BEIJING – China is hosting Egypt's newly elected president despite its uneasiness with the Arab Spring revolution that helped bring him to power, while the new leader seeks to shore up his country's flagging economy.
On the first day of President Mohammed Morsi's trip, China on Tuesday pledged $200 million in credit for the National Bank of Egypt and leaders signed agreements on agriculture, telecommunications, the environment and other areas.
Morsi, an Islamist who took office in June as Egypt's first freely elected civilian president, was welcomed by President Hu Jintao at the Great Hall of the People at the start of his two-day trip.
It is Morsi's first state visit outside the Middle East and Africa since becoming president, underscoring China's importance as one of five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and as a vital source of trade and investment. The visit is also seen as part of a reorientation of Egyptian foreign policy away from a heavy focus on Washington.
"Mr. President has chosen China as one of his first countries to visit and this fully shows that your country attaches great importance to the desire to develop relations with China," Hu said after a welcoming ceremony.
Morsi was preceded to Beijing by a delegation of 80 Egyptian business leaders who planned to discuss investment projects with 200 Chinese counterparts on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The trip is also a chance for the countries to rebuild their relations in the wake of the popular uprising last year that drove longtime President Hosni Mubarak from power, paving the way for democracy and Morsi's election.
China's authoritarian one-party government was decidedly cool toward that movement, criticizing what Chinese state media derided as thuggish "street democracy." Beijing also bitterly condemned the NATO air campaign that brought down dictator Moammar Gadhafi in neighboring Libya and continues to join with Russia in blocking U.N. Security Council actions to force Syrian leader President Bashar Assad from power.
Tuesday's talks also touched on the Syrian crisis and both countries are opposed to a military intervention, said Egyptian presidential spokesman Yasser Ali. "I presume that there is an understanding from both sides that we have to work together to stop the bleeding in Syria's streets, and the other understanding also regarding the military (intervention) in Syrian scene is not accepted by both countries," he said in English.
While largely a bystander in Middle Eastern politics, China's economic importance to the region has ballooned amid Europe's economic woes and the sluggish U.S. recovery. Egypt's economy has been battered by the global economic slowdown and 18 months of political instability, and Morsi is under heavy pressure to attract tourists and investment to put Egyptians back to work.
Revenues from tourism -- one of Egypt's biggest money makers and job sources -- fell 30 percent to $9 billion in 2011 and foreign investment has largely dried up. That has forced the country to seek billions of dollars in assistance from the International Monetary Fund and raised the possibility of a cut in subsidies that keep commodities like fuel and bread cheap for a population of about 82 million, 40 percent of whom live near or below the poverty line.
Chinese tourists are increasingly traveling farther afield to more exotic locales such as Egypt, while Chinese companies have invested in Egyptian manufacturing and infrastructure, having poured an estimated $500 million into the country. Chinese companies also import Egyptian oil products and raw materials such as cotton, while exporting automobiles, electronics and other finished goods.
Bilateral trade amounted to a relatively anemic $5.5 billion in 2009 prior to the upheaval that ousted Mubarak, and is skewed heavily in China's favor.
Morsi is to leave Beijing on Thursday to attend the world gathering of self-described nonaligned nations in Iran, the first visit to that country by an Egyptian head of state since relations between them were severed in 1979.