When the Azadi Tower in Tehran lit up red and yellow on 18th February 2020 in solidarity with China’s battle against novel coronavirus, the world was primarily focusing on the internal effects the disease might have on China. The total lockdown of Wuhan, a domestic trading hub, was predicted to heavily damage the economy. Some commentators even postulated that the crisis may pose an existential threat to Xi Jinping’s regime if it were not swiftly controlled. Countries across the world sent medical aid to China, including some in the MENA region: Qatar sent 300 tonnes of medical supplies in February alone.
However, just a day later, on 19th February, Iran reported its first cases of coronavirus in Qom. While the pandemic has taken a devastating hold across the world, China has since largely managed to subdue it. The concerns voiced in February have dissipated and China has leveraged its strength in handling the pandemic, while capitalising on the U.S. and E.U.’s distraction as they struggle to contain the virus, to cultivate ties across the world, particularly in MENA. Through its ‘Covid Diplomacy’, China is establishing a stronger presence in the region than ever before.
A New ‘Health Silk Road’?
China’s engagement in MENA over the course of the pandemic has taken a variety of forms. Firstly, it has provided material support. China has been sending large shipments of masks, protective clothing, thermometers and rapid testing kits to states across the region, including Iran , Egypt , Jordan , and Libya . Chinese firms have also assisted in building field hospitals. In April, Chinese oil company Sinopec converted its supply base in Kuwait into a 1,700 bed hospital. Secondly, it has shared expertise on a range of issues including treatments and tracing apps. A delegation of Chinese doctors arrived in Iraq in March and virtual meetings have taken place between Chinese and MENA experts throughout the pandemic. Thirdly, Chinese ambassadors have used their social media platforms to spread goodwill and participate in national discussions. For example, Chinese ambassador to Saudi Arabia Chen Weiqing shared pictures on his Twitter account of his activities during lockdown, including reading the Saudi novel, ‘The Price of Sacrifice’.
China’s actions are, in part, motivated by altruism and gratitude for the support and assistance it received from MENA governments during its own crisis earlier in the year. Yet, they also have considerable strategic benefits. MENA is important to China not only for oil and trade but also for strategic partnerships that serve its broader geopolitical vision. Indeed, China’s ambitious ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, though primarily focused on trade, infrastructure and investment, has a broad definition that includes ‘people-to-people connections’. As early as 2015, the idea of a ‘Health Silk Road’ has been touted as another mechanism for Chinese global outreach. Conceived as high-level regional forums for health officials, the development of healthcare systems and co-operation and co-ordination in responses to health emergencies and medical research, the project has been expedited by the pandemic. MENA governments have been particularly receptive to China’s ‘Covid Diplomacy’. This new form of engagement has provided China with considerable opportunities to diversify its soft power, strengthen its economic ties, and expand its access to the region.
The impact of ‘Covid Diplomacy’: The Diversification of Soft Power
The coronavirus pandemic has provided China with an opportunity to diversify its sources of soft power in MENA. Hitherto, Chinese engagement primarily consisted in bilateral economic relationships, which, though successful, lacked depth. China’s success in quelling the coronavirus pandemic and its assistance to the region, which involves personal interactions as well as material assistance, may strengthen its bilateral ties.
China’s success in subduing the pandemic at home bears striking contrast with liberal democracies such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and countries in the E.U. This has not gone unnoticed in MENA. In March, Saudi news channel al-Arabiya declared, ‘China is the only country that has performed well in dealing with this crisis’. Notably, commentators in the region have linked China’s success to its authoritarian structures. For example, Abdel-Rahman al-Rashed, the chairman of Al-Arabiya’s editorial board, noted, ‘The U.S. government does not have enough military force to keep ten million people [in New York] at home, unlike China’. The statement by al-Rashed, who is said to have links to the Royal Court, is especially significant given that Saudi Arabia is a long-term ally of the U.S. and the U.K. The co-existence of economic growth and authoritarian structures in China was already the subject of admiration by similarly inclined leaders in MENA. It seems that its response to Covid-19 has vindicated this position. China could leverage these normative similarities with key MENA regimes as a source of mutual understanding, which could deepen its bilateral relationships.
