We start this issue of the ChinaMed Observer reporting on the visit to Iran made by the Chinese Minister of Defence, Wei Fenghe. During the visit on April 27th Wei met with several high-ranking Iranian officials, including President Seyed Ebrahim Raisi, Minister of Defense General Mohammad-Reza Gharayi Ashtiani, and the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces Major General Mohammad Bagheri, to discuss the expansion of military cooperation between the two countries. As reported by Iran, Iranian policymakers shared their concerns about “the growing trend of security crises in the world, many of which are rooted in the West’s expansionist and hegemonic policies and the exploitation of security gaps in the world,” stressing that the strengthening of military and economic cooperation between Iran and China — “two independent and like-minded countries” — is needed to efficiently counter US hegemony and unilateralism, as well to fight against terrorism.
Against this background, the Emirati think-tank, Emirati Policy Centre (EPC), published a note on the repercussions of Wei’s visit on the trilateral relations between Tehran, Washington, and Beijing. Mohammad Fayez Farahat, the author of this study, underlines that the timing of this encounter is of particular importance as it coincided with yet another stalemate in the negotiations on the Iranian nuclear deal and with the war in Ukraine. The expansion of Iran-China military cooperation, and especially the increase of Chinese arms sales to Tehran, would as written by Farahat, “put the Iranian negotiator in a strong position vis-à-vis the US administration,” while also adding pressure on Washington to start the process of normalization between the two countries to distance Iran from China. At the same time, this visit demonstrates Beijing’s readiness to strengthen military partnerships with countries at odds with the United States, thereby undermining the American sphere of influence.
Noteworthy developments also took place in China-Israel relations after the General Security Service opened an investigation on some thermal cups gifted by the Chinese embassy to several Israeli ministries claiming that they contained listening devices. Although this issue seems to be resolved, this investigation shows how especially alert Israel is, as well as how low the level of trust in China is. Nonetheless, journalists Karis Whitty and Tommy Shteiner with the newspaper Maariv suggested that, given the recent improvements in Arab-Israeli relations through the summits at Sharm el-Sheykh and Sde Boker and the signing of a free-trade agreement with the United Arab Emirates, Tel Aviv is likely to push for a rapprochement with China to limit its support to the Palestinians and Iranians. However, Whitty and Shteiner remind us that it still remains to be seen what the outcomes of the Negev Summit will be as “the discourse on the ‘new regional architecture’” proposed by Israel might sound like “another case of an American-led regional coalition seeking to harm China” for policymakers in Beijing. This view is also shared by Palestinian thinkers. For example, ʿAdnan Abu ʿAmer drew the same conclusions, adding that Israel is also likely to exploit the “Digital Silk Road” to expand its regional influence.
In any case, the global increase in commodity prices and the crisis in the oil market seem to cause some problems between China and a number of countries in the region. In particular, the Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet Gazetesi reported that some Turkish companies, which have suffered heavy losses due to the high prices of raw materials such as aluminum, zinc, copper, and iron, have been defrauded by the Chinese company Inner Mongolia Junsai Chemicals. The ongoing investigation involves more than ten Turkish companies and is being followed by the Turkish Exporters Assembly, the Turkish Embassy in Beijing, and the Turkish Chamber of Commerce in China.
Oil continues to be the driving force of Sino-Iraqi relations. Once again Iraqi officials —this time the official spokesman for the Cabinet Secretariat Haydar Majid – confirmed that the Iraq-China framework agreement has entered into force and that there are more than 200 infrastructure projects listed to be implemented in the Dhi Qar governorate in southern Iraq in 2022. However, Iraq’s political instability following the parliamentary elections of October 2021 may pose some obstacles in the development of relations between Beijing and Baghdad. As we mentioned last month, the parliamentary opposition continues to call on Iraq’s highest judicial institutions to re-examine the decisions made by the caretaker government, especially with regard to contracts signed with foreign entities.
Muhammad Shayaa al-Sudani, a member of the House of Representatives and Secretary-General of the Euphrates Movement, a minor leftist party, denounced the government, specifically the Prime Minister and the Minister of Oil, for helping the Chinese consortium CITIC to win the contract for the strategic Basra-Aqaba pipeline. Al-Sudani claimed that this move was a “flagrant violation of the law” because this project was not examined in its specifics and ratified by the Cabinet. At the same time, the high cost of the project (9 billion dollars) does not serve national interests, especially since a lower offer was presented by another Chinese company under the “oil-for-reconstruction” agreement.
Interestingly, Humam Hammoudi, the president of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a political party affiliated with the pro-Iran Fateh Coalition, seems keen to appease any Chinese concerns regarding the political situation in Baghdad, claiming that Iraqi political forces will be completely able to resolve their disputes through dialogue.
Horn of Africa
Media outlets throughout the wider Mediterranean region also focused on the African continent, the developments of its relations with China, and their impact on international competition. Ahmad Askar, an Egyptian scholar of African Affairs with the EPC, discussed the announcement made by the Chinese special envoy to the Horn of Africa on March 19th regarding Beijing’s intention to sponsor the first peace conference in the Horn of Africa this year. According to Askar, this initiative would assist Chinese efforts to support regional security based on strengthening governance, stability, and development. He argues that China’s interests originate from the region’s geostrategic importance and that it is crucial for China to increase its soft power in the Horn of Africa because it needs to secure its economic interests and influence, and increase the support from its partners with regard to the “One China” principle. Askar believes that these efforts are likely to be successful in eliciting a positive response to Beijing’s initiatives throughout the continent. They are also likely to push African leaders to rely on China as “an acceptable mediator to most parties.” However, this could intensify the competition with other international players, especially the United States but also those European countries with historical ties with Africa, to the detriment of the African parties.
Moreover, Muhammad Hasb al-Rusul, writing for al-Mayadeen, revealed that after the Chinese envoy’s visit to Sudan some media organizations circulated statements attributed to a high-ranking diplomatic source with regard to an alleged Chinese proposal to form an organization with the name of the “Union of the States of the Horn of Africa.” This organization would include Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, and South Sudan, and would be aimed at enhancing economic, political, and security cooperation. This proposal would also include “a currency union, the establishment of railways and transportation links between the capitals of these countries, and the freedom of movement within the borders of this union.” Hasb al-Rusul agrees with Askar on the response that China would get from its African partner to this proposal. In addition, he also suggests that the timing of this announcement is significant as “the West may be unable to face two wars at the same time: the war in Ukraine and a political and economic one in Africa”. Against this background, the Chinese ambassador to Mogadishu has officially denied the accusations made by General Stephen Townsend, commander of the U.S. Africa Command, regarding China’s alleged plans to establish a military base in Somalia.
We conclude this issue of the ChinaMed Observer by mentioning the article published by the Spanish newspaper La Razón on Morocco’s National Office of Electricity and Potable Water (ONEE) choosing a consortium of Chinese companies (CRRC Dalian, CACS, and Zhongtian Huineng) to operate and maintain the Tangier-Dhar Saadane wind farm, considered the largest in Africa. The three-year contract consists of monitoring and operation activities, as well as training courses for ONEE personnel on equipment maintenance and repair. This event is seen as further evidence of China’s increasing competitiveness in countries and markets that were usually dominated by European companies.
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