Guy Burton, Vesalius College
China has been an early partner in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic in the Middle East. Initially seen primarily as the source of the virus, China has provided material and equipment, as well as advice. China’s actions in the Middle East are similar to those it is carrying out in other parts of the world and reflects its keenness to control and shape the narrative. Rather than be seen as the source of the virus, it wants to present itself as a leader in containing its spread. In addition, its response to COVID-19 in the Middle East is enabling it to broaden and deepen its relations with states across the region, including those where contact has previously been slight.
China’s earliest interaction with COVID-19 in the Middle East involved Iran. Iran’s relationship with China is asymmetric.[i] It has been keen to play up its close ties with China as a way of overcoming global isolation, especially following the US decision to reimpose sanctions after withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Following the outbreak of COVID-19 in China’s Hubei province and the government’s imposition of a lockdown on its cities, Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Zarif was one of the first to express solidarity with Beijing when he tweeted his support in January.
Iranian authorities’ determination to keep diplomatic relations open with China contributed to the importation of COVID-19 into the country. They kept air travel open with China and also allowed some Iranian airlines to fly China-bound travelers from other countries, even as China was attempting to contain the virus at home.[ii] In mid-February the first cases appeared in Iran. The regime initially downplayed the outbreak in ways which likely contributed to its rapid spread. From there it spread to the neighboring Arab Gulf states and then on to the wider region. Iran remains the epicenter of the regional outbreak, with more than 70,000 cases including a wide swathe of the regime’s political elite. While this could have become grounds for a crisis in the Iran-China relationship, relations have instead only strengthened. Iran was the first country to receive Chinese assistance to tackle the virus, receiving experts, test kits and medical supplies as well as two mobile hospitals.[iii]
China has also expanded its help to the wider region. Its doctors, nurses and researchers have held conference calls with doctors in Abu Dhabi.[iv] It has sent test kits and ventilators to Palestine and Algeria and is establishing a testing laboratory in Baghdad and human temperature measuring equipment in the Beirut airport. The media has also reported that China will send equipment to Egypt while Chinese firms working in Algeria will build a small hospital to support both the local population and resident Chinese engineers working on construction projects there.[v] The Chinese government has provided test kits to Syria and has offered to train Libyan doctors on how to diagnose and treat COVID-19 cases and called for sanctions against Syria to be lifted to enable the government to act more effectively against the pandemic.[vi] In addition, the Palestinian health ministry has reportedly shown interest in applying the Chinese model of lockdowns for households and travel between population centers to deal with the pandemic.
China’s actions have been described as examples of soft power.[vii] In Joseph Nye’s original explanation of the term, soft power is understood as an actor using its resources to persuade and attract others to its way of thinking and preferred course of action.[viii] So what does China want to achieve through a deployment of soft power through its efforts against COVID-19 in the Middle East?
First, China aims to impose its own narrative on the crisis for political advantage. Most clearly, it wishes to counter criticism directed against it, especially any criticisms that the country failed to acknowledge the risk the virus presented or to curb its spread early enough. That includes blunting American attempts to lay the blame for COVID-19 at Beijing’s doorstep by administration officials calling it the “Chinese virus”. The Chinese were irritated, since they see this as part of the wider American effort to curb China’s rising power. Chinese officials pushed back on social media, claiming that the virus may have been American in origin and claiming that the US was rattled by China’s preparedness to provide aid without making any demands on its recipients.[ix]
Whether or not Chinese officials believe such allegations, the claim has found a ready audience in the Middle East, within society as well as among political leaders who are skeptical of the US and keen to weaken its influence in the region. Indeed, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei made a controversial reference to the theory in a public address.[x]
Shaping the narrative and providing assistance to tackle COVID-19 may also benefit China in another, more concrete way: by expanding its regional relationships beyond the economic realm and between states.
