‘The Politics of Generosity’? China’s New Middle East Diplomacy

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On the 27th March, the Chinese president Xi Jinping called Donald Trump. Following a series of public statements and tweets in which Trump referred to COVID-19 as the “Chinese Virus”, the call was supposed to heal relations between the two countries.

Xi insisted that cooperation was the only way to beat the virus and that “working together brings both sides benefits, fighting hurts both.” We have seen a great deal of involvement from China in the fight against COVID-19. Equipment and testing kits have been sent to countries in Asia, whilst Europe has benefited from the import of equipment and medical staff. In the Middle East, Chinese medical experts are working alongside local doctors in Iran and Iraq.

Last week American soldiers from the 1st Marine Regiment were practicing the occupation of Middle Eastern cities in an assault exercise called “Native Fury 20.”

Trump, however, has taken a different tactic in the Middle East. Last week American soldiers from the 1st Marine Regiment were practicing the occupation of Middle Eastern cities in an assault exercise called “Native Fury 20.” Videos and photographs from the exercise show heavily armored troops in sunglasses darting around recently created mock-ups of Middle Eastern cities. These could be the same troops, as Robert Fisk recently pointed out in The Independent, that abandoned Iraqi cities (real ones) during the outbreak of COVID-19.

COVID-19 has so far taken the lives of at least 3000 people in the Middle East and infected more than 57,000. How has China responded to the outbreak? What possibilities can it offer China as a superpower? Where isn’t it as simple as it seems?

In the absence of an American presence, any Chinese help will be appreciated. China is also coming from a position of favor amongst the region’s leaders. Almost half of China’s imports of crude oil come from the Middle East. Saudi Arabia alone counted for 17% ($40.1b) of crude oil imports into China whilst Iraq accounted for 10% ($23.7b).

Almost half of China’s imports of crude oil come from the Middle East. Saudi Arabia alone counted for 17% ($40.1b) of crude oil imports into China whilst Iraq accounted for 10% ($23.7b).

This is perhaps surprising considering the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province. Estimates vary but there was thought to be between 1 and 3 million inmates in “re-education camps” in 2019. Inmates are taught to Communist Party doctrine and Mandarin. Reports tell of torturing and inmates committing suicide.

Nevertheless, many Muslim-majority countries, including Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia were signatories to a letter to the UN proclaiming, “China’s remarkable achievements in the field of human rights by adhering to the people-centered development philosophy and protecting and promoting human rights through development.” This letter directly addressed complaints by other nations of the treatment of those in Xinjiang.

Professor Steve Tsang, Director of the SOAS China Institute, told Al Bawaba that China’s friendly relations with most nations in the region will serve to it’s favor. “They retain good relationships with both the Arab world and Israel. They are not being picked on by either the Sunnis or the Shias. Regardless of what they do to the Muslim populations within their borders.”  

These friendly relations provide a lot of space for China to peddle soft power in the region. Arriving in Baghdad, the head of the medical delegation to Iraq, Zhang Tao, was quoted as saying: “The goal of the visit of the Chinese expert team to Baghdad is to share the Chinese experience with their Iraqi counterparts.”

Zhang Tao, was quoted as saying: “The goal of the visit of the Chinese expert team to Baghdad is to share the Chinese experience with their Iraqi counterparts.”

A justifiable dislike of US and European powers, particularly in Iraq and Iran, has meant that any assistance China gives to the region will be highly favored. There is a risk, however, that China provides sub-standard equipment and only moves to alienate themselves whilst appearing to be wanting to help. Spain has reportedly returned faulty equipment designed to tackle COVID-19, with the Chinese embassy in Madrid saying that the equipment was unauthorized. The Netherlands and Turkey have also claimed that there have been faults with Chinese masks and testing kits.

An EU diplomat has labeled China’s response to the virus as the “politics of generosity” and argued that a “battle of narratives” has broken out over who is the most reliable and effective international partner. Large questions remain, however, over how well the Chinese government responded to the initial outbreak of COVID-19.

An EU diplomat has labeled China’s response to the virus as the “politics of generosity” and argued that a “battle of narratives” has broken out over who is the most reliable and effective international partner.

Popular opinion in the West is that China did well to contain the virus and there was nothing that could be done about its spread out of the country. This is based on the impressive figures on the suppression of COVID-19 within China. But Professor Tsang says, “that if you believe the Chinese figures you need your head checked.” We have no way of knowing the true Chinese figures unless China is cooperative, despite what they may say to a gullible American president.

According to Professor Tsang, the mortality figures in Wuhan would suggest that crematoriums would have to work an extra one or two hours per day in order to manage the extra amount of bodies arriving due to COVID-19. Tsang says reports show that extra workers are being bought into the crematoriums and these are being run 24/7. This would suggest the true number of mortalities is significantly higher than reported by the Chinese state. Other eye-witness reports suggest that the numbers of urns have been bought into the province.

But Professor Tsang says, “that if you believe the Chinese figures you need your head checked.”

Despite this seeming dishonesty from the Communist Party, it is the US government that has received some searing coverage in the British and European media. Tsang says that the Chinese state “know they’ve messed up. They know they’ve transformed a very major, serious public health challenge into a global pandemic.”

 “But there is no way they can allow that narrative to take hold. So, you say something that provokes a strong, stupid response from the right-wing in America and elsewhere. Lo-and-behold Donald Trump says something incredibly stupid. Something that is open to justifiable accusations of being racist. So, all the focus is on “are they being racist?”

This reinforces the perception that Trump is deflecting attention away from the mismanagement of the crises by the Communist Party. Any help that the Chinese then provide in the Middle East or elsewhere is then lauded as generosity. Simultaneously, the isolationist policies of the Trump administration are put on display at a time of a major global meltdown. 
 

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News.

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