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The China-Mediterranean Observer: How China looks at the Med

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian in Wuxi on Jan 14, 2022. Image via Xinhua.

The most interesting articles published in Chinese media in August revolve around the future of the Iranian nuclear deal and, more broadly, Iran’s role in the Middle East. Chinese experts also commented on the end of France’s Operation Barkhane in Mali, as well as the rising great power competition in Africa. 

Palestine and Israel

As we reported many times in the past, Chinese scholars continue to complain about the marginalization of the Palestinian issue within Middle Eastern politics. They note how the Abraham Accords – a joint statement between the State of Israel, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and the United States, reached on August 13, 2020 – have been crucial in paving the way for an improvement in relations between Israel and many Arab countries despite them not providing any solutions to the problems of the Palestinians. Indeed, Chinese experts consistently criticized the Trump administration’s approach to the Palestinian issue, including its “Peace to Prosperity: A Vision to Improve the Lives of the Palestinian and Israeli People” plan. At the same time, they have long argued that the rationale behind the US’ promotion of the Abraham Accords was to increasing isolate and pressure Iran. 

Reflecting on how those events have changed the region, Liu Zhongmin and Ding Long, two scholars at Shanghai International Studies University (SISU), have each published an interesting article in The Paper and in the Global Times, respectively. According to Liu, it is time to revise the idea that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is the main contradiction of the region. The decline of the conflict’s relevance, which can be traced back to the 1979 Egypt–Israel peace treaty, has slowly become more evident, especially with the Trump administration which clearly pushed to decouple Arab-Israeli relations from Palestinian-Israeli relations.

Iran and the Nuclear Deal

Today, President Joe Biden is somehow trying to both revive the Iranian nuclear deal and promote a two-state solution along 1967 lines. However, as Chinese scholars have already pointed out following his recent trip to the region, the focus and energy of Biden’s foreign policy lies in East Asia. Therefore, he will not be able to reverse the trend of Iran’s status and role in the region becoming the main issue that drives regional politics. As to Ding Long, he made a similar argument pointing out that the “rise of Iranian power is one of the most important variables triggering geopolitical changes in the Middle East,” and that it is largely determining the actions of the other regional players.

It is against this background that, unsurprisingly, the majority of the articles published in August focused on the fate of the Iranian nuclear deal. Li Weijian, a senior Middle East expert at SISU, declared that “the restart of the Iranian nuclear deal is a major trend,” and that the more or less overt attempts to undermine the negotiations are evidence that an agreement has almost been reached. Fan Hongda, another frequent commentator on Iran-related issues, also expressed a cautious level of optimism. According to him, Iran is showing great flexibility though issues related to the role of the International Atomic Energy Agency are likely to still be a problem for American negotiators. That said, Chinese commentators remain extremely critical toward the United States, blaming it for creating a humanitarian crisis in Iran through sanctions, and for the looming energy crisis in Europe due it keeping Iran outside the energy market and its attempts to put pressure on Russia.


Similarly, Chinese experts continue to single out Turkey as an example of how Washington is failing to win the support from the countries in the region against Moscow, highlighting that Russo-Turkish trade has grown significantly as Turkey has started to sell to Russia many of the goods that Moscow once used to purchase from European countries.


At the same time, Chinese media also discussed the instability that continues to plague Iraq and, in the southern quadrant of the wider Mediterranean region, Mali. Niu Song, a researcher at SISU, told to China Business Networkthat Iraq’s political life has reached a pivotal moment in its post-Saddam era. According to him, the current conflict in Baghdad’s “green zone” reflects the growing incompatibility between the country’s deepening sectarian politics and its current political system, which further weakening the legitimacy of Iraqi electoral politics. While the Chinese embassy in Iraq has already warned all Chinese companies and organizations to be extremely cautious and to strengthen security measures, Niu believes that the situation will not improve in the foreseeable future.


As to Mali, the People’s Daily interviewed Yu Wensheng, a scholar at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations. Yu is also very pessimistic. The withdrawal of French forces will create an obvious security vacuum that risks being filled by terrorist forces, and it will also create significant challenges for the UN peacekeeping missions in the country as they have long benefitted from French logistical and air support. The regional situation, Yu concludes, will continue to get worse. 

Sub-Saharan Africa

Chinese commentators see another threat to regional stability also in the publication of the new “US Strategy toward Sub-Saharan Africa.” Both Zhang Yongpeng, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Science, and Zhong Sheng, the pen name used by the International Department of the People’s Daily, were extremely critical of the United States. Differently from China’s approach, the new American strategy, they argue, only pays lip service to Africa’s problem. As such, the United States not only has the same goals in Africa as in the Middle East, i.e. putting pressure on China and Russia, but its actions in the continent are also as equally doomed to fail.

The China-Mediterranean Observer: How the Med looks at China

This month, the debate in the wider Mediterranean region was inevitably shaped by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s controversial visit to Taiwan, which brought forth some interesting insights on the region’s different approaches to the ongoing and increasing rivalry between Washington and Beijing. In this context, it is relevant to note that many countries, especially those in the Middle East and the Greater Horn of Africa, also focused on their military and defense partnerships with China.


Against this background, the Turkish media outlet T24 reported on the expected meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, on September 15-16. Besides it being Xi’s first trip abroad since January 2020 and it taking place right before the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, T24 highlighted that the SCO, which “has evolved into a new type of regional comprehensive cooperation organization,” was founded to assist with Beijing’s security concerns, mainly related to the fight against terrorism. In this regard, T24 stated that: “Although the member states emphasize that the organization is not a defense cooperation pact, it would not be wrong to say that it is expected to play a facilitating role in military cooperation issues for China.” However, the Turkish ambassador to China stressed during the regular ambassadors’ meeting that the Uyghur issue remains the “most urgent question in Türkiye-China relations.” Although the renewed tensions between Beijing and Washington may push the former to “use any leverage” to win over the US’ traditional allies, the ambassador also stressed that the conditions set by China to resolve the dispute remain “impossible for Ankara to meet,” especially in light of the upcoming presidential elections in 2023.


Other countries seem to be supporting Beijing’s national security concerns, in particular on the Taiwan issue, to gain China’s assistance with their own territorial matters. For example, the Greek conservative newspaper Estia reported that, during the 55th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Summit in Cambodia, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias met with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi. While expressing Athens’ respect for the “One China” policy, saying that “Greece and China share a common language in the defense of sovereignty and territorial integrity and the preservation of the international order,” he also demanded that China take Greece’s side against Türkiye with regard to the territorial disputes in the Aegean islands. For his part, Wang Yi avoided making any commitment and, instead, simply highlighted Beijing’s appreciation for Athens’ “impartiality” and hoped for a more constructive Greek role in China-EU relations.


Similarly, an article published by the French-language media outlet L’Opinion suggested that, although investments and economic engagement in strategic development projects, such as Tangier Tech, in the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) remain the major driver of Sino-Morocco exchanges, Rabat might ask China to play a more decisive diplomatic role in the region. In fact, L’Opinion openly stated that the Kingdom’s adherence to the One China policy should make Beijing change its position on the Western Sahara question.


As mentioned above, the media outlets of many countries in the region dedicated much space to Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan and their countries’ support for China’s position. However, the debate in Israel may present the most interesting insights. Brigadier General Assaf Orion, Head of the Diane and Guilford Glazer Foundation for Israel-China Policy at the INSS, and former Head of the Strategic Division in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), writing for Wallah stated that “the events in Taiwan have the potential to significantly impact Israel’s national security.” This is because the tensions between the two superpowers are likely to bring about increased US pressure on Tel Aviv to scale down its partnership with Beijing, especially concerning military, defense and technology cooperation. At the same time, however, Matan Vilnai, former Israeli ambassador to China and former minister in the Israeli government, stressed that China has no interest in an all-out war against the United States over Taiwan because it would hinder its economic and strategic interests in the region. Therefore, Vilnai believes that Israel should not compromise its relations with an important partner such as China over a question that “does not concern itself,” since Tel Aviv has no relevant ties with Taiwan. 


The Baghdad-based news website al-Hall reported that, following a series of Israeli air attacks on Iran-backed targets in Syria, China seems to have increased its cooperation with Damascus on the reconstruction of military sites and on defense issues. Similarly to several Israeli high-ranking sources who stressed the urgency of this matter to Tel Aviv, researcher Saddam al-Jasser expects tensions between Israel and China to escalate in the next months. However, he believes that Israel will not risk an open confrontation with Beijing in Syria because it would also involve Iran, Russia and, possibly, the United States.


Military cooperation with Beijing was also the main topic of the debate in Sudan following the news of the possible purchase of J-10CE combat aircraft from China. According to Sudanese military sources, Khartoum views Beijing as a strategic partner able to supply its defense needs, especially in light of the Western arms embargo on the country. Deputy Chief of Staff Muhammad Bashir Suleiman stressed that his country, and most of the countries in the Greater Horn of Africa, finds itself in the midst of a “new Cold War” between China and the United States. He also highlighted that the states of the region seem more inclined to conclude arms deals with China, and to a lesser extent Russia, rather than the US, as Beijing supplies