Visit marks the beginning of a ‘new era of UAE-China relations’

Sheikh Mohammed's visit aims to develop the friendship and strategic partnership between the two nations, writes Chang Hua

China and the UAE have become friends and partners of mutual trust in safeguarding the interests of developing countries and regional peace and stability together. Ryan Carter / The National
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The People’s Republic of China and the UAE enjoy a long-term friendship.

On December 3, 1971, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan, the founding President of the UAE, informed Zhou Enlai, the Chinese premier, of the independence of the UAE. China immediately announced it would recognise the UAE. Both sides expressed their willingness to enhance their friendship. Afterwards, China held an exhibition of export products in Dubai and set up the Changcheng Trading Centre there. Also, the Civil Aviation Administration of China set up an office in Sharjah. At the same time, Chinese table tennis teams and an art ensemble visited the UAE, and the UAE Foreign Minister travelled to China.

On November 1, 1984, Chinese and UAE leaders made the historic decision of establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries. In the last 31 years, bilateral political relations have become increasingly mature with fruitful cooperation in all fields and profound friendship among the peoples.

In the 1980s, I entered into foreign service and had the honour of witnessing and participating into the development of China-UAE relations. I was posted to the UAE from 2002 to 2006 and began to serve as Chinese ambassador to the UAE from December 2014. It is indeed my honour to be able to come back to this land, familiar to me and loved by me. That experience has allowed me to better understand the mutual trust between the two countries and the heartfelt friendship between the two peoples.

In December 1989, Yang Shangkun, then China’s president, was received at Abu Dhabi airport by Sheikh Zayed and other high ranking officials. A special arrangement was made for the motorcade to tour the streets of Abu Dhabi, which were lined with crowds to welcome the Chinese guests. This is a strong reflection of the friendship of Emiratis towards the Chinese, which greatly touched all members of the delegation. Yang Shangkun said that he never imagined Abu Dhabi would be so beautiful, adding that the people of the UAE were so hospitable.

In May 1990, Sheikh Zayed visited China and met with Yang Shangkun at the Great Hall of the People. During the meeting, Sheikh Zayed presented an elegant statue of a peacock as a gift. In return he was given a piece of silk made in Suzhou on which his image was depicted. What was unique about this portrait was that Sheikh Zayed could be seen to be smiling from whichever direction it was viewed. Sheikh Zayed said to President Yang: "My gift for you has a price but your gift to me is priceless." Chinese leaders were deeply impressed by the wisdom of Sheikh Zayed.

In 2007, Hu Jintao made a transit stopover in Dubai and was warmly received by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.

In May 2008, the UAE Government made a generous donation of more than$50million to China after the earthquake in Wenchuan, making it one of the world's biggest donors to disaster-stricken areas in China. The Chinese people still have a fresh memory of that generosity.

In January 2012, Wen Jiabao attended the opening ceremony of the Fifth World Future Energy Summit. During the visit, the two sides signed a joint declaration on establishing a strategic partnership.

In 2009 and 2012, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, visited China at the invitation of Xi Jinping, then vice president of China. During the visit, Sheikh Mohammed held talks with the vice president and met with president Hu Jintao, premier Wen Jiabao and speaker Wu Bangguo. These visits have been extremely fruitful in areas such as energy, economy, trade, culture and education.

In February 2015, the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, visited the UAE, during which he met Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid and held talks with Sheih Abdullah bin Zayed, Minister of Foreign Affairs.

In the international arena, China and the UAE have been conducting close cooperation in partnership with the Gulf Cooperation Council, Arab League and the United Nations. China is supportive of the UAE in its efforts to safeguard national sovereignty and choose its own way of development. The UAE has stood side by side with the Chinese people on issues relevant to the interests of China.

China and the UAE have become friends and partners of mutual trust in safeguarding the interests of developing countries and regional peace and stability together.

As an ancient Chinese saying goes, a person should be independent at the age of 30. This means he can make some achievements in his career when he is 30 years old. This is particularly true with China-UAE relations for the last three decades, as bilateral economic cooperation and trade have been soaring, with more room for development.

Bilateral trade volume was less than $100 million at the time of establishment of diplomatic ties. The figure in 1995 exceeded $1 billion and by 2005 had exceeded $10bn. In 2014, bilateral trade volume stood at a new high of $54.8bn.

