China is quickly becoming a world power, capable of exercising considerable influence over other countries. And it is advancing to the center of the geopolitical stage just as — if not because — American and European leadership seems to be retreating into the wings.

China certainly has a receptive audience. One reason is that the “darker nations,” as the international studies scholar Vijay Prashad calls countries in the Southern Hemisphere, feel greater kinship with China than with the United States and Europe. They identify with China’s history of anti-imperialist struggle, and even with Chinese people’s physical appearance. If you are an emerging superpower, there is a distinct advantage to having the majority of the world’s population hold such sentiments.

The way China plays its global role also differs notably from that of the West, because it emphasizes its similarities with the “rest,” to use the historian Niall Ferguson’s expression for the non-Western world. With this strategy, China has expanded its sphere of influence far beyond its immediate region.

Sub-Saharan Africa is often cited as an example of a region where China’s influence has superseded that of Europe’s former colonial powers. And, more recently, the Chinese government has stressed its long-standing interest in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and in Egypt in particular. Earlier this year, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Cairo as part of a regional tour to promote China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative, a latter-day revival of the legendary Silk Road — the ancient network of trade routes connecting the Far East to the Mediterranean.

An important feature of China’s complex regional strategy is its attempt to address partners on a more equal footing. In the case of Egypt, it has done so by appealing to a shared history — a tactic that resonates in both countries. When the Chinese travel site Kooniao recently showcased the geochemist Sun Weidong’s assertion that Chinese civilization may have originated in ancient Egypt, Chinese readers responded with excitement; they were happy to be considered on par with Egypt. This episode suggests a revival of earlier discussions among Chinese officials in the post-World War II era, which also situated the origins of Chinese civilization in the West.

It is tempting to ask if China implicitly uses civilizational theories to endear itself to particular regions at particular times. What we do know is that China has had an interest in the Arab world at least since the start of the postcolonial era, when new countries were established across the MENA region. That interest was embodied in the relationship between the first premier of the People’s Republic of China, Zhou Enlai, and Egypt’s independence hero and second president, Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Zhou and Nasser were both key leaders in the global South’s struggle for independence and ideological autonomy. But the Cold War, the Sino-Soviet split, and Western international institutions’ development programs soon disrupted cooperation among global-South countries, and ties between China and Egypt weakened. That changed this year with the highly publicized meeting between Xi and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in January.

In 2012, former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi — who had won Egypt’s first presidential election after Hosni Mubarak’s regime was toppled in 2011 — laid the groundwork. China was Morsi’s first official destination outside the region.

When Egypt’s military removed Morsi and el-Sisi became president, he continued to move his country closer to China. Xi returned the favor, and used his trip to Cairo to commemorate 60 years of bilateral diplomatic relations. Xi had visited Egypt 16 years earlier, and on his second official trip he praised Egyptian civilization: “If you drink from the Nile, you will return.”

Egypt and China have agreed to a number of massive bilateral deals. One that stands out is a $45 billion Chinese-funded project to build a new capital in the desert outside of Cairo. The project’s symbolic importance is obvious: China wants to cement its role as the region’s biggest ally, in place of the United States.

Indeed, the renewed Sino-Egyptian relationship is a cornerstone of China’s effort to attract new allies in regions once dominated by U.S. and European interests. And it is here where China’s reliance on a civilizational discourse of mutual respect and shared history stands in stark contrast to the West’s colonial, postcolonial and neocolonial discourse, which tends to frame local cultures as backwards or inferior.

By lavishing praise on Egypt’s local culture, and by alluding to shared origins, China is strengthening its diplomatic relations and chances for future economic cooperation. In exchange, Egypt — a gateway to the Arab world — will become a crucial strategic ally for China. By deepening its relationship with Egypt, China stands to increase its influence in other MENA countries as well.

Zaynab El Bernoussi is a professor of international relations at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Al Akhawayn University, Morocco. © Project Syndicate, 2016

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