President Hu Jintao (left) of China inspecting the honor guard with President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt in Beijing on Tuesday. This is Morsi's first visit to China. Photo: Xinhua/Rao Aimin
Days before he is set to appear in Tehran, just two months after taking office, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi is in Beijing to talk business and politics with China's leaders.
Visiting for three days from August 28 to 30, taking a delegation of ministers and dozens of businesspeople, Morsi's Beijing trip marks his first foreign trip outside regions close to Egypt and the Middle East. His first foreign visit was to Saudi Arabia in early July, followed by a visit to Ethiopia for an African Union summit.
More than anything, the China trip by the new president of the most populous Arab country appears to highlight concerns from the Egyptian government on boosting economic performance, considered one of the major social and economic pressures which created the long-simmering public resentment against the 30-year rule of dictator Hosni Mubarak
But Egypt and China, some of the world's oldest nations, have negligible economic relations. In 2011, their trade amounted to only $8.8 billion, mostly in exports from China. Chinese investment in Egypt only amounted to a paltry $80 million that same year.
Yet that lack of economic engagement may also be seen as an untapped opportunity by Morsi, eager to court the second-largest economy in the world to increase spending in Egypt.
The Xinhua news agency, citing the Egyptian Ministry of Commerce, says that trade has risen 40 percent since 2008. In April, Beijing offered Cairo $14 million worth of aid money.
Compare that figure with the Egyptian military, largely separated from the civilian government and with its own income sources, which still receives about $1.3 billion each year from the U.S.
Egyptian state-owned newspaper Al Ahram says that China and Egypt will ink several new development and infrastructure contracts, including plans for building new power plants, desalination plants, and storage facilities for grain.
A spokesman for Morsi noted to Xinhua that the trip ultimately has a dual purpose, "a political aspect, including finding a solution to the Syrian crisis, and an economic aspect, including increasing the Chinese investments in Egypt."
In an interview with Reuters on Tuesday, Morsi noted that "Now is the time to stop this bloodshed and for the Syrian people to regain their full rights and for this regime that kills its people to disappear from the scene."
Morsi stressed that "the friends of the Syrian people in China and Russia and other states" should do more to help average Syrians, a subtle dig at their diplomatic support for the regime of Bashar al-Assad through their vetoing of resolutions at the United Nations. Morsi however, qualified that he did not support foreign military intervention in Syria "in any form."
The Muslim Brotherhood, largely seen as the major political and social force which drove Morsi's campaign to victory, has been adamantly opposing the suppression of Syria's Sunnis by the government, led by the Alawite minority (Alawites are an offshoot of Shia Islam.)
The Muslim Brotherhood's official website carried statements from ts leader in Jordan, Dr. Hammam Saeed, on boycotting Russian and Chinese goods as a means of demonstrating the public's anger against their support for Assad. The Jordanian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood noted that "use of the veto by the two states makes them complicit with the Syrian regime in the shedding of innocent blood."
But Morsi is also expected in Tehran on Thursday, an indication that he may be putting national interests and stability ahead of party and historical animosities. Iran and Egypt have no formal diplomatic relations today; they were severed after Egypt became a major U.S. regional ally and signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1979, the year when Iran became an Islamic Republic.
Morsi noted on Tuesday to Reuters that he considered Egypt a civilian-run, "national, democratic, constitutional, modern state."
"International relations between all states are open and the basis for all relations is balance. We are not against anyone but we are for achieving our interests," said Morsi.