During China’s rise to global power status over the past two decades, its relations in the Middle East have been primarily commercial. Since the 1990s, the region has been an important source of energy. By 2019, countries in the Middle East accounted for nearly half of China’s oil imports. China’s two largest oil suppliers – Russia and Saudi Arabia – recently halted an oil price war by agreeing to curb production. The resulting glut in supply and lower oil prices proved a potential economic boon in the form of lower energy costs for Chinese producers and consumers and allowed the government to increase the country’s strategic reserves.[xi]
Today, however, China’s interest in the Middle East is about more than oil. In 2013, Beijing launched the Belt and Road Initiative with the prospect of new lines of credit and construction projects and potential new markets. In the Middle East, China’s leaders also hoped to widen and deepen the contacts they have. In 2016, it launched its Arab Policy Paper, which proposed to build ties beyond the economic sphere, to include cooperation in security, social development, healthcare, and people-to-people exchanges.[xii] China’s interest in building such connections starts from a relatively positive base, given that public attitudes have broadly been favorable towards China and had even improved in recent years.[xiii]
Currently much of China’s relations with the region have operated at the state level. The COVID-19 crisis has therefore opened the door slightly for greater interaction at the level of society, especially if it can counter some of the adverse reactions that have occurred at the individual level in the region. During the current pandemic there have been a number of highly publicized attacks against Chinese and other Asian people. In Morocco, for example, several people have made videos blaming China for the virus; in Egypt, a taxi driver threw a Chinese man out of his car after he coughed; and a lawyer has reportedly claimed that he wants to sue China for causing the crisis.[xiv] In an effort to boost more interaction at the societal level, in China the government allowed the Iranian embassy to appeal directly to the Chinese to raise funds for medical supplies through Weibo.[xv] In Lebanon, Chinese companies and individuals donated medical goggles and testing kits in Lebanon.[xvi]
The growing health crisis may also enable China to build up ties in other parts of the region where relations have historically been weaker. China’s relations in the region are not uniform. They are densest where they have agreed comprehensive strategic partnerships in recent years: in Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Algeria. Elsewhere, relations are less substantive or wide-ranging. Among the weakest are in the more conflict-affected countries like Libya, Yemen, Syria, Somalia and Palestine, as well as Lebanon.[xvii]
Whether the China model of dealing with the coronavirus can translate wholesale to the Middle East is unlikely. Not all governments in the region will be sufficiently able to impose their will on large parts of their territory or population. That will make it difficult to impose restrictions on movement, while in some places like refugee camps, keeping people in one place may only increase the spread of the disease.[xviii] Some governments will lack sufficient healthcare facilities to the crisis, no matter how much equipment is sent from China. And as for other more high-tech solutions, such as the use of surveillance technology, this may be beyond the reach of some governments and may only be available to some countries in the region, like the Arab Gulf states.
Regardless of states’ differing capacities, China’s offers of largely unconditional help have so far been favorably received by governments in the region. It also stands in stark contrast to more traditional Western donors in the region, whose responses have been slower and more limited. As well as taking charge of the narrative, China’s early involvement in providing assistance to the region may also help it weather some of the recent negative media coverage that has resulted, including the poor quality of the masks and tests which have been supplied to Turkey.[xix]
Looking ahead, China will likely continue to provide medical equipment and aid to those countries that want it. So long as China does that while other, more traditional donors delay, it will not only be able to project itself as an early responder to the regional COVID-19 pandemic rather than its source, but also avoid scrutiny about the quantity and quality of its assistance, especially in countries more skeptical towards the West.[xx] By the time that others do become more involved, China’s contribution may have served its purpose in both the short- and medium-term: by instilling a favorable opinion among regional governments and populations in the former and by laying the foundations for other, non-commercial interactions and exchanges to develop in the case of the latter.
[i] Dina Esfandiary and Ariane Tabatabai, Triple Axis: Iran’s Relations with Russia and China (London: I.B. Tauris, 2018), 5, 32-3.
[ii] Maysam Behravesh, “The Untold Story of How Iran Botched the Coronavirus Pandemic,” Foreign Policy, March 24, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/24/how-iran-botched-coronavirus-pandemic-response/ [accessed April 6, 2020].
[iii] Wang Jian, Li Rui and Chen Lin, “Chinese experts helping on spot as COVID-19 cases rise in Iran,” Xinhua, March 5 2020, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2020-03/05/c_138846945.htm [accessed March 31, 2020].
