Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi arrived in Beijing Tuesday on his first foreign trip beyond the Middle East and was received at the Great Hall of the People by Chinese President Hu Jintao. The moment was hailed in China's state-run media as proof of "a reorientation of Egypt's foreign policy."
Egypt is now an independent power that no longer takes orders from the United States, Li Guofa, a researcher with the China Institute of International Studies, was quoted as saying in one front-page newspaper story. "Aid no longer buys affection for U.S. on Egypt's streets" read another headline, this one over a cartoon that unsubtly pictured a panda shaking hands with Mr. Morsi (drawn in pharaoh's robes, in a room decorated with hieroglyphs) while Uncle Sam watched nervously from the shadows.
Fair enough. The U.S. squandered a lot of potential goodwill by sticking by ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak long after it was clear that Egyptians wanted him to go. By visiting Beijing before he's been to Washington, Mr. Morsi is clearly asserting that he won't be beholden to U.S. interests just because it subsidizes the Egyptian army, an institution that has fought bitterly against the rise to power of his Muslim Brotherhood. Mr. Morsi's next stop – Tehran, where he will attend the summit of the Non-Aligned Movement – is an even more daring one given the long animosity between Sunni Egypt and Shia Iran. The U.S. won't be delighted he's going there, either.
But Mr. Li, the Chinese researcher, stretched his point too far by suggesting that ties between Cairo and Beijing are now set to warm because "Egypt values the role played by China in the world."
Egypt's new president is in Beijing hoping to generate some desperately needed investment in his country's battered economy. But when the business is done, Mr. Morsi is more likely to seek an apology for the role Beijing has played during the Arab Spring than to say thanks.
Washington – bound by out-of-date thinking about the role Mr. Mubarak played in "stabilizing" the Middle East – took far too long to throw its weight behind the pro-democracy uprisings that began in Tunisia before rippling to Cairo's Tahrir Square and beyond. But its belated backing of the upheaval looks nimble and far-sighted compared to Beijing's ongoing efforts to bolster what remains of the former status quo.
The article in Tuesday's edition of the Global Times declared that China and Egypt shared "common ground" on the issue of how to deal with the violent uprising in Syria. It's difficult to see where the common ground might lie between a president who hails from the Muslim Brotherhood – a Sunni movement whose Syrian branch is actively fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – and China's Communist Party leadership, which (along with Russia) has provided diplomatic shelter to Mr. al-Assad's regime for more than a year now as it has used tanks, artillery and attack helicopters to try and smash the would-be revolutionaries.
Beijing and Moscow have now vetoed three separate United Nations Security Council resolutions aimed at pressuring Mr. al-Assad's regime into stopping the violence.
China also condemned the NATO air campaign that helped drive Moammar Gadhafi from power in neighbouring Libya (an effort Egypt and the rest of the Arab League supported), and its media has frequently portrayed Egypt's own uprising as dangerously chaotic.
While Mr. Morsi is now a statesman, who must do whatever he can to get his country's economy back on track, the Muslim Brotherhood's official website contains statements from senior officials calling for a boycott of Chinese and Russian goods over their use of their veto powers to prevent United Nations action in Syria. "[The] use of the veto by the two states makes them complicit with the Syrian regime in the shedding of innocent blood," reads a statement from the head of the Jordanian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.
That hardly sounds like the basis for a deep and lasting friendship.
China's reputation in the Islamic world has also taken a hit due to the repressive treatment of its own Muslim population, particularly in the western province of Xinjiang. Its edicts this summer banning cadres from taking part in fasting and prayer during the holy month of Ramadan generated such widespread anger that experts on Muslim extremism have speculated that the country, which shares borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan, will face a growing threat from jihadists.
Mr. Morsi is likely to raise none of this. He's in Beijing on a business trip, after all, and doesn't want to pick a fight with his hosts. But he's not here to thank his friends.