Commentary RESEARCH

Tang to today: China and Bahrain's evolving ties

Aria

2024-06-11 09:51

Mohammed Saleh
Beijing Review

The relations between China and Bahrain can be traced back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907), with solid evidence supporting the existence of commercial ties between the two countries.

Fast forward to modern times and formal diplomatic relations between the People's Republic of China and the Kingdom of Bahrain were established on April 18, 1989, building on the foundation of centuries-old cultural and commercial exchanges.

Over the past 35 years, the two countries have worked tirelessly to deepen their ties, with high-level visits and agreements laying the groundwork for their growing partnership. King of Bahrain Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa's visit to China in 2013 was a milestone in the history of the two countries' relationship, as it was the highest-level visit to ever take place, with several memoranda of cooperation and agreements signed in different fields.

Thriving trade 

Trade between China and Bahrain has been on a steady upward trajectory, with the value of bilateral trade reaching over $2 billion in recent years. China has become one of Bahrain's largest trading partners, with a diverse range of exports, including machinery, electrical equipment and chemical products.

In the early 2000s, Bahrain became one of the first Arab countries to support China's accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001, demonstrating its commitment to strengthening economic cooperation. This laid the foundation for the two countries to explore new avenues of collaboration in the years that followed.

Bahrain's strategic location, business-friendly policies and advanced infrastructure have attracted significant Chinese investment in sectors such as renewable energy, technology and financial services. Chinese companies have established a strong presence in the kingdom, contributing to its economic diversification and growth. For instance, Bahrain houses the Middle East regional office for Chinese tech titan Huawei. The company has played a major role in the evolution of information and communication technologies in Bahrain, successfully integrating innovative solutions like the region's first ever triple-beam antenna technology for satellite communications.

The two countries have launched joint initiatives to further strengthen economic ties, such as the China-Bahrain Industrial Park and the China-Bahrain Fintech Company. These projects aim to facilitate trade, investment and knowledge-sharing, solidifying the countries' economic partnership.

China and Bahrain have actively promoted cultural exchange, with projects and initiatives that showcase their rich heritage and traditions. This includes arts and crafts exhibitions, film festivals and language programs, which have all helped to deepen mutual understanding and appreciation between the two societies.

The two countries have also strengthened their educational tie, through student and faculty exchanges. In 2014, a Confucius Institute opened at the University of Bahrain, marking a milestone for cooperation in the field of education and culture. Confucius Institutes are nonprofit public institutions that aim to help people better understand China by teaching Chinese language and culture at universities overseas. Thousands of international students have studied at the institutes over the past decade. For example, 788 Bahrain students enrolled in the institute's courses in 2023.

All these initiatives and projects have facilitated the exchange of knowledge and the development of cross-cultural competencies.

Geopolitical implications 

The strengthening of China-Bahrain ties has broader geopolitical implications, both regionally and globally. As a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab League, Bahrain's growing partnership with China has the potential to influence regional dynamics, particularly in the Middle East.

Moreover, Bahrain's role as a regional financial hub makes it an important partner for Chinese initiatives, such as the Belt and Road Initiative, a strategy to boost connectivity along and beyond the ancient Silk Road routes. The two countries' collaboration in areas like infrastructure development and financial services can have far-reaching impacts, contributing to China's increasing global influence.

However, the complex regional geopolitical landscape, with ongoing tensions and rivalries, poses challenges for the countries as they seek to deepen their partnership. Navigating these tensions and maintaining a balanced approach will be crucial for the long-term stability and success of their relationship.

One such challenge was the COVID-19 pandemic, which both countries were able to turn into an opportunity for further cooperation.

Over the course of three trying years, the two countries coordinated and cooperated on measures to combat the pandemic. One example of this coordination is how the Gulf kingdom in late 2020 approved the use of the China-produced Sinopharm vaccine on frontline healthcare workers.

Fostering stronger institutional ties, through mechanisms like regular high-level dialogues, joint committees and the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum (CASCF), China's main vehicle for engagement with the Arab world, can help both countries to address emerging challenges and seize new opportunities. This will ensure a more coordinated and strategic approach to their partnership.

Expanding the scope of cooperation beyond traditional economic and diplomatic spheres, and into areas like technology, innovation, artificial intelligence (AI), and sustainable development, can make the relationship more resilient to external shocks and geopolitical shifts.

Future outlook 

The countries are poised to deepen their collaboration in the digital economy, with a focus on financial technology, e-commerce and smart city development. This can leverage Bahrain's position as a regional financial hub and China's technological expertise.

They can explore joint ventures and investments in renewable energy, capitalizing on Bahrain's abundant solar power resources and China's leadership in renewable energy technologies. This can, in turn, contribute to the global transition to clean energy and sustainable development.

Building on their existing cultural and educational ties, the countries can further expand people-to-people exchange, joint research projects and cultural festivals. This will deepen mutual understanding and nurture lasting connections between the two societies.

China has become a destination for hundreds of Bahraini students studying in universities across China. The signing of a memorandum of understanding between the two countries on educational matters could lift this type of cooperation to the next level.

In late May, Gulf Air, Bahrain's flagship airline, commenced weekly direct flights to Shanghai and Guangzhou in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong. The carrier's strategic move not only strengthens Bahrain's connectivity to the Chinese market but also significantly contributes to the growth of commercial and tourism relations between the two countries. This will also facilitate the exchange of ideas, knowledge and cultural experiences between the two populations, strengthening the bond between the nations. 

In the field of multilateral diplomacy, Bahrain and China cooperate under their membership of, for example, the United Nations (UN) and the Group of 77, which comprises 134 developing countries in the UN. Bahrain is also working toward BRICS membership (BRICS being a group of emerging economies comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—Ed.) and has obtained dialogue partner status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The latter is a strategic partner of the UN on issues relating to regional peace and security. SCO dialogue partner status allows countries to participate in specialized intra-SCO events at the invitation of the organization's member states.

This provides an opportunity for further cooperation between Bahrain and China in many areas that serve their common interests, as well as the collective interests of the members of these important international organizations. 

Furthermore, the CASCF serves as a crucial platform for strengthening the partnership between China and the Arab world. It provides a forum for dialogue, exchange of ideas and exploring new avenues for cooperation. The forum covers a wide range of areas, including politics, economics, culture, and regional security, reflecting the multifaceted nature of the China-Arab relationship and allowing both sides to align their positions and develop coordinated strategies.

Bahrain attaches great importance to the CASCF and actively participates in all its sessions and various events.

In 2020, the forum introduced a new mechanism, the China-Arab States Summit, with the Saudi Arabia hosting the first session of this summit in December 2022. The second session of the summit will be held in China in 2026. The China-Arab States Summit takes place every three years, with the hosting location alternating between Arab countries and China, and is the most prestigious among the CASCF's mechanisms. Arab-China relations are likely to develop further in the next few years. The forum is likely to include new mechanisms in the areas of combating desertification and geoscience, as well as result in better cooperation on water security, environment, tourism and AI. BR

The author is a Bahraini scholar who holds a Ph.D. in international law from the China University of Political Science and Law 

 


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2024-06-11 05:52
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