[iv] Nick Webster, “Coronavirus: Abu Dhabi medics hold China conference call to aid efforts to combat Covid-19,” The National, April 2, 2020, https://www.thenational.ae/uae/health/coronavirus-abu-dhabi-medics-hold-china-conference-call-to-aid-efforts-to-combat-covid-19-1.1000662 [accessed April 12, 2020].
[v] Wang Jian, Zhang Miao and Chen Lin, “China’s support boosts Middle East’s anti-virus ability,” Xinhua, March 29, 2020, http://www.china.org.cn/world/Off_the_Wire/2020-03/29/content_75873975.htm [accessed March 31, 2020]; The Daily Star, “’True friend’ China helps Algeria battle coronavirus,” April 4, 2020, http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2020/Apr-04/503824-true-friend-china-helps-algeria-battle-coronavirus.ashx [accessed April 6, 2020]; Eric Olander, “Coronavirus aid: Chinese medical teams arrive in Africa to mixed reactions,” The Africa Report, April 6, 2020, https://www.theafricareport.com/25746/coronavirus-aid-chinese-medical-teams-arrive-in-africa-to-mixed-reactions/ [accessed April 12, 2020]; Middle East Monitor, “China delivers 10,000 coronavirus kits to Palestine,” March 31, 2020, https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20200331-china-delivers-10000-coronavirus-kits-to-palestine/ [accessed April 6, 2020]; Middle East Monitor, “Chinese Ambassador to Cairo: ‘We will send medical aid to Egypt,’” April 4, 2020, https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20200404-chinese-ambassador-to-cairo-we-will-send-medical-aid-to-egypt/ [accessed April 6, 2020].
[vi] Xinhua, “China willing to offer more donations to Lebanon for fighting COVID-19: ambassador,” March 16, 2020, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2020-03/16/c_138881051.htm [accessed March 31, 2020]; Xinhua, “Palestine hails China model pioneer of fighting coronavirus outbreak,” March 15, 2020, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2020-03/15/c_138880759.htm [accessed March 31, 2020]; Abdulkader Assad, “China offers to give Libya’s Health Ministry Coronavirus training programme,” Libya Observer, March 23, 2020, https://www.libyaobserver.ly/news/china-offers-give-libyas-health-ministry-coronavirus-training-program [accessed March 31, 2020]; Middle East Monitor, “China calls for the lifting of santions against Syria to fight coronavirus,” April 1, 2020, https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20200401-china-calls-for-the-lifting-of-sanctions-against-syria-to-fight-coronavirus/ [accessed April 6, 2020]..
[vii] Lily Kuo, “China sends doctors and masks overseas as domestic coronavirus infections drop,” The Guardian, March 19, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/19/china-positions-itself-as-a-leader-in-tackling-the-coronavirus [accessed April 6, 2020]; Will Knight, “China Flexes its Soft Power with ‘Covid Diplomacy’,” Wired, April 2, 2020, https://www.wired.com/story/china-flexes-soft-power-covid-diplomacy/ [accessed April 6, 2020].
[viii] Joseph Nye, “Soft Power,” Foreign Policy, 80 (1990): 153-171; Joseph Nye, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (New York: Public Affairs, 2004).
[ix] Mu Chunshan, “On China, COVID-19, and Conspiracy Theories,” Diplomat, March 17, 2020, https://thediplomat.com/2020/03/on-china-covid-19-and-conspiracy-theories/ [accessed March 31, 2020]; Global Times, “Increasing cooperation between China and Middle Eastern countries upsets US,” April 8, 2020, https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1185039.shtml [accessed April 12, 2020]..
