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The China Chronicles.
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China’s role and expansion in West Asia over the past few years has been a story that may not have got the attention it deserves. Beijing has slowly taken over the economic vacuum left by the West in the restive region, without getting entangled in its geopolitical fault lines. From Tehran to Riyadh and to Tel Aviv, China has already, or is near becoming one of the top two trading partners of these countries.
To drive home the above argument, Israel, the de-facto ally, critical and instrumental historic foreign policy aim of Washington DC in the region is now also negotiating a trade deal with China. As per reports, the deal that has been in negotiation secretly
may be completed within the year, and the COVID-19 pandemic may end up providing that final push. In Tel Aviv, the technology and startup capital of the region, Beijing’s money is visible in new programmes promoting the startup industry, with traditional Chinese lanterns welcoming people in many office foyers that host these tech initiatives. Israel has maintained a balance in its ties with the US with Tel Aviv signing a deal
with Beijing for COVID-19 testing kits, allowing it to conduct more than 10,000 tests per day.
In Tel Aviv, the technology and startup capital of the region, Beijing’s money is visible in new programmes promoting the startup industry, with traditional Chinese lanterns welcoming people in many office foyers that host these tech initiatives.
The pandemic has hit the region hard, with Iran taking much of the brunt with a history of the virus being traced to air travel between the holy Shiite city of Qom and China, a popular route used by Iranian traders. Since then, China has come forward as a big source of help
for an embattled Iran, under sanctions, and unable to purchase critical medical supplies. China, of course, has invested heavily in Iran over the past few years, expecting the country to become a critical infrastructure
hub in its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) connecting deeper into Central Asia and beyond.
Meanwhile, Iran’s neighbor Turkey, which now hosts the most number of COVID-19 cases in the region has had fleeting relations with Beijing as part of the latter’s ‘tonnes of friendship
’ diplomacy. Under pressure from the pandemic, President Recep Erdogan’s government rejected Chinese made COVID-19 test kits
, saying they were only 30–35% accurate. Others in Europe such as Spain, Czech Republic and The Netherlands have said the same, with Beijing defending itself that countries should purchase from verified and proven suppliers. This is important, the fact that China is selling more, and actually donating less. Despite questions being raised on the quality of Chinese equipment, Beijing has continued press ahead with its soft power outreach, such as pushing for a re-packaged “Health Silk Road
” within its BRI, specifically with Iran and Turkey, both of whom have been at odds with the US.
However, interestingly, contrary to how Beijing’s traditional soft power works, it was the Gulf states that initiated this cooperation when the virus broke through in the city of Wuhan. Qatar, responded by sending multiple relief flights
carrying supplies to help the Wuhan region, followed by similar moves by Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. While Chinese missions in the region praised the Gulf states for their forthcoming nature to provide help, it was not long before China started to reverse-engineer the global response against its pandemic itself, putting a Chinese colour to it and approaching capitals across the world with aid, supplies, and perhaps more straightforwardly, selling supplies, thanks to the country being host to much of the world’s global supply chain in manufacturing.
In 2016, China released its white paper on China–Arab cooperation, in which healthcare also found prominent mention.
While Chinese diplomats called the outreach by Gulf states as “unforgettable
”, the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) called China a “role model
” for disseminating hope in the fight against the virus. In 2016, China released its white paper on China–Arab cooperation, in which healthcare also found prominent mention. “We will strengthen exchanges and cooperation in traditional and modern medicine, pay attention to the prevention and control of communicable and non-communicable diseases, especially to cooperation on information sharing and monitoring of epidemics, and promote exchange of visits by experts from both sides. We will advance cooperation between medical institutions and enhance exchanges on clinical technology. We will continue to send medical teams and continuously improve service,” the paper said
. A few days after the release of this document, China’s President Xi Jinping visited the region’s warring poles of power, Saudi Arabia and Iran
. In 2018, he visited the UAE as well, amidst much fanfare.
However, the Chinese outreach in West Asia has been arguably subtle and careful. While they have facilitated purchase of supplies, donated masks and helped build medical facilities, dispatch of medical workers has been limited. Interestingly, one country that did get a Chinese plane full of supplies and medical workers to help fight the pandemic was Iraq. On 9 March, a team of Chinese medical workers arrived in Baghdad
on board an Iraqi Airways Boeing 777 instead of a China flagged aircraft, in what could be an attempt to dilute the soft-power optics in a country where external influence and mediation is seen with significant suspicion irrespective of the crisis at play. With American power in retreat, Chinese soft power coupled with its economic muscle has significant manoeuvre space in the region, including in the most fragile political states.
Intriguingly, the Chinese approach towards the region is very similar to that of India
, which is to maintain diplomatic relations with all power centers independently, without stepping on the toes of the centuries old regional fractures. Beijing has even sent aid to Palestine
, to ease an increasingly worrying situation in Gaza. The difference is, of course, pure capacity between Beijing and New Delhi. China, with BRI, a bottomless war chest to promote its global diplomacy, in battle with the US for dominance and an authoritarian system that is prepared to push its narrative irrespective of the consequences. While India has initiated diplomatic moves in the region by sending medical aid to states such as Kuwait, it also has the burden of managing a large migrant population, which in a pandemic, will add extra pressure on host countries in the Gulf. New Delhi in turn will urge states who are the major source of migrants to the Gulf to repatriate them safely. For New Delhi, this becomes a bigger problem with more than eight million Indians working in the extended Gulf region, ranging from skilled to mostly semi-skilled labour. Of the 3,336 Indians infected with the virus abroad in 53 countries, 2,061 are in the Gulf
. India’s focus automatically becomes managing its citizens, while China’s largely remains expanding its clout.
With American power in retreat, Chinese soft power coupled with its economic muscle has significant manoeuvre space in the region, including in the most fragile political states.
For the Gulf states, a pandemic is both a regional crisis but also a domestic challenge. With most countries being authoritarian, led by monarchs, a pandemic causing large-scale deaths and economic devastation is a serious crisis to the states in the region if the pandemic is not brought under control. However, for the likes of Saudi Arabia, Iran and Qatar that rely on export of hydrocarbons and look for inward investment, Beijing today comes as a natural collaborator. The ‘Westlessness
’ of the western global architecture and lack of quick responses to fill this vacuum of capacity, not ideas, has driven the current outreach of China to West Asia with a large degree of success. Despite being the source of the COVID-19 pandemic that brought the world a neo-Great Depression, China still sees itself as free from any culpability.
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