China and the Muslim World: Mutual Respect and Adjustment.

By December 31, 2020January 2nd, 2021No Comments

China’s relations with the Muslim World dates back to the seventh century when Muslim diplomats and merchants arrived in South China region. It is presumed that Caliph ‘Uthman asked Sahaba Sa‘d ibn Abi Waqqas to lead a delegation to China. Later Islam spread into the north and western China through the tribes from the steppe region. Relations between Chinese and Islamic rulers of Baghdad developed into alliance in the early 9th Century. A steady stream of Muslim traders arrived in China through the Silk Route and the sea route. A large number of Muslims settled in China. Muslims began to have a great economic impact and influence on the country. During the 10th to 13th century Muslims in China dominated foreign trade and the import/export industry in the south and west.The Muslim immigrants introduced polo game, their cuisine, their musical instruments, and their knowledge of medicine to China.

Today the Muslim world is a common term used to group Muslim majority countries in the world. According to the Pew Research Center, there are a total of 50 Muslim-majority nations in the world. These countries are spread from Morocco in the Atlantic coast eastward to the Pacific and along a belt that stretches across northern Africa into Central Asia and Indian subcontinent. These states comprise a total area of 31.66 million km² and about 1.86 billion people, which is 21.0% of the habitable area around the world and 24% of the world population. In fact most of the Muslim countries are endowed with rich natural resources including oil and gas.

China is one of the four earliest civilizations in the world with Yellow River and Yangtze River as its base and cradles. Covering approximately 9,600,000 square kilometres (3,700,000 square miles), it is the third largest country in terms of total area. It has borders with 14 countries, which include five Muslim countries namely, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan Afghanistan and Pakistan. China with a population of over 1.4 billion is the largest economy in the world in terms of PPP and second largest in terms of nominal GDP. It is the largest manufacturing economy and the second wealthiest nation in the world.

As a consequence of China’s economic growth and rise as the leading economy of the world, it has started to assert its geo-political and geo-economic influence in its surrounding countries as well as in other areas. China is doing it both multi-laterally and bilaterally. This has resulted in an antagonistic relationship between the USA and China. Chinese advancement in military, science and technology has been outstanding during the past few decades. China’s expenditure on science and technology and its growth of Research and Development (R&D) personnel has brought the country among the top ranking nations of the world.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), also referred to as the New Silk Road, is one of the most ambitious infrastructure projects ever conceived. Launched in 2013 by President Xi Jinping, the vast collection of development and investment initiatives would stretch from East Asia to Europe, significantly expanding China’s economic and political influence. Xi’s vision included creating a vast network of railways, energy pipelines, highways, and streamlined border crossings, both westward—through the mountainous former Soviet republics—and southward, to Pakistan, India, and the rest of Southeast Asia. On October 6, 2020 after less than five years of its opening of the new Road, the 10.000th train had crossed the Chinese border for journey to the west. According to official statistics, 3,243 trains have carried over 4.7 million tonnes of freight across the border in Khorgos in Xinjiang China from January through September 2020. A goods train from China to Germany takes 15 -17 days while travelling by sea would require 32-35 days.

With the demise of Cold War the American political scientists came up with different theories conceptualising ideas which would continue to preserve the Western political, military and to some extent cultural domination by the West. Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History” depicted a collapse of all other political thoughts except the Western ideology. He was countered by Samuel Huntington in his work on Clash of Civilisations and the World Order. Huntington predicted conflict between Islam and the West and conflict between the USA and China and termed them as “civilizational war”. He further predicted that great clashes would occur among civilizations. He anticipated a coalition or cooperation between Islamic and Sinic (the common culture of China and Chinese communities in Southeast Asia) cultures to work against a common enemy, the Western Civilisation.

In view of the above discussion it is pertinent to analyse relations between China and the Muslim countries. Studies on China-Muslim World relations indicate that they are working in close collaboration in different fields. China’s insatiable thirst for energy is motivating it to reach out the oil-rich Muslim countries in the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa. The new Silk Road is already giving dividends.

China’s dealings with Muslim-majority countries are largely grounded in pragmatism. Since the end of the Cold War, China’s foreign policy towards these countries is based on practicality and economic prudence. While it has diplomatic ties with these countries, it remains distant. This is especially so with the Middle East. Middle East is a term accurate relative to Western Europe, it is a colonial term. For China it is not Middle East, it is far west. I would prefer the more neutral term Arab Muslim countries where China describes itself as a “bystander”. Its affinity with these countries starts and ends with economic sensibilities, and a big part of that is oil. China has made bilateral agreements or partnerships with around 45 Muslim countries. It has been careful to call these diplomatic relations ‘partnerships’ as opposed to categorising the countries as ‘allies’—a continuation of its ‘bystander’ policy. On a whole, the bulk of the Islamic world has signalled that it welcomes China’s investment and cooperation. The New Silk Road that runs through the heartland of the Muslim world, promises creation of integrated economies and stronger ties across Eurasia and Africa.

China’s leaders and citizens are learning – through their relationships with Pakistan, Turkey, Indonesia, Iran, Nigeria and Egypt-that they have to respect and adjust to the aspirations of ordinary people throughout the Islamic world. The Muslim countries need to understand the sensibility of the Chinese regime. They are markedly different from the western powers. The mutual trust and understanding developed between China and the Muslim countries has generated much concern in the West, particularly the USA. These relationships run counter to the US unilateralism, where the US has complete sway over their relationship. Therefore the Muslim countries have to be very careful in their relationship with China and the western powers. While maintaining traditional relations with the West, the Muslim countries have to build strong and durable relations with China. The success of this economic and diplomatic bonding depends on maintaining and respecting each other’s’ sensibilities’ and aspirations.

Dr. Shafaat Ahmad is a Senior Research Fellow at Muslim World Research Center: MWRC, and Research co-ordinator, China-Muslim World Co-operation Research (CMWCR) based in Bangladesh. He also works as a regular Adjunct Faculty at Bangladesh University of Professionals: BUP (managed by Bangladesh Armed Forces), Dhaka. He is a retired Brigadier General of Bangladesh Army, ex- high official and faculty member of few Private Universities, ex CEO of Rtv, Bangladesh. He joined Pakistan Army in 1966 and retired as a Brigadier General from Bangladesh Army in 1993. While in the Army he did National Defense Course from Pakistan National Defense College. In the recent years, he did MPhil in 2013 with the topic of “The Changing Strategic Balance in South Asia,” and PhD in 2018 with the topic of “Re-Emergence of Myanmar and its Relations with Bangladesh” from BUP. He contributes seldom to Daily newspapers on the issues of Security, Defense, Geo-politics and Strategic affairs of South Asia and the World powers. Currently, he is also a member of the private sectors regional Negotiating Core Group on Rohingya Crisis based in Singapore. He can be reached at shafaat305

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