[x] MEMRI, “Palestinian Writers: The Coronavirus Is A Biological Weapon, Employed By U.S., Israel, Against Their Enemies,” March 24, 2020, https://www.memri.org/reports/palestinian-writers-coronavirus-biological-weapon-employed-us-israel-against-their-enemies [accessed March 31, 2020]; Shahira Amin, “Egypt battles COVID-19 amid flood of misinformation, conspiracy theories,” Al Monitor, March 31, 2020, https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2020/03/egyptian-superstitions-jokes-on-coronavirus.html [accessed March 31, 2020]; Khamenei.ir (@khamenei.ir), “ Since there is some evidence that this may be a ‘#BiologicalAttack,’ the establishment of this Base in the Armed Forces for confronting the #Coronavirus may also be regarded as a biological defense exercise & add to our national sovereignty & power,”March 13, 2020, https://twitter.com/khamenei_ir/status/1238247756780785666 [accessed March 31, 2020].
[xi] Daniel Workman, “Top 15 Crude Oil Suppliers to China,” World’s Top Exports, March 31, 2020, http://www.worldstopexports.com/top-15-crude-oil-suppliers-to-china/ [accessed April 6, 2020]; Haley Zaremba, “China’s Plan to Capitalize on the Oil Price War,” Oil Price, April 3, 2020, https://oilprice.com/Energy/Crude-Oil/Chinas-Plan-To-Capitalize-On-The-Oil-Price-War.html [accessed April 6, 2020]; Frank Tang and Orange Wang, “Oil price war between Saudi Arabia, Russia set to offer China’s coronavirus-hit economy welcome relief,” South China Morning Post, March 11, 2020, https://www.scmp.com/economy/china-economy/article/3074664/oil-price-war-between-saudi-arabia-russia-set-offer-chinas [accessed April 6, 2020].
[xii] Foreign Ministry of the People’s Republic of China, China’s Arab Policy Paper, January 13, 2016, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/t1331683.shtml [accessed March 31, 2020].
[xiii] Guy Burton, “Public Opinion in the Middle East towards China,” Middle East Institute, December 11, 2018, https://www.mei.edu/publications/public-opinion-middle-east-toward-china [accessed March 31, 2020].
[xiv] Kyle Haddad-Fonda, “Can Beijing’s mask diplomacy win hearts and minds in the Arab world?” Responsible Statecraft, March 30, 2020, https://responsiblestatecraft.org/2020/03/30/can-beijings-mask-diplomacy-win-hearts-and-minds-in-the-arab-world/ [accessed April 12, 2020]; Middle East Monitor, “Egypt lawyer sues China for coronavirus spread,” April 7, 2020, https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20200407-egypt-lawyer-sues-china-for-coronavirus-spread/ [accessed April 12, 2020].
[xv] Islamic Republic News Agency, “China to send new anti-COVID19 donations to Iran,” March 17, 2020, https://en.irna.ir/news/83718888/China-to-send-new-anti-COVID19-donations-to-Iran [accessed March 31, 2020]; Xinhua, “Helping hands bring Iran, China closer amid COVID-19 battle,” March 22, 2020, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2020-03/22/c_138905366.htm [accessed March 31, 2020].
[xvi] Xinhua, “Chinese companies, expatriates donate medical equipment to Lebanon for fighting COVID-19,” March 5, 2020, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2020-03/05/c_138844006.htm [accessed April 7, 2020].
[xvii] Sun Degang, “China’s partnership diplomacy in the Middle East,” Asia Dialogue, March 24, 2020, https://theasiadialogue.com/2020/03/24/chinas-partnership-diplomacy-in-the-middle-east/ [accessed March 31, 2020]; Jonathan Fulton, China’s Changing Role in the Middle East (Washington DC: Atlantic Council, 2019).
[xviii] Jonathan Marcus, “Coronavirus: A ticking timebomb for the Middle East,” BBC, March 31, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-52103958 [accessed March 31, 2020].
[xix] Ragip Soylu, “Coronavirus: Turkey rejects Chinese testing kits over inaccurate results,” Middle East Eye, March 27, 2020, https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/coronavirus-turkey-faulty-chinese-kits-not-use [accessed March 31, 2020].
[xx] Salvatores Babones, “The ‘Chinese Virus’ Spread Along the New Silk Road,” Foreign Policy, April 6, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/04/06/chinese-coronavirus-spread-worldwide-on-new-silk-road/ [accessed April 12, 2020].