China's President Xi Jinping (L) listens to Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz as Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi looks on during their meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 16, 2017. Since that meeting China's status has grown in the region. Photo: AFP/Lintao Zhang

Shaking hands and signing deals from Abu Dhabi to Ankara, Tehran to Riyadh, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s recent Middle Eastern tour once again demonstrated China’s growing influence in the region.

Yet, while the trip saw some impressive numbers talked and important political statements made, the visit may have had more to do with a country many miles from the region: the United States.

Coming hot on the heels of angry exchanges between Chinese and US officials in Alaska last month, Wang Yi’s visit saw him go to the capitals of a number of countries also at odds with Washington.

“It was a win-win,” Aykan Erdemir, Senior Director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies in Washington DC, told Asia Times“China could signal to the US that it has substantial relations with Washington’s challengers and adversaries, while those countries could signal to the US that they have another option.”

Wang Yi’s six-country tour started on March 24 in Saudi Arabia, where he held talks with Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud in Riyadh.

He then met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, at NEOM, a brand-new city being built in the northwest of the Kingdom.

The visit saw further pledges of economic co-operation, building on the highly successful relationship between the two countries that have been growing since Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Riyadh back in 2016.

“Saudi Arabia wants to align its economic development plans with China’s and to get more Chinese investment and technology,” Jonathan Fulton, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, told Asia Times.

Yet, a major key moment in the visit was political, not economic.

At NEOM, Wang Yi and MBS both vowed to oppose “interference in the internal affairs of other countries” – a clear reference to growing international condemnation of China’s treatment of its Muslim, Uighur minority.

While Saudi Arabia often presents itself as a leader and protector of the Muslim world, “it too, has often been the subject of Western criticism for human rights abuses,” says Erdemir, giving Riyadh common ground with Beijing.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) greets Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi prior to their meeting in Ankara on March 25. Photo: AFP

Changing times

The Uighurs, however, are a much trickier issue in one of the next countries Wang Yi visited – Turkey.

Indeed, while the Chinese foreign minister was greeted with nothing but official praise elsewhere on his tour, in Ankara, there were also protests.

Back in 2009, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan even described China’s treatment of the Uighurs – who are related ethnically and linguistically to Turks – as “genocide”.

Since then, Turkey has become home to some 50,000 Uighur refugees.

During Wang Yi’s visit, many of these joined protests outside the Chinese embassy in Ankara.

Yet, “Erdogan’s perspective on the Uighurs has quite radical ups and downs,” says Erdemir, “and is shaped by pragmatic factors, rather than values or principles.”

With Turkey facing major economic woes – which are in turn eroding Erdogan’s popularity – Chinese investment is welcome.

In addition, with the Covid-19 pandemic now surging in Turkey, Ankara is very dependent on shipments of China’s Sinovac vaccine.

These factors were then leveraged for Wang Yi to secure a key Chinese political objective.

“If Erdogan, who sees himself as the defender of Turks and Muslims worldwide, expresses little or no problem with China’s treatment of the Uighurs,” says Erdemir, “this strengthens China’s hand. Beijing can say, ‘Well, if even Erdogan has no problem with it, why should anyone listen to the West’s complaints?’”

Indeed, while Turkish officials said they had raised the Uighur issue in private discussions with Wang Yi, his visit saw no more mention of “genocide.”

For its part, by entertaining Wang Yi, Turkey was able to show that in the midst of a wide range of disputes it has with Washington, “it can look elsewhere,” says Erdemir.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (R) receives his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in the capital Tehran on March 27, 2021. Photo: AFP

Going nuclear

On his tour, Wang Yi also visited Tehran, signing a $400 billion, 25-year Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) between China and the Islamic Republic.

This involves a pledge for further co-operation in transport, energy, telecommunications, tourism, defense and healthcare.

This “Partnership,” however, is nothing new.

The CSP was first put forward back in 2016, during the same visit to the region made by President Xi that took him to Saudi Arabia.

China also launched “strategic partnerships” with Riyadh and the UAE back then – yet, while those moved forwards, the one with Iran languished.

“With US President Trump’s election back then,” says Fulton, “China calculated that relations with the US were more important than relations with Iran, so they never put any muscle behind their deal with Tehran, concentrating on Saudi and the UAE instead.”

This 2016 China-Iran strategic partnership now forms the substance of the deal signed on March 27 by Wang Yi and his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif.

The terms of the CSP remain vague, though – with the Chinese Foreign Ministry even later describing it not as a “deal,” but a “roadmap.”

This hesitation is likely because “China has strong partnerships with countries that see Iran as an enemy,” says Fulton.

For Iran, though – facing major economic challenges from US sanctions and in conflict with many of its regional neighbors – “the only way left”, Zakiyeh Yazdanshenas, Research Fellow at the Centre for Middle East Strategic Studies in Tehran, told Asia Times, “is to take advantage as much as possible of the competition between the great powers – namely between China and the US.”

Wang Yi’s visit presented Tehran with an opportunity to send a message to Washington – and perhaps another international power, too – Moscow.

“As Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, recently said,” recalls Yazdanshenas, “‘Iran should stay in the middle of the China-Russia-US triangle’.”

Abbas Araghchi (C-R), a political deputy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran, and the Secretary-General of the European Union External Action Service Helga Schmid (C-L) attend a meeting of the Joint Commission on Iran’s nuclear program at the EU Delegation to the International Organizations office in Vienna, Austria, on February 26, 2020. Photo: AFP/Joe Klamar

Next steps

Atomic energy may be one area in which the Chinese foreign minister’s visit may now have an impact, too.

April 5 sees the signatories of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – the Iran nuclear deal – meet in Vienna.

Washington is now trying to re-join and revive the JCPOA, but Tehran wants to see US sanctions lifted before any return to the negotiating table – a position restated by Zarif on April 4 in a phone call with UK foreign minister Dominic Rabb.

China – a signatory to the JCPOA – “wants better relations with the US,” says Fulton, “and in the Middle East, Chinese and US interests are in reality quite aligned.”

With this in mind, “Iran could in fact be a perfect place to start developing a much more constructive relationship,” Fulton adds, “if only they could get past all the theatre.”