China has presented itself as an alternative to the United States in rallying Middle East countries to help counter international criticism, notably over human rights in Xinjiang, according to observers.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s tour of the region, featuring renewed pledges on post-coronavirus economic aid and Covid-19 vaccines, was a chance to bolster support on human rights issues to mitigate a global backlash over Xinjiang, including in countries allied with Washington, experts said.
The Middle East manoeuvring came after Chinese diplomats including Wang clashed with American counterparts during a summit in Alaska last month. Washington has stepped up efforts to align with its allies and, along with the European Union, Britain and Canada, has placed sanctions on Chinese officials and entities over alleged human rights abuses against Uygurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.
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During his trip to Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and three other Gulf states, which ended last week, Wang repeatedly touted Muslim countries’ support on China’s policies in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.
Wang has said that, at the session of the United Nations Human Rights Council that preceded his Middle East tour, 21 Arab states signed a statement issued on behalf of 64 countries defending China’s stance on the mass internment of Muslims in Xinjiang. As at previous years’ sessions, Beijing did not name the countries endorsing its statement.
As they, like China, have undergone an authoritarian shift in recent years, some Middle Eastern countries that are long-time US allies have endorsed China’s hardline stance on human rights and political dissent. It has had a dampening effect on the global backlash against China, according to Lucille Greer, a research fellow on China and the Middle East at the Wilson Centre’s Kissinger Institute.
“China does not want to rival or replace the United States in the region; it has neither the political willpower nor military capability to do so. However, China can style itself as an alternative to the US, which is an appealing message in the region,” she said. “Part of China’s appeal in the Middle East is its attitude towards human rights.
“When it comes to Xinjiang, endorsement or tacit silence from Middle Eastern countries is one of the accomplishments of Chinese foreign policy in the region. Part of that accomplishment has been making it very low on the agenda of Chinese ties with the region.”
As the region’s biggest trading partner and energy buyer, China’s economic leverage has played a big role in its efforts to bring Muslim countries into line on human rights issues, George Magnus, a research associate at Oxford University’s China Centre, said.
“One imagines that the reason [for endorsement] is to not endanger economic ties with China,” he said. “They are clearly aware of China’s prickly sensitivity to criticism and inclination to punish those that do not align with Beijing.”
Although China’s 25-year economic and security deal with the US’ arch-foe Iran has grabbed headlines, Wang’s visit to Turkey may be of greater significance to Beijing, according to Gal Luft, co-director of the Washington-based Institute for the Analysis of Global Security.
The most ethnically connected to Uygurs in Xinjiang with deep religious and cultural links, Turkey was the only Muslim country that voiced concerns over China’s treatment of Uygurs at the 2019 UN meeting. But after a Beijing trip by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey has remained quiet on Xinjiang and Hong Kong.
Turkey also remains the only Nato member country that has not banned Chinese company Huawei from its telecoms networks, and was one of the first countries to use Chinese Covid-19 vaccines, according to Luft.
“Wang’s visit came at a time when the Turkish lira is in free fall and its economy is facing considerable challenges,” he said. “A few days after the visit, it was reported that China’s Export-Import Bank loaned Turkey’s state-owned Ziraat Bank US$400 million.
“The conclusion: countries in the region are presently interested in two things, money and vaccines. To the degree Beijing can provide help on those two urgent needs, it can secure lasting friendships in the region.”
Although Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu claimed he raised the Xinjiang issue during his meeting with Wang amid protests by hundreds of Uygurs, Wang’s visit was largely a success, Hua Liming, the former Chinese ambassador to Iran, said.
“Turkey’s stance on Xinjiang has been the main obstacle between China and Turkey, which plays a pivotal role in the Belt and Road Initiative,” he said. “But China has to be careful not to push too hard, because Erdogan faces growing nationalism at home, with there being a large number of ethnic Uygurs in Turkey.”
Yun Sun, a senior fellow at the Stimson Centre in Washington, said Beijing needed to tread carefully in playing the Iran card in its tensions with Washington.
“This is not the first time we have seen China and Iran playing up their cooperation,” she said. “I’d be curious to see what actual, concrete projects transpire in the end.
Iran’s election in June may bring uncertainties, given domestic opposition and public outcry over the deal with China, she noted.
“It’s quite clear that, after Alaska, China is trying to ramp up partnerships globally to mitigate isolation,” she said. “But you have to wonder what has fundamentally changed in China’s relationship with these countries. What [aspects of those relationships] have been improved other than the urgency created by each country’s problems with the US?”
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