It might have seemed unusual, or at least notable, that President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi pointed in his address at the Military Academy on 6 August to Egypt’s adherence to the “One China” principle.
This is a principle that has long provoked controversy between China and the United States, given the tense interactions relations between the two countries since 2017 which were exacerbated by the Ukraine war. The war gave rise to a debate over various possible scenarios, including China’s emulation of Russia, by annexing Taiwan by force or declaring the South China Sea an air defense zone or the US introduction of a project that pushes China to get involved in Taiwan as part of a plan to drain China or push it to withdraw from its regional surroundings and its immediate national security issues, assuming that the Russo-Ukrainian war was a US-European trap or at least has later turned into a “trap” or “quagmire” to drain Russia economically and militarily.
The Sino-US controversy over the One China principle arose following Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan (2-3 August), which gave rise to intense debate over the future of relations between the two countries and the future of stability in the Indo-Pacific.
But why did President Al-Sisi refer to Egypt’s adherence to the “one China” principle while such reference could have been avoided at no cost and without going unnoticed by the international community, particularly with Egypt not directly involved in this Sino-US dispute? Some may argue that this reference could be understood within the framework of the all-encompassing strategic partnership between Egypt and China. But, I see this explanation doesn’t provide an integrated interpretation of Egypt’s stance, particularly with Egypt having no less strategic relations with the United States. Such interpretation could suggest that Egypt is siding with one party over another, which isn’t true.
A deeper understanding of Egypt’s stance requires placing it within a broader framework. In this context, I put forward three approaches to understand President Al-Sisi’s emphasis on Egypt’s support for the “one China” principle.
The first approach pertains to Egypt’s position as a middle power in the global system. Middle powers are supposed to assume several responsibilities, including ensuring multilateralism within the system, which entails preserving the international institutions as well as safeguarding the basic principles established within the global system, including primarily principles of international law and the United Nations Charter. The role of middle powers becomes more important at times when these principles are exposed to grave challenges, which may affect security and the global economy. Basically, the one China principle (i.e. there is only one sovereign state under the name China) is one of the basic and fundamental principles not only at the level of the Sino-US relations since the official normalization of their relations in January 1979, but it has turned into one of the established UN principles since the adoption of the UN Resolution 2758 of 25 October 1971 which recognized the representatives of the Government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as “the only lawful representatives of China to the United Nations.
Preserving this principle has become a requirement for achieving stability within the global order. There is no Sino-US dispute over the importance of it but rather over its interpretation and whether certain US or international practices constitute a violation of it.
The second approach pertains to the strategic importance of the Indo-Pacific in general and the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait region in particular, and the sensitivity of the region to global security, particularly in light of growing US and Sino military presence, the deepening of military and security alliances, the intensity of individual and collective military maneuvers, and the rising military spending in the region, let alone the significance of the region for the movement of world trade and international navigation, with the region’s strategic location on several straits and waterways and key international maritime trade routes. If an international crisis hits this sensitive region, it will have repercussions with greater scale and magnitude than those of the Russo-Ukrainian war, a scenario that the world is in no need of.
The third approach relates to the structural transformation of Egypt’s foreign policy since 2014, i.e. diversification of Egypt’s foreign relations to create a state of balance. In this vein, Egypt opened up to Asia, as part of its awareness of the profound transformations in the global balance of power. In this vein, it is perfectly normal for Egypt to express its stance on some transformations and fundamental issues in Asia. Earlier, President Al-Sisi expressed Egypt’s stance on other Asian issues, particularly the Korean peninsula crisis where he stressed on various occasions (10 October 2021, 20 January 2022) Egypt’s permanent support to all mechanisms that guarantee the security and stability of the Korean Peninsula.
Overall, Egypt’s articulation of its stance on important Asian issues gives Egypt’s openness to Asia some credibility and sustainability, given the importance of these issues for Asian powers. These Asian forces no longer accept dealing with them as economic powers only, and no longer accept ignoring their main security issues in international and regional rhetoric.
This article was originally published in Al-Ahram newspaper on 17 August 2022.