The pandemic has also been important for cultivating personal relationships between the Chinese and the people in MENA. Previously, China employed a largely dispassionate and transactional approach to the region. However, the delegations of doctors, virtual meetings between experts, and Chen Weiqing’s popular tweets have added personal flair and warmth to China’s engagement. This, coupled with the conspicuous lack of assistance to the region by Western powers as they turn inwards to deal with their own outbreaks, will only serve to increase trust in China.
In soft power terms, therefore, China has emerged from the pandemic in a stronger position than other international powers. In analysing the implications of this, it is important to clearly conceptualise China’s motivations in the region. Though much has been made of the U.S.’s supposed withdrawal from MENA, it is unlikely that China is vying to fill this vacuum. China’s focus is primarily economic; it is wary of political entanglement in the region. Rather, there is a consensus amongst Chinese and foreign scholars that China seeks to foster beneficial bilateral, and primarily economic, relationships in the region. In other words, it seeks to provide MENA governments with another option, alongside other global powers, for diplomatic and economic engagements. Its recognised normative similarities and its assistance over the course of the pandemic makes it an increasingly enticing ‘option’.
Strengthening Economic Ties
China’s economic involvement in the region was already extensive. In 2016, it became the region’s largest source of foreign investment. It is particularly concentrated on the region’s oil: the International Energy Agency predicts that the share of crude oil imported by China from MENA will reach 70% this year, and will continue to grow until 2035. However, it has also diversified its economic ties through trade, surpassing the U.S. as the top destination for MENA’s non-oil exports in 2010. Thus, pandemic or not, China’s economic ties in the region were likely to grow over the coming years.
However, the trust China has built with countries over the course of the pandemic will be an asset to its economic involvement in the region. As Gulf States embark on their ‘vision’ projects – the most famous being Saudi Arabia’s ‘Vision 2030’, a strategic framework intended to diversify its economy – they will require high levels of foreign direct investment. If it was not already likely before, the pandemic has provided China with the certainty that it will be first in line for key investment projects should it wish to support them. Given that a significant lever of China’s grand strategy is geoeconomics, this is a significant development for its position in the MENA region and the world beyond.
Expansion of Access to MENA
Perhaps the most notable aspect of China’s ‘Covid Diplomacy’ has been its extensiveness. As part of its ‘partnership diplomacy’ model, China assigns labels to its strategic partners in the region, and engages with them accordingly. ‘Pivot states’, such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, the UAE and Algeria, are those that have comprehensive strength in the region and function as hubs within China’s global partnership network. ‘Node states’, such as Turkey and Israel, are those that facilitate engagement with China’s interests beyond the region. For example, Turkey provides access to Europe, and Israel may facilitate better relations between China and the U.S. ‘Key states’, such as Sudan, Iraq and Morocco, are medium-sized powers that have some economic clout and developmental potential, which can exert influence on neighbouring countries. ‘Stronghold states’, such as Qatar, Oman, Djibouti, Jordan and Kuwait, are those that are relatively small in terms of size, population and economy, but nevertheless exhibit friendliness towards China and have potential for economic co-operation.
While China’s support to ‘pivot states’ and ‘node states’ over the course of the pandemic was perhaps inevitable, what is particularly interesting is its engagement with the relatively minor ‘key states’ and ‘stronghold states’. Not only is China solidifying its already mature partnerships, it appears to be utilising ‘Covid Diplomacy’ as an entry tool to ‘key states’ and ‘stronghold states’. The prospects of greater diplomatic and economic engagement with such states not only allows China to accrue significant economic gains; in geopolitical terms, it also allows China to expand its sphere influence up to the edge of the Mediterranean, i.e. Europe’s doorstep.
While other global powers have been focused exclusively on their own outbreaks, China has capitalised on its success in tackling Covid-19 to expand its reach and influence in MENA. The implications of a concerted expansion of its soft power, economic ties, and access to the region are geoeconomically and geopolitically immense. In six short months, China has managed to map out a route that may significantly diminish American and European hegemonic power in MENA, which will have immense implications for the region for years to come.