Though the People’s Republic of China has extensive commercial ties in the Middle East, its three strategic partners in the region are Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey. It is not surprising, therefore, that the major Middle Eastern language programs in China today are Arabic, Persian and Turkish. The growth of Middle Eastern language and area studies in China has tracked with the changes in the political ties of the People’s Republic to the region.

The first Middle Eastern language to be studied extensively in China was Arabic, the language of the Qur’an. Several Chinese Muslim intellectuals — notably, Ma Jian — studied at al-Azhar and other Arabic-language universities in the 1930s and 1940s. Following the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949, these Muslim intellectuals returned to pioneer Arabic programs at China’s top universities, including Peking University, as well as research institutes and religion departments that laid the foundation for contemporary Arab and Islamic studies in China. Today some of China’s leading Arabic instructors are first- and second-generation students of Ma. Most of the Arabic programs are accompanied by Arab or Islamic studies centers.

Egypt was as the first Arab country to recognize the People’s Republic, and for some time Beijing’s strongest ties in Arab capitals were with Cairo. In the 1980s, oil-rich Iraq took Egypt’s place, as China served as the major supplier of arms and military equipment to Iraq (and Iran) during the Iraq-Iran war. As a consequence of the 1990-1991 Gulf war, Saudi Arabia replaced Iraq as China’s key Arab partner.

Saudi Arabia was the last Arab government to recognize the People’s Republic, having recognized the Republic of China on Taiwan as the legitimate government of China since 1957 and disliking the communist regime’s atheist ideology. Saudi Arabia was also suspicious of China because of the Communist Party’s tense relations with its large Muslim populations, particularly the Uighurs in Xinjiang. During the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976, Chinese Muslims were among the victims of the national campaign to eliminate “feudalistic” and “traditional” elements, resulting in widespread protest from Muslim countries around the world. China also violently clamped down on alleged secessionist struggles in Xinjiang. An arms deal in which China sold DF-3 (Dongfeng) intermediate-range ballistic missiles to Saudi Arabia marked a turning point, paving the way for full diplomatic relations in 1990.

Saudi Arabia, with a quarter of the world’s proven oil reserves, is a natural choice to meet China’s energy needs. During a visit to Saudi Arabia in 1999, former president Jiang Zemin called the bilateral relationship a “strategic oil partnership.” In 2004 state-owned Sinopec reached an agreement that granted a concession for exploring and producing natural gas in the Empty Quarter, in a process from which US firms were notably excluded. Sinopec is projected to invest $300 million in the initial exploration phase. China replaced the United States as Riyadh’s largest oil customer in the same year, and remains among the top three, along with the US and Japan. One fifth of China’s oil imports now come from Saudi Arabia.
The Persian language is widely used by Hui and Uighur Muslims, especially by imams and Sufi communities. China officially established its first Persian program at Peking University in 1957 and began to recruit undergraduate students. At least three universities — Peking, Shanghai International Studies and Xinjiang — offer Persian at present. In addition, Iranian studies centers have been established at Shanghai International Studies University, Yunnan University, Northwest University in Xi’an and Southwest University in Chongqing.
Early Persian studies in China focused on literature, history and culture. Following the Islamic Revolution in 1979, however, “Persian” studies in China transformed into “Iranian” studies, in order to better understand the revolution, the policies of Iranian regimes and Iran’s relations with the rest of the Muslim world, as well as China. More recently, much attention is paid to the Iranian nuclear issue and China’s energy interests in Iran.
China was one of the earliest and most important countries to support the Islamic Republic, particularly its nuclear program. From 1985 to 1997, China provided light-water reactors, machines, uranium products, atomic laser assistance and uranium conversion facilities to Iran. The Chinese government and supplier firms were mainly motivated by commerce. China was not involved in nuclear weapons activities with Iran, and the International Atomic Energy Agency did not object to Sino-Iranian nuclear cooperation.
From the US perspective, however, China’s assistance was allowing Iran to circumvent US efforts to limit Iran’s nuclear research program and other weapons procurement. A series of controversies tested US-Chinese relations. Soon after the Iran-Iraq war broke out, China sold Iran Silkworm surface-to-surface anti-ship missiles, one of which was fired at oil tankers escorted by the US Navy in the Persian Gulf. Washington pressured Beijing to verbally pledge to stop such shipments. Eventually, at the 1997 US-Chinese summit, China agreed to end its nuclear cooperation with Iran amid intense US pressure. Beijing was driven by a desire to improve relations with the US and to gain assistance with its own civilian nuclear program.
The pattern of Chinese accommodation with the US over Iran was complicated by the parallel emergence of China’s energy relations with the Islamic Republic. In October 2004 China reached a $70 billion energy deal with Iran, which allowed it to buy an annual total of 10 million tons of liquefied natural gas and 150,000 barrels per day of oil from Iran over 25 years. Sinopec was given a 51 percent stake in the Yadavaran oilfield in western Iran. Despite the UN sanctions on Iran and Washington’s efforts to isolate Tehran, including attempts to limit China’s energy imports from Iran as a means of punishing the country for its nuclear program, Iran remains a critical supplier of crude oil, and China’s major trade partner in the Middle East, second perhaps to the Gulf Cooperation Council economies.
The first Turkish program was established at Beijing Foreign Studies University in 1985. Later Shanghai International Studies University began to recruit undergraduate students into its Turkish-language program in 2011. The next year, Xi’an International Studies University introduced a Turkish major. In 2013 Peking University added Turkish language to its Oriental languages programs. Other specialized universities, such as military schools, also provide Turkish-language instruction. The increase in Turkish language study attests to the improvement of Sino-Turkish relations.

Prior to 1971 Chinese-Turkish relations were strained by Turkey’s Cold War alliance with the West and Ankara’s protection of Uighur leaders and activists of the East Turkestan Republic (ETR), who fled to Turkey after the creation of the People’s Republic. President Richard Nixon’s opening to China laid the groundwork for the establishment of formal diplomatic ties between Ankara and Beijing in that year. But Turkey’s tilt toward Europe and sympathy for the ETR were still stumbling blocks.

Since 2000, when the second obstacle was removed, relations have been much better. The Turkish government, during a visit from Zemin, announced that it respects China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, indicating that it would move to restrict Uighur activities in Turkey, particularly those of Uighur separatists.

The September 11, 2001 attacks and the US war on terror served to strengthen Sino-Turkish ties further. The governments increased their cooperation against “East Turkestan terrorists,” after China, the US, the European Union and the UN agreed to designate the East Turkestan Islamic Movement as a terrorist organization. Details about this organization — said to be headquartered somewhere in Afghanistan or Pakistan — are murky at best.

Relations have continued to improve. In June 2009, Hamid Gül was the first Turkish president to visit Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. There he signed seven economic agreements resulting in more than $1.5 billion in contracts. The Uighur-Han clash on July 5, 2009, which Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called “genocide,” tested relations. But soon afterward, bilateral relations picked up where they had left off. In 2010 the Chinese and Turkish air forces held a joint military exercise in Turkey, the first time China had so collaborated with a NATO member nation. In 2011 a Turkish industrial park was planned in Urumqi, and Turkey agreed to train 50,000 Chinese imams that same year. A more recent example of expanding strategic cooperation is a Chinese defense company’s $4 billion contract to build Turkey’s long-range missile defense system.

As these strategic ties between China and the Middle East thicken, so will the development of Middle Eastern area and language studies proceed apace in China.

How to cite this article:

I-wei Jennifer Chang, Haiyun Ma "China’s Strategic Middle Eastern Languages," Middle East Report 270 (Spring 2014).

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