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International relations

China's foreign minister on Mideast tour as US steps back

Wang Yi to tap shared irritation over Washington's human rights push

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi will visit six countries in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran.   © Reuters

ISTANBUL/BEIJING -- Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Wednesday began a weeklong tour of the Middle East to firm up relations as the U.S. disengages from the region.

Wang will visit six countries during the journey, which wraps up Tuesday. Saudi Arabia will be the first stop on the trip, which will include stopovers in Turkey, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Oman.

The tour comes as the U.S., along with the U.K. and Canada, joined the European Union earlier this week in announcing sanctions on Chinese officials accused of involvement in human rights abuses of its Uyghur Muslim population in Xinjiang.

Hua Chunying, a spokesperson for China's foreign ministry, cited the coronavirus pandemic as one of the reasons for the trip when speaking to reporters Tuesday.

"Countries in this region hope to enhance anti-epidemic and development cooperation and deepen exchanges on state governance with China, and hope that China will play a bigger role in regional affairs," Hua said.

The U.S. involvement in the Mideast has been on the decline in recent years. Not only has the rise of fracking cut dependence on the region's oil, the U.S. military has diminished its presence in Syria and Iraq, among other hot spots.

As a result, the axis of American diplomacy has shifted to Asia. Meanwhile, China is the largest buyer of Mideast crude oil, which has fueled the country's growing presence in the region.

"Policy coordination throughout the [COVID-19] pandemic has given China an opportunity to play a larger role in the Middle East at a point when other powers were focused on their own responses to the pandemic, so Beijing’s political influence is probably higher in the region than it’s ever been," said Jonathan Fulton, assistant professor at Zayed University in the UAE. China has been actively supplying vaccines to Turkey, the UAE and other countries in the Mideast.

Ethnic Uighur women take part in a protest against China, in Istanbul on Oct. 1, 2020.   © Reuters

While northern Atlantic countries have jointly issued sanctions against Chinese officials accused of being involved in abuses against the Uyghur Muslim minority, Mideast nations have kept silent on the issue.

The U.S. under President Joe Biden has embraced diplomacy focused on human rights. This puts the authoritarian monarchies in Saudi Arabia and the UAE in an awkward position, along with the strongman government in Turkey.

China, on the other hand, is a desirable diplomatic partner because of its stated policy of not interfering in internal political affairs of other countries, and there is a tendency among Middle Eastern nations to look at the Asian power as a "bargaining chip" to be used in interactions with the U.S., said Camille Lons, a researcher at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a British think tank.

Turkey, a majority Muslim nation, used to pointedly fault China on the Uyghur issue as well. But around December, Turkey started detaining Uyghurs within its own borders.

There are thousands of Uyghurs in Turkey, who fled there as refugees, and some are planning to protest Wang's arrival in the country scheduled for Thursday. But security forces have recently been conspicuous in their crackdowns on demonstrators gathered in front of the Chinese Embassy.

Wang is also due to visit Iran. According to U.S. media reports, China is quietly expanding imports of Iranian crude, a target of U.S. sanctions.

The Biden administration looks to restore the nuclear agreement with Iran, which was abandoned by former President Donald Trump. But due to differences with Iran in terms of conditions and procedures, negotiations have hit a snag. The approach from China and easing oil restrictions will likely put pressure on the U.S.

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