For many years, the UAE has been China’s second largest trading partner and the biggest export market in the Middle East and Northern African Region. Also, the UAE is an important trading hub for Chinese products. “Made-in-China” has entered into the everyday life of the UAE people.

The UAE views China as an important emerging investment market, while Chinese investors are optimistic about the potential of the UAE market. As of the end of last year, the UAE had a direct investment stock of $1.15bn in China with $6.19m newly added in the first nine months of this year. There are more than 4,000 Chinese enterprises now in the UAE with an investment stock of $1.66bn, of which $85.62m was newly added in the first nine months of this year. China’s investment in the UAE touches many areas: such as energy, telecommunications, transport, real estate, trade, finance, securities and services. Chinese investors include both powerful state-owned and self-employed enterprises.

I would like to especially touch upon the Dragon Mart in Dubai. It is the biggest Chinese market overseas, with the most shops and products and the most advanced business network. Also, it is the biggest trading hub of Chinese products in the Middle East. The owners of the more than 4,000 shops in the Dragon Mart are representatives of China’s self-employed enterprises, as evidenced by the fact that they work hard to provide daily necessities for very little return, thus making important contributions to people's lives.

Energy cooperation cannot be neglected when we talk about bilateral economic cooperation. China started importing oil from the UAE in 1995. In 2014, China imported more than 11.65 million tonnes of oil from the UAE, a year-on-year increase of 13.4 per cent. As China’s economy further develops, so its demand for oil will increase. What is more important is that China-UAE energy cooperation is not merely oil trade, but comprehensive upstream and downstream cooperation with mutual benefit. For example, the pipeline connecting the Habshan oilfield in Abu Dhabi and Fujairah was undertaken by China National Petroleum Corporation, which is a milestone project in bilateral energy cooperation. Currently, Al Yasat Corporation, a brainchild of China National Petroleum Corporation Hong Kong Branch and Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, is operating on both land and sea in Abu Dhabi.

Financial cooperation is a new shining point in bilateral relations. The four biggest banks of China have all set up branches in the UAE. Abu Dhabi National Bank and Dubai National Bank have set up branches or started business in Shanghai. During his 2012 visit to China, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed initiated the setting up of a common investment fund of $10bn between the two countries. The UAE also joined the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, initiated by China, as a founding member.

The two peoples have been treating each other with sincerity and friendliness ever since we established diplomatic relations 31 years ago. When I first worked in the UAE several years ago, there were not many Chinese people or enterprises. Now there are many more. The people of the UAE have come to understand China through its products while most Chinese people working here have gradually integrated into local society and live happily together. At present, there are more than 200,000 Chinese in the UAE, the largest Chinese community in the Middle East. Scattered across every sector of social life, they work hard and make contributions to people-to-people exchanges as well as the economic growth of the UAE.

Tourism exchanges are also on the increase. The UAE was listed as a tourist destination for the Chinese in 2009. Thanks to the development of civil aviation, diverse tourism resources and excellent services provided by the UAE, more and more Chinese people are interested in seeing the sites of amazing Abu Dhabi and miraculous Dubai. Currently, there are around 150 flights each week between China and the UAE. In 2014, almost 500,000 Chinese tourists visited the country. The number of Chinese tourists has been increasing by more than 30 per cent every year. The UAE is also enlarging investment in tourism, hotel and retail sectors in China. Many hotels and shopping malls in the UAE hold activities with Chinese themes when the traditional holidays arrive.

Dialogues and exchanges between Chinese and Islamic civilisations are conducive to making both of them flourish. As a proverb in Arabic goes: “a fig-tree looking on a fig-tree becometh fruitful”.

Recent years have witnessed frequent exchanges between China and the UAE, as evidenced by the fact that Chinese artists, martial arts groups, acrobats and theatre troupes come to the UAE to perform and Emirati artists have been to China for insight.

Young students from the UAE visited China as youth ambassadors for three consecutive years under the sponsorship of the Crown Prince's Court. More and more Chinese students have come to the UAE for education. As a result, Masdar Institute, the Petroleum Institute, New York University Abu Dhabi and the American University of Sharjah are becoming more popular in China.

Dr Moza Al Kaabi, the first female Emirati orthopaedic surgeon, who sadly passed away in August, spent many years studying in China.

Under the auspices of the UAE Government, the Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan Centre for Arabic Language and Islamic Studies was set up by the Beijing Foreign Studies University. In turn, China established two Confucius Institutes in Zayed University and the University of Dubai. The two countries also began Chinese language courses at the Hamdan bin Zayed School in Abu Dhabi.

The last three decades coincide with the period during which the two countries developed quickly and created many miracles. China became the second largest economy in the world and successfully held the Olympic Games in 2008 and World Expo in 2010. Meanwhile, the UAE ranked among the top 30 nations in terms of economic aggregate demand, becoming one of the most investment-friendly countries, the 14th happiest country in the world and won the right to host the World Expo in 2020. In spite of the global economic downturn, China and the UAE have maintained an economic growth rate of 7.4 per cent and 4.6 per cent respectively.

Over the last three decades, the two countries have been working hard to find the right development path. China has been pressing ahead with reform and opening up, with a focus on people, through scientific development. The Communist Party of China, with Xi Jinping as General Secretary, puts forward the China Dream, characterised by overall rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.

Under the wise leadership of the late Sheikh Zayed and, subsequently, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, President of the UAE, the country has maintained national security and stability, adopted open, free and diversified policies and allowed its people to lead a happy life, thus making itself a model in the Middle East. I believe that the two peoples have a similar dream: that is, we dream for better education, better jobs, higher salaries, more reliable social security, better health care, more spacious houses and a more beautiful environment, so that our children can grow better, work better and live better.

In August 2013, Xi Jinping put forward the great initiative of building the Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. In February 2014, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed indicated the willingness to rejuvenate the Silk Road, to make it a platform for cultural exchanges, a bridge for increasing mutual understanding and accelerating exchanges of knowledge, science, technology and trade and a strong bond to face challenges in Arab countries, East Asia, South Asia and even the whole world.

This demonstrates the political wisdom of the two nation's leaders as they share a similar strategy and vision. The Silk Road has been a path of trade, culture and cooperation between China and Arab countries since ancient times. Today, the international political and economic structure is full of opportunities and challenges. Therefore, it is all the more important for China and the UAE to rejuvenate the “Belt and Road” with innovative thinking so that regional economic development and cultural progress can be promoted. The key goals of policy exchanges: better trade flows, infrastructure connectivity, currency circulation and people-to-people contacts set forth in the initiative of Belt and Road, are also priorities for China to push forward our cooperation with the UAE.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Building the Belt and Road together calls for the wisdom and power of the two governments and the active participation and strenuous efforts of the two peoples. Many years ago, our ancestors traversed the vast Pacific Ocean and Indian Ocean after braving many difficulties and brought silk, tea, porcelain and spices to other parts of the world. Today, our two countries stand together in combating various challenges and creating one miracle after another on their lands, bringing tangible benefits to their peoples and promoting common prosperity in the world.

Confucius once said that we are happy to see a friend from afar. At the invitation of Li Yuanchao, Vice President of China, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed is visiting China again this week. During the visit, leaders of the two countries will discuss plans for future cooperation and usher in a new era of China-UAE relations. The Chinese government and people will welcome our honoured guest with the greatest hospitality and grandest courtesy and try to achieve fruitful results in bilateral cooperation. I am confident that with the care and support of the leaders of the two countries and with efforts made by the two peoples, the China-UAE strategic partnership will surely embrace a brighter future guided by the vision of building the new Belt and Road together. It is more than certain that the Chinese people and people of the UAE will realise their dreams for prosperity.

The visit aims to further develop the friendship and strategic partnership between the two nations, and discuss regional and international issues of mutual interest. It comes as part of ongoing efforts aimed to reinforce the long-term and deep-rooted strategic relationship between the UAE and China.

The visit, which includes a series of meetings with senior Chinese officials, will provide an opportunity to expand trade, economic, social and cultural exchange, improve industrial and investment relationships, explore new and vibrant opportunities between the people of the two countries, and promote partnership in areas of mutual interest that will have a positive impact on both sides.

Chang Hua is the Chinese ambassador to the UAE