Does China’s Middle East diplomacy aim at an ‘anti-human rights’ camp?

China has begun to take action to strengthen its ties with Middle Eastern countries, using its economic cooperation as leverage. The aim of this move is obvious — countering pressure from Western nations over its human rights issues. There are concerns about further destabilization in the Middle East.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited six countries in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Oman. Wang reiterated that Western nations keep using human rights as an excuse to deprive non-Western countries of their right to develop. He agreed with the countries visited on the principle of opposing any form of interference in other countries’ domestic affairs.

The tour came just after Western nations announced their sanctions against China over its suppression of the Uighur ethnic minority in the country. China apparently intends to spread its self-righteous belief that the views of human rights held by some Western countries do not represent those of the international community, by showing solidarity with Middle Eastern countries.

Respect for human rights is a principle established internationally by the U.N. Charter and others, and China’s counterargument about “interference in domestic affairs” makes no sense.

Before now, China had been reluctant to engage in diplomacy in the Middle East, fearing that it would become mired in regional issues. During his tour, however, Wang promoted China’s stance of engaging in pending issues, such as the civil war in Syria, peace in the Middle East and Iran’s nuclear program, and its aim to play a leading role in regional stability.

It is especially alarming that China has signed a comprehensive 25-year pact with regional power Iran. The pact will center on China’s large investment in Iran and Iran’s supply of crude oil and natural gas to China.

China and Iran are in the same position in opposing the United States. China seemed to have judged that it should expand its influence in the Middle East for the purpose of gaining an advantage in its struggle for supremacy with the United States as well as securing energy supplies.

Democratization in the Middle East has not progressed, as authoritarian rule by militaries and royal families has continued in the region. Due to the prolonged slump in crude oil prices, there is an urgent need for countries there to change their economic structure. There is a good possibility that these countries could keep their distance from Western nations and lean toward China.

The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden needs to quickly reorganize its Middle East strategy. The policies promoted by the previous administration led by former President Donald Trump, including the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Middle East, the withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and an excessive emphasis on Israel, have weakened the U.S. presence in the region and left room open for China to enter.

The first step toward the recovery of the U.S. presence in the region will be a return to the Iran nuclear deal. The nuclear agreement, which centers on restrictions on Iran’s nuclear development and the lifting of U.S. sanctions on Iran, is indispensable for regional stability. Both countries must accelerate dialogue.

The turmoil in the Middle East will cause civil wars, the spread of terrorism and an increase in the number of refugees, which will deal a serious blow to the entire world. It must be said that China’s action to make the Middle East a new arena for the U.S.-China conflict in order to fend off criticism against its human rights suppression is a risky endeavor.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on April, 8, 2021.