The Unexpected Support for China’s position

The dispute between China and its neighbors regarding the control of the South China Sea became depth whenever one party performs an action or declaration that is associated with it. China recently received some unexpected support from Egypt and the Arab community. In a meeting held in the Philippines in order to put an end to the dispute, but without ordering the Chinese side. As the former Egyptian ambassador to China, Mahmoud Allam, said, “The arbitration is apparently unlawful with China absent. This is common sense in international law”. The ambassador Effectively summarized the Arab position that the arbitration is not relevant, similar to the Chinese approach.

China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand and about 250 islands located along the the South China Sea coast. The importance of the sea stems from three factors: First, a third of the world’s maritime trade passes through it. Second, under the sea bottom may be buried large amount of oil and gas (which cannot be passes due to disputes between the countries). Third, this sea is very important fishing ground. Disputes between the countries include claims regarding ownership of islands and maritime borders. The dispute in the area began during the second World War, when the Japanese occupied the sea and several islands, that until then had been under Chinese sovereignty. For many years the situation remained unchanged. In 1992 China passed a law which said that the South China Sea belonged to them. Since then, the tensions remained unchanged and occasionally exacerbated, because of the actions of the sides that involved other countries and international organizations outside the region.

Since 2013, the Philippine leadership has been trying to internationalize the occupation issue, which is not acceptable according China. China announced that it would not participate in the international conference that discusses the issue and would not respect any decision from this conference. The recent conference took place in Manila, the capital of the Philippines. The invitees came from international organizations and various countries to discuss the issue. Among those invitees were politicians and academics from Arab countries that represent a strong standing with the Chinese side. The Egyptian ambassador added that, “Increasing attention to the South China Sea goes in parallel with the US strategy of ‘Pivot to the Asia-Pacific,’ and it also serves Washington’s plan of deploying an anti-missile system on the Korean Peninsula.” Former ambassador concluded by saying that, “It is simply an excuse for the United States to tighten its grip on Asia and curb China’s rise.” The main novelty and unexpected ingredient in the words of the Ambassador is that until then Egypt was like many Arab states as it almost automatically supported US positions, but now a senior Egyptian representative put out a call to resist the American approach and adopt the opposite approach of China.

Omar al-Hassan, director of the Gulf Center for Strategic Studies said, “Arab countries appreciate China’s stance in issues of territorial sovereignty.” He added that, “Similar to the just opinions China has adopted on regional issues of the Arab world, China has Arab countries’ support on the South China Sea arbitration.” Director of the Chinese Egyptian Center for Research at Helwan University, Yasser Gadallah, supported the words of the ambassador and said, “An arbitration is made by a third party in the presence of both parties concerned, and its results have binding power only when both parties are willing to accept results as such.” Gadallah added that China and the Philippines, along with other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties (DOC) in the South China Sea, in 2002 which should serve as the political framework for solving the issue.

It seems that the support of the Arabs next to the Chinese side was made in response to a change in the Chinese conceptual approach towards the Middle East. The change in the Chinese approach was caused by two interests: First, the Chinese growing need of energy, with over fifty percent of the world’s oil reserves and over a third of global gas reserves buried in the soil of the Middle East. Beside that there is interest in the many maintain sailing routes, crossing the Middle East. These two interests led China to increase political and economic cooperation with countries in the Middle East in order to secure the stability of these interests. The Arab stabilization described above shows that the Arab countries welcome the Chinese perception of changes and the Chinese approach to the area. There is reason to expect continued strengthening of relations between Arab countries and the Chinese in the near further.

About the Author
Researcher and PhD student at the Middle Eastern studies department, Bar-Ilan University.
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