Egypt's Mohammed Mursi makes smart move to woo China first

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 September, 2012, 2:46am

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Revolutions change political landscapes, and they also can alter foreign policy. Egypt's president, Mohammed Mursi, making his first overseas trip outside Africa and the Middle East since the Arab spring protests swept him to office two months ago, surprised some by plumping for China. More expected by others was the US, which has long given economic and diplomatic backing and substantial military aid. There should have been no astonishment, though - a leader wishing for a bright new future would naturally turn to China.

Egypt has deep economic and social challenges and China offers a way forward. The economies of Europe and the US are in the doldrums, but the Chinese government and state-owned companies are in a healthy position and eager to invest. During Mursi's three-day visit, a US$200 million credit line was extended to the National Bank of Egypt and seven deals were signed, among them contracts for new power and desalination plants and infrastructure for high-speed internet. Bigger projects will be on the horizon if ties grow and thrive.

But it is not just economic well-being that is on Mursi's mind. Egypt's previously dominant position among Arab countries was eroded by his autocratic predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, whose foreign policy was overly dependent on the US. In return for US$2 billion in aid a year, Egypt was expected to compromise its ties with Israel and Iran. China, which puts non-interference in the affairs of other governments at the heart of its relations, offers much-needed diversity.

Egypt and China have much in common, from ancient civilisations through a shared identity as victims of Western colonialism. They have had unbroken diplomatic relations since 1956, when Egypt became the first country in the African and Arab worlds to recognise the People's Republic of China. But Mursi's focus is not only on China; by also becoming the first Egyptian leader to visit Iran since ties were severed in 1979, he has shown a determination for a balanced foreign policy. There is no better approach for a country seeking a fresh start.