Vaccines Offer China Increased Leverage in the Middle East
Experts say China’s main interest is accessing energy but geopolitical battle with US may loom
The battle against the coronavirus pandemic is helping China expand its ties with the Middle East and the country has a new weapon in its diplomatic arsenal: vaccines.
Beijing has for years been increasing relations with the region through trade, investment and infrastructure projects and, analysts say, it could win more clout with its vaccine exports.
COVID-19 vaccines from China have been approved or used by several countries in the region, including Bahrain, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey.
But it doesn’t come without controversy.
The efficacy of the vaccine by the company Sinovac, which is used in Turkey, is still unclear with trials in different countries producing different results.
Officials said a trial in Turkey found efficacy was over 90% but experts said the study was too small.
Dr. Derya Unutmaz, a Connecticut-based immunologist at the Jackson Laboratory, told The Media Line that the lack of transparency over the trials is a problem and the company needs to release data of the trials itself.
However, he stressed that Turkey should get as many vaccines as possible and said it has a good record on approving medicine, including from China.
“We have to just trust the data is correct because the consequences of the data not being correct is too large so I don’t think they will be hiding any of this information,” he said.
Dr. Jennifer Huang Bouey, an epidemiologist specializing in China’s health policy at the US-based think tank RAND, says the vaccines are set to be a game changer for Beijing, opening up a new market for China.
“China has very strategically targeted the middle-income countries,” Bouey said.
“This is a new era of seeing China as a partner in scientific discoveries and experiments.”
China already made connections with Middle East countries during the pandemic by sending aid to help fight the virus early on.
Chinese-state media reported in March that Beijing donated masks and test kits to Iran while Chinese foundations donated the same to Israel.
“Of all the countries that tried to play COVID diplomacy, China is probably the biggest player and probably the biggest winner,” Mohamed El Dahshan, a development economist and fellow at Chatham House, told The Media Line.
The donations and vaccine deals could help improve China’s battered global image.
A survey by the Pew Research Center released in October showed negative views of the country soared among several advanced democracies.
China has been working to boost ties and trade to the Middle East in the past decade.
The Middle East provides about half of Beijing’s crude oil imports, with Saudi Arabia nearly doubling its oil exports to China from 2018 to 2019.
Middle Eastern countries also play a significant part in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a set of massive infrastructure projects that will expand the country’s trade routes and connect it to the region, as well as to Europe and other parts of Asia.
“China has really been trying to penetrate to the Middle East for the last 10 years or so. It’s trading more heavily with Middle Eastern countries, and pretty much with all of them,” said Berk Esen, an assistant professor of political science at Istanbul’s Sabanci University.
China is already providing countries in the region with an alternative trading partner that won’t criticize them for their human rights record.
Along with Turkey’s tightening relations with NATO’s enemies, his antagonistic approach with the European Union has left the Turkish president with few options.
“China emerged as this convenient partner, which is not going to criticize the authoritarian regime in Turkey,” said Esen.
Esen said he believed this was the primary reason Turkey has remained tempered in voicing criticism over the treatment of Uighur Muslims in China.
Beijing is accused of grave human rights violations against the minority, including keeping many of them in concentration camps.
Turkey has raised concerns but nothing similar to its strong rhetoric against other countries, such as Israel, for their treatment of Muslims.
Experts say that Beijing’s top priorities are increasing trade and diversifying its energy resources for its growing economy.
In the future, Esen said, China’s goals could become more geopolitical to act as a counterweight to Washington.
“If China is going to become a major competitor to the US, of course they would want to have some kind of political influence over faraway regions and especially a region like [the] Middle East where Western countries, particularly the US, has been quite dominant for many, many decades,” he said.
Beijing has tried to ease concerns over its wide-sweeping infrastructure plans.
In 2018, Chinese President Xi Jinping said the Belt and Road Initiative was not a “Chinese plot” or “Chinese conspiracy.”
But some remain uneasy.
Dahshan said that when he was speaking with Egyptian government officials, there was uncertainty over what was China’s ultimate goal in the region.
“The main partners of China in the Middle East aren’t exactly sure what China is doing in the Middle East,” he said.