jinping recalled this history in a speech at Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan by proposing the creation of a New Silk Road Economic Belt stretching from western China across Central Asia. A few weeks later, in his address to Indonesia’s parliament, Xi called for the development of a Maritime Silk Road aimed at expanding maritime connections and cooperation between China and Southeast Asia.
“All About China” is a journey into the history and diverse culture of China through essays that shed light on the lasting imprint of China’s past encounters with the Islamic world as well as an exploration of the increasingly vibrant and complex dynamics of contemporary Sino-Middle Eastern relations.
Mar 03, 2015
China, Islam, and New Visions of the Old World
Robert R. Bianchi
China is steadily reshaping the world’s political and economic landscape by connecting Europe and the Pacific through a series of transcontinental and transoceanic networks that will run across the major Islamic countries of Asia and Africa. The slogan that Beijing uses to promote these projects—“One Belt, One Road”—is a shorthand reference to the Silk Road Economic Belt (the overland routes through Central Asia and the Middle East) and the Maritime Silk Road (the sea lanes joining the Pacific and Indian Oceans with the Mediterranean). In fact, even these grandiose labels understate the true magnitude of China’s ambitions; the total number of planned mega-networks is not two, but seven—and still counting.
Mar 05, 2015
Feasts of the Sacrifice: Ritual Slaughter in Late Imperial and 20th-Century China
Tristan G. Mahfouz-Brown
Muslims in imperial China did not necessarily have to worship at the altars of Chinese gods to exert their identities as upstanding local inhabitants, obedient subjects, or agreeable neighbors. As any child brought up on the story of God’s sparing of Ibrahim’s son knows, followers of any god who pulls his weight in this world or the next are sometimes in need of a lamb or two ...
Mar 11, 2015
China’s Soft Military Presence in the Middle East
As a result of the growth of its comprehensive power, China today has two frontiers. One is the natural frontier of its sovereign territory; the other is an artificial frontier created by its overseas interests. By deploying a “soft” military presence overseas, specifically in the Middle East, China can protect its commercial interests while also providing public goods for the international community and minimizing the risk of damage to multilateral relations.
Mar 13, 2015
When Islam was an Ally: China’s Changing Concepts of Islamic State and Islamic World
John T. Chen
For many at present, the phrase “China and Islam” connotes conflict and oppression. This is due to a preponderant focus on the security situation in the Muslim-majority northwestern province of Xinjiang. Chinese policies in Xinjiang—particularly restrictions placed on Xinjiang’s Turkic Uighurs regarding beards, veils, and fasting during Ramadan—have been perceived as targeting Muslims as Muslims, exacerbating the security concerns they were meant to address. Moreover, the pursuit of stability in Xinjiang has led the Chinese government to adopt an anti-terrorism rhetoric reminiscent of its American counterpart.
Mar 17, 2015
The GCC States and the Viability of a Strategic Military Partnership with China
The term “strategic partnership” has been increasingly used in GCC circles to signify that relations with China are important and worthy of long-term investment. In a March 14, 2014 speech during his visit to Beijing, Saudi Arabia’s then Crown Prince Salman announced that “we are witnessing the transformation of the relationship with China to one of strategic partnership with broad dimensions, to the benefit of both our countries.” Saudi Arabia’s position was echoed by the emir of Qatar during a 2014 visit to China in which issues of common concern to all GCC states, especially combating terrorism, were discussed. Abdel-Aziz Aluwaisheg, GCC general assistant secretary for negotiations and strategic dialogue, has also noted that there is growing interest in the Gulf to develop a “strategic dialogue” with China.
Mar 19, 2015
China and the UAE: New Cultural Horizons
Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat
Historically, promoting dialogue between people of different nations has been a way to build bridges of understanding between countries. For example, since 1946, the U.S. Fulbright Exchange has served to strengthen relations between the United States and other countries. Similarly, as the partnership between China and the UAE has grown significantly in recent years, both governments have come to recognize the importance of overcoming linguistic-cultural barriers. They have therefore worked cooperatively to increase the number of Emirati and Chinese professionals who are acquainted with each other’s societal norms and customs, methods of performing business, and national and institutional interests.
Mar 27, 2015
Among Old Friends: A History of the Palestinian Community in China
Mohammed Turki Al-Sudairi
Following the Bandung Conference in 1955, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) espoused―in an unusual contrast with other major powers of the “socialist” and “nonaligned” camps―a pro-Palestinian stance in its foreign policy toward the Middle East. This did not entail, however, any direct contact with the Palestinians, a development that did not appear until the mid-1960s emergence of a more autonomous and coherent Palestinian national movement embodied in the PLO. Contact prior to the establishment of formal channels of communication took place through a number of unofficial and semi-official conduits, ranging from the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN), the Chinese embassies in Egypt and South Yemen after 1967, and the “underground” Communist networks (mainly Iraqi, Sudanese, and Yemeni) to such bodies as the Chinese Committee for Afro-Asian Solidarity and the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries. These contacts enabled the PRC to eventually extend formal diplomatic recognition of the PLO in 1964, making it the first non-Arab country to do so.
Apr 02, 2015
Mosques and Islamic Identities in China
Lawrence E. Butler
The great trading routes connecting medieval Eurasia by land and sea brought Islam, like Buddhism centuries earlier, to China. Somewhere between 20 and 40 million Muslims—reliable data remains elusive—now live in China. They acknowledge a variety of official and unofficial ethnic identities due to the diverse origins of Islam in China as well as the complexities of modern Chinese ethnic policies. The architecture of China’s mosques, both historic and modern, reflects this diversity. This essay examines the development of mosque architecture in southern China, in the old central capitals, and in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region from earliest times up to the present. In the twenty-first century, modern construction techniques allow patrons to choose from a variety of styles and materials as they design mosques to reflect a particular version of Islamic identity.
Apr 08, 2015
Searching for Continuity in Sino-Arab Relations
Too often, historians of Sino-Arab relations do not engage in a meaningful dialogue with the political scientists, economists, and anthropologists who are the most vocal commentators on China’s increasing role in the region. Today’s China, with its growing wealth and unprecedented ability to project political and economic power abroad, may appear at first glance to bear little resemblance to the China of the 1950s, when the Communist government of Mao Zedong was reaching out for the first time to the other countries of the developing world. Nevertheless, one can identify several continuities that have long informed China’s interactions with the Arab world. First, Beijing insists that its foreign policy is based on the same ironclad commitment to nonintervention in the affairs of other sovereign countries that it articulated in the 1950s. Second, China has long held special meaning for Arab politicians and intellectuals who wish to use the example of China to promote authoritarian order in their own societies. Finally, the Chinese government has relied on Chinese Muslims to mediate its relations with other Islamic countries for nearly a century. It is only by recognizing these longstanding hallmarks of Sino-Arab relations that commentators can fully appreciate the complexities of China’s interactions with the Arab world in the twenty-first century.
Apr 14, 2015
The Middle East in China’s Silk Road Visions: Business as Usual?
I-wei Jennifer Chang
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s 2013 proclamation of the Silk Road Economic Belt (“One Belt, One Road”) and Twenty-First Century Maritime Silk Road initiatives provided an overarching framework for understanding China’s strategic priorities over the coming decade. The land-based and sea-based Silk Roads will link Asia and Europe via the Middle East and Central Asia through a series of transcontinental railroads, pipelines, ports, airports, and other infrastructure projects.
Apr 21, 2015
Na Zhong: The Complex Perspective of a Patriotic Muslim Scholar
When Na Zhong, Professor of Arabic at Beijing Foreign Studies University, passed away in 2008, his funeral at the headquarters of China’s Islamic Association was attended by many notable Muslims and scholars of Islam. Biographies and reminiscences characterize him as both an accomplished Muslim scholar and a Chinese patriot. Indeed, Na Zhong’s accomplishments are impressive. He was among the founders of Arabic programs at National Central University (later Nanjing University), Yunnan University, and Foreign Affairs University (which later merged with Beijing Foreign Studies University). During his lifetime, he published dozens of volumes of original and translated works on Islamic civilization, the history of the Arab world, and the Arabic language. He was also patriotic, participating in many activities seen as advancing Chinese national interests in the Islamic world.
Apr 28, 2015
Bringing China and Islam Closer: The First Chinese Azharites
In the 1930s, several groups of Muslim students from China arrived to study at Al-Azhar University in Cairo. They were destined to play an important role in the history of modern Chinese Islam. These 35 Chinese Azharites, all but two from the Sinophone Hui community, helped China to establish lasting links with Egypt and other Muslim countries in the Middle East. They also left a considerable cultural legacy, including translations of crucial texts from both the Islamic and Chinese traditions.
May 01, 2015
Islamic Calligraphy in China: Images and Histories
Given the prominence of calligraphy in the traditional arts of both the Islamic world and China, it is only natural that Islamic calligraphy plays an important cultural role in Chinese Muslim communities. The art form’s survival over the centuries in China, even during prolonged periods of isolation from the rest of the Islamic world, reflects the strength of Chinese Muslims’ religious traditions, as well as the critical function of the written word within these traditions.
May 06, 2015
Will China Interfere in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict?
In June 1954, the leaders of China, India, and Burma (now Myanmar) issued a joint statement affirming the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence―mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other's internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence―as the basis for conducting international relations. Since then, China has adhered strictly to the principle of non-interference in other countries’ domestic turmoil, as displayed prominently over the past several years in Beijing’s response to the Syrian civil war.
May 20, 2015
The “One Belt, One Road” Strategy and China’s Energy Policy in the Middle East
The genesis of the “One Belt, One Road” strategy—also known as the Belt and Road Initiative—can be traced to three noteworthy public events that occurred in rapid succession in the latter part of 2013. On September 7, in a speech delivered at Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev University, Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed building the Silk Road Economic Belt. Addressing the Indonesian parliament on October 3, he recommended that China and Southeast Asian countries work together to revive the Maritime Silk Road. On October 24-25, at a work forum on “periphery diplomacy” held by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Beijing, Xi stressed that China is committed to forging amicable and mutually beneficial relations with its neighbors, such that they will benefit from Chinese development and China will benefit from a prosperous neighborhood. In this way, the president conceptually linked the notion of the “Chinese dream” to regional development. This conference marked the official birth of China’s “Silk Road strategy.”
Jun 5, 2015
Chinese Soft Power and Dubai’s Confucius Institute
The Confucius Institute of the University of Dubai is housed in a building named Masaood, a tall structure found off a dusty roundabout about two miles west of the airport. On the day I visit, the UAE is observing National Day, and near the building’s entrance Emirati flags wave in wind smelling of the grilled meat being served as part of a nearby celebration. Up on the fifth floor, where the Institute is housed, signage is in both Arabic and Chinese. Students learn various levels of Mandarin in pristine classrooms.
Jun 08, 2015
China’s Iran Bet
Jeffrey S. Payne
Iran offers a unique platform for China’s ambitions in the Middle East and so, Beijing is willing to bet that the benefits of closer ties with Tehran will outnumber the costs. This analysis examines the calculations China is making made regarding its relationship with Iran and argues that deepening bilateral ties reveal the centrality of Iran for China’s Middle East strategy.
Jul 15, 2015
From Nonintervention to What?: Analyzing the Change in China’s Middle East Policy
Though China still adheres to the principle of nonintervention, its unprecedented proactivity and break from its position to “pursue friendly, cooperative relations with all Middle Eastern countries” has already distinguished its behavior in the Syria crisis from its traditional stance.
Aug 05, 2015
Rising Chinese Waves in the UAE
Zongyuan (Zoe) Liu
The flow of oil and gas from the Persian Gulf to East Asia has rejuvenated the ancient Silk Road, refashioning new networks of collaboration. The energy trade―the backbone of Sino-Middle Eastern ties―has provided the foundation for an increasingly diversified and robust set of relationships between China and the Gulf monarchies. The multidimensional strategic partnership between China and the UAE, in particular, is illustrative of this broader pattern.
Feb 03, 2016
Fate of the Dragon in the Year of the Red Fire Monkey: China and the Middle East 2016
February 2016 marks the beginning of a new phase in the Chinese lunar calendar, drawing to a close a year marked by heightened risks and fortuitous gains in China’s efforts to secure its interests in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. This essay addresses three questions: How well has China adapted to the conflict and instability that have swept the region? And as we enter the Year of the Red Fire Monkey, what are the concerns that are likely to preoccupy Chinese leaders? What, if any, policy adjustments by Beijing, can realistically be expected in light of the current circumstances and uncertain prospects for the region and for China itself?
Feb 08, 2016
China and Iran: An Emerging Partnership
The Chinese aim to gradually grow with Iran a multi-dimensional partnership based on mutual understanding and trust, and see in Iran a potential power that could act as its partner in an Asian arena where many see China’s own rise as a threat.
Feb 09, 2016
Saudi Arabia and China: The Security Dimension
Joseph A. Kéchichian
Political and security ties between Saudi Arabia and China have developed far more slowly than have their economic relations. This essay explores the security dimension of the relationship between Saudi Arabia and China, to shed light on the question of why Sino-Saudi cooperation in the security sphere has been very limited.
Feb 16, 2016
The GCC and China’s Transformative Role in the Middle East
China is a major economic partner of the GCC countries. This essay discusses the size and scope of this economic relationship, and considers how these ties might evolve as China's ambitious One Belt One Road (OBOR) and Maritime Silk Road (MRS) initiatives take shape.
Apr 06, 2016
Defying Expectations: China’s Iran Trade and Investments
This essay examines China-Iran trade relations, as well as Chinese investments in Iran. Particularly, it asks whether the Chinese-Iranian stated ambition to increase the value of bilateral trade to $600 billion within a decade is attainable. Additionally, it identifies the factors responsible for the trade deficit in Iran’s favor, and shows that the pace of China’s foreign direct investment (F.D.I) in Iran is slowing in spite of absolute increases.
China and the Jihadi Threat
Nov 10, 2016
Success of China’s Hui Muslims: Assimilation or Hyphenation
With the increased international media attention on the plight of the Uyghur Muslim minority in Xinjiang, Western news magazines have started to also focus on the Hui, or Chinese-speaking Muslims. Some of these accounts attribute the Hui's success to their assimilation into Han Chinese culture and society. This essay refutes this argument by highlighting the differences between the manner in which Uyghurs and Hui were incorporated into the Chinese state.
China’s Muslim Communities: ‘Under Maintenance’?
In incorporating Muslim minorities into the nation-state, Chinese policymakers have faced two sets of challenges: The first involves balancing ethno-religious diversity and national integration; and the second entails fostering enhanced connectivity to the outside world while at the same time consolidating CCP-state control over the public sphere. This essay examines the Chinese government's recent and current struggles to address these challenges.
Oct 17, 2017
The G.C.C. Countries and China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI): Curbing Their Enthusiasm?
Chinese leaders emphasize that the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is focused on developing connectivity through inclusive cooperation. Yet, certain BRI projects have potential strategic outcomes that can affect regional power dynamics. Thus, States that might otherwise be inclined to cooperate with China on the BRI could perceive elements of the initiative to run counter to their interests. This essay shows that, in considering the BRI, the leaders of the Gulf Arab countries have to balance their increasingly important relationship with China against the ways this initiative empowers rivals or threatens their relations with important external powers.
Oct 31, 2017
Sino-Algerian Relations: On a Path to Realizing Their Full Potential?
China’s footprint in Algeria has expanded since 2001, much as it has throughout the Middle East and the continent of Africa. In 2014, the Sino-Algerian bilateral relationship was elevated to a “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership,” and since then has further developed. This essay discusses the roots, substance and scope, and limitations of the blossoming Sino-Algerian relationship.