China’s leader Xi Jinping opened the country’s 20th Party Congress, which is widely seen as cementing his unprecedented rule and also continuing to support China’s “zero-Covid” policy and its tensions with the West. Much remains to be seen in terms of what the congress will mean in the future and whether China will move away from its policies, which have brought isolation; and it also remains to be seen what the meaning of China’s decisions have for the Middle East.
According to reports China’s leader will stay in power for a third term. This is a break with the past and is leading some to compare Jinping to Mao Zedong, the Communist leader whose role lead to the China we know today. CNN reports that Xi “on Sunday vowed to steer China through grave challenges toward national rejuvenation, advancing a nationalistic vision that has put it on a collision path with the West.”
Strength and power
This was a Congress that was all about strength and power and continuing along the path China has chosen. That path is quite different than the one we might have thought was possible two decades ago. It wasn’t so long ago that the West wanted to work with China and key western leaders saw a future in a China-led world order. In fact the prophets of globalization and neo-liberal agendas generally wanted the West to outsource most of its manufacturing and other sectors to China. While the West moved toward tackling climate change and getting rid of “fossil” fuels, everyone seemed to support China continuing to be one of the world’s largest polluters. The logic was that China needed to continue along its path of increased emission until 2065, while the rest of the world would be going green. In short, the goal of the West was to make everyone dependent on China. From toys to clothing to electronics, it was all made in China.
Those who warned about this policy were seen as racists or xenophobes, nationalists and ignoramuses. In the Middle East it was clear that China was the rising power. The Belt and Road Initiative was meant to knit the region into China’s rising power. Countries like Israel and the UAE, now members of the Abraham Accords, wanted more trade and work with China.
However, that has all changed now. Recent US national security policy sees China as an adversary; and specifically a “near-peer” adversary. That means the US wants to shift from the global war on terror and “counter-terrorism” to countering China. It also wants to counter Russia. This has meant that Middle Eastern partners of the West have been asked to reduce their China entanglements. This was accelerated in recent years as China did outreach to Iran, and as Russia invaded Ukraine; and the Covid pandemic interrupted international travel.
China has now become more cut off from the world. It’s zero-Covid policies mean lockdowns are constantly a concern; global supply chains are being disrupted and many countries think they can’t rely on China now.
Xi thinks that the last half-decade of his rule has been “highly unusual and extraordinary,” he said this week. But China believes it is doing the right things to “protect people’s lives and health.” It’s not entirely clear if the leadership believes this or if they are merely saying this as an excuse to use pandemic policies to increase control. Most of the rest of the world has judged that “zero-Covid” doesn’t work. In fact the rest of the world has abandoned Covid tests before travel and masks and vaccine mandates. Unlike the West, China has generally continued to do the same thing from the beginning. China used lockdowns and masks early on and sold the world on the idea that “two weeks” could “slow the spread.” This was the conclusion of the joint WHO-China study in late February 2020, when a report made it seem China was successful against the Covid outbreak. However, the reality is that the pandemic spread all around the world and key western institutions, including the WHO, didn’t warn the world fast enough.
Thus, China’s apparent “success” lured the world into a false sense of what was possible. When the West put its faith in vaccines, China continued to do what it was doing before; it didn’t see vaccines as the solution. There are still many lingering questions about the initial outbreak and how western governments and scientists were working with China prior to the outbreak and didn’t seem prepared for the very thing they had been studying in places like Wuhan. Oddly, years after the pandemic began, it’s still not clear how and why it started. This isn’t like the movies, where they always find some patient “zero” and figure it out at the end.
Beijing is cut off
All of this, combined with current tensions between the US and China, and the West and China, mean that Beijing is more cut off today from the West; but it is working with Russia and other countries. China is clearly willing to work at international forums, like the UN, to hedge its bets on conflicts like the one in Ukraine.
When Russia’s war on Ukraine began some imagined China might use this opportunity to pressure Taiwan. Indeed, Chinese aircraft have increased patrols of Taiwan. China was angered by US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi visiting Taiwan as well. North Korea has now been increasing its threats and missile tests. China’s Congress showed that pressure on Taiwan will increase. But the West may have learned from the Ukraine conflict and this could motivate support for Taiwan. There are some isolationists in the West; and some appeasers or people that perhaps work for think tanks that quietly lobby for China; but overall the West has awakened to the challenges posed by China. This matters to the Middle East because today the US wants its partners to stop flirting with Russia and China. But the US isn’t necessarily providing security guarantees in exchange. The recent tensions between Washington and Riyadh prove this point; the US wants Riyadh to do what Washington says; but it also doesn’t want to call Saudi Arabia a full “ally,” and therefore Saudi Arabia will hedge its bets. Other countries are hedging as well; including Turkey, Iran and Iraq. Turkey, for instance, attended the SCO meetings in Uzbekistan and the recent CICA meetings in Kazakhstan. These meetings bring together China, Russia and other Central Asian countries and authoritarians. This is a profoundly anti-western group; and the Turkey is now at the heart of it.
Therefore the China Congress matters to the Middle East because it shows that China will continue down the same path it has been on for the foreseeable future. That means a more muscular robust nationalism in Beijing and continued confrontation with the West. This will drive inflation and supply chain problems; and could also affect other policies, including pandemic policies and global health issues; and international forums; as well as the rules-based US-led international order. Today those who backed globalization and a neo-liberal world order are watching it be dismantled; those who saw US companies all moving to China for business are now seeing western companies more concerned about their Chinese counterparts. The Middle East is drawing the same conclusion, but key countries in the region are not willing to join the US in disentangling themselves from Beijing.