As China faces sanctions from the West, it looks to the Middle East for alliance and influence

Shi Jiangtao
·5-min read

Beijing is trying to beat back a new wave of international sanctions over alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang, with its Foreign Minister Wang Yi lavishing praise on Saudi Arabia for supporting China‘s policies towards Xinjiang.

Kick-starting his week-long tour of six Middle Eastern countries on Wednesday, Wang said China would prioritise its relations with the Middle East in its quest for support and greater influence in the region.

His remarks came as China’s wrangling with Western countries escalated this week after the European Union, the United States, Britain and Canada took a rare, coordinated move on Monday to punish Chinese officials and entities over Beijing’s crackdown on Muslim Uygurs.

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“The sanctions imposed by a few Western countries on China over the Xinjiang-related issues based on elaborately fabricated lies are blatant interference in China’s internal affairs which aims to suppress and contain China,” Wang told Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, according to China’s foreign ministry. “Such acts should be jointly rejected by all other countries.”

During another meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the Chinese diplomat stressed Beijing’s appreciation for the Islamic kingdom’s repeated support on Xinjiang and Hong Kong. He vowed to support Riyadh’s leadership role in the region, including the Saudi initiative to end the conflict in Yemen, and pledged to deepen bilateral cooperation on regional issues, trade, investment, infrastructure and new technologies, such as 5G and big data.

“Saudi Arabia is an important strategic partner of China and advancing bilateral ties remains a priority for China’s Middle East policies,” Wang was quoted as telling the crown prince.

For the past two years, Saudi Arabia, among other Muslim countries and traditional US allies that host American military bases in the Middle East, has largely remained silent on China’s alleged atrocities in Xinjiang and voiced support for Beijing on Xinjiang and Hong Kong at the United Nations.

According to Wu Sike, China’s former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, although Riyadh was the last Arab country to establish formal ties with Beijing in 1990, bilateral cooperation has expanded rapidly – including on energy, infrastructure, technology, security and human rights.

China is Saudi Arabia’s top trading partner and biggest oil buyer. According to the Chinese government data, Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, overtook Russia to become China’s top crude supplier last year despite the coronavirus pandemic and global economic downturn.

Wang’s trip came at a delicate moment in Riyadh’s relationship with Washington under President Joe Biden. As the Biden administration recalibrates America’s complicated relations with the state, its renewed focus on human rights violations by the Saudi regime, especially the killing of dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi has already strained bilateral ties.

Li Chengwen, another former Chinese ambassador to Riyadh, said in an article published this month that Washington’s policy shift, especially its attempt to isolate the powerful crown prince, might induce changes in the Saudi attitude towards the US and further complicate the Middle East situation.

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In contrast, in recent years, China has openly embraced the controversial crown prince, who during a visit to Beijing in 2019 met President Xi Jinping and secured lucrative trade agreements totalling US$28 billion. Xi told Salman that China was a “good friend and partner to Saudi Arabia”, while the crown prince voiced support for the Belt and Road Initiative and China’s counterterrorism efforts in Xinjiang.

During his meeting with Wang Yi on Wednesday, Salman spoke highly of China’s “conducive role” in maintaining global peace and stability and pledged to boost anti-terrorism and security cooperation with Beijing, according to the statement posted online by the Chinese foreign ministry.

“Saudi Arabia firmly supports China’s legitimate position on the issues related to Xinjiang and Hong Kong, opposes interfering in China’s internal affairs under any pretext and rejects the attempt by certain parties to sow dissension between China and the Islamic world,” he was quoted as saying.

However, China’s close ties with Iran, an arch-rival of Saudi Arabia, may challenge Beijing’s efforts to draw Riyadh and other Arab countries closer to its orbit, according to the country’s former ambassador to Tehran, Hua Liming. Iran is among the six countries Wang will visit later this week.

While traditional American allies may face the almost impossible decision to pick sides in the intensifying rivalry between China and the US, Beijing also needs to strike a delicate balance in fostering better relations with both Iran and Saudi Arabia.

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With US-China relations in deep decline, China was more interested in expanding its presence among countries traditionally seen as Washington’s sphere of influence and was fully capable of playing a more active role in regional affairs, such as the Iran nuclear issue, Hua said.

“How far Beijing’s relations with Tehran would go may largely depend on the future of US-China relations. China, at the same time, would also have to be very sensitive to how other regional powers, particularly Saudi Arabia and Israel, see China’s closeness to Iran,” he said.

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