In history, 2020 will mark the year when the novel Corona Virus, firstly identified in Wuhan, China, extended worldwide to become a pandemic.
So far, it infected over 16.5 million and over 650.000 souls perished. After an allegedly faulty initial response, marked by a lack of transparency and silencing whistle-blowers, China's diplomatic machine soon went into overdrive extending foreign aid to over 150 countries, making substantial donations to World Health Organisation and holding video conferences to share clinical data and procedures. China's Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, vehemently rejected allegations that linked the Chinese aid efforts to geopolitical and economic opportunism. On the other hand, Western media reported China's behaviour as an advancement of its influence, seeking to gain political and economic leverage, while professing aid.
Middle East and North Africa (MENA) displayed a different attitude toward China, however. Deeply marked by the previous outbreak of the Ebola virus, which China helped to combat in the framework of its South-South Cooperation, MENA appreciated the Chinese efforts and created the premises for an upgraded cooperation.
Truth be told, a Chinese call for such an upgraded cooperation predated the virus. In line with the previously iterated Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), in 2015, President Xi Jinping gave a speech at the Boao Forum for Asia where he called for a "Community of Shared Destiny". The concept hinted at a Kantian-like "perpetual peace", where zero-sum games are replaced by a constructive(ist) view of the world, based on harmony. The concept has been internationally codified by the adoption of the "Social Dimensions of the New Partnership for Africa's Development" at the 55th United Nations Commission for Social Development, mirroring the concept's recognition, especially in the South-South Cooperation Framework.
In the aftermath of the pandemic, China extended the concept by creating a new dimension, i.e. a "global health community" (although media frequently described it as "mask diplomacy"). In fact, China's cooperation with developing countries in medical matters is nothing new, on the contrary. Since the 1940s, China received doctors from other socialist countries, who contributed in the name of socialist brotherhood. One of them, Dr. Bucur Clejan, the author's co-national, had a mausoleum erected in Shanghai to honour his outstanding contributions. China reciprocated the support and, starting with the 1960s, sent doctors and established clinics abroad, mostly in African countries, yet in the name of the same solidarity.
2020 thus found China's relations with the MENA countries - most of which are found in the South-South Cooperation framework - in excellent condition. In the ambit of China's sui generis diplomacy, Comprehensive Strategic Partnerships have been signed with Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates. Strategic Partnerships have included Djibouti, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman, Qatar and Sudan. Turkey has been placed under the ambit of a Strategic Cooperation relationship, while a new framework has been developed for Israel, namely Innovative Comprehensive Relationship. As a matter of fact, the current framework places both the Arab and non-Arab states in the Middle East under an enhanced relationship, which helped China project its soft-power in the region, despite the on-going conflicts among the regional actors.
While the medical aid sent by China to MENA countries seems rather a function of the actual needs of the countries under discussion, than an expression of the partnership/ cooperation type, it has been generally well received and appreciated. A minor exception is the case of Turkey, where medical supplies showcased an image of the biblical Ararat Mountain, a territory which Turkey claims from neighbouring Armenia. Though the mishap initially angered Ankara, it was soon diffused by China.
In Algeria, the pandemic created the premises for enhanced cooperation. Besides medical supplies, the country under discussion similarly received a Chinese medical team consisting of 13 doctors and 8 virologists to provide direct assistance. The North African country already enjoyed long-lasting relations with China and expressed gratitude for the aid it received. This lays down the premises for further Chinese investment, as the country is battling a protracted political, economic and social crisis. While Algeria has already refused IMF loans, the chances are China will provide the much-needed financial arrangements for the country's much hoped for economic recovery.
Affected by harsh economic sanctions, Iran may offer China a golden opportunity in the Middle East. The Islamic Republic received, inter alia, over 15 tons of medical supplies and 500 fully furnished rooms to serve the infected patients. A comprehensive economic agreement would assure China's energy security and consolidate its soft power projection in the region.
In Jordan, the Minister of Planning and International Cooperation acknowledged that the aid China delivered during the pandemic showcases Beijing's commitment to supporting Jordan, especially during difficult times. The value of aid Jordan received from China has been estimated to be over 1.2 millions US$. At the same time, the Jordanian pundits proposes extending the Chinese infrastructure-related projects in the area.
For Lebanon, a participating country in the BRI, the Chinese support in combating the Covid-19 effects, will likely translate into sustained infrastructure investment. China donated Lebanon over 1 million masks and more than 3000 testing kits.
While Morocco has been a traditional ally of the United States in the region, it manifested its willingness for a strengthened cooperation in "public health, culture and other fields" with China. Four cargo flights were needed to transport China’s donations to the Northern African country.
The case of Palestine represents one of China's notable successes in diplomacy, whereas the diplomatic relations with both Israel and Palestine are not being regarded as a zero-sum game. In the light of the Covid-19 crisis, Palestine expressed its gratitude for the Chinese aid after receiving a team of 10 doctors, medical equipment and 10.000 testing kits. While it is less likely that China will develop major infrastructure projects in the area, the Sino-Palestinian relations clearly impact positively China's soft power projection in the entire Middle East.
Despite the excellent political and military cooperation between Saudi Arabia and the United States, the former chose to openly criticize the United States for its derogatory remarks over the Chinese handling of the epidemic. On the other hand, China was commended for handling the virus and helping other countries follow its footsteps. A Chinese team of 8 doctors visited Saudi Arabia to offer medical assistance and supply worth 265 million US$ have been donated to the Gulf countries.
While there is no end in sight for the Syrian crisis, its need for reconstruction along with the help provided by China will most likely generate further Chinese investments and loans. At the time, Syria appears to have received little support from China (2000 testing kits and other medical supplies).
While other countries have adopted a rather inward-looking position, China adapted its diplomatic efforts to the current pandemic state. Such a dynamic has undeniably provided it with a reinforced image in the Middle East, an image associated with dependability, consistency and commitment. Of course, China is not alone in this game, but rather a newcomer. United States, despite the recent twists and turns, remains a traditional provider of humanitarian aid. European Union, who took great strides in mitigating the immigration crisis in MENA, has also launched an MENA Covid-19 aid package worth 20 million euros ("Team Europe").
In history, 2020 will certainly mark the year when the novel Corona Virus, firstly identified in China, extended worldwide. Whether it will also mark the year of China's ascendancy in the MENA power-play, is yet to be seen. Power-play apart, an international competition on humanitarian grounds can only be welcomed.
* The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the official policy, position or view of the Romanian Institute for Europe-Asia Studies - IRSEA or any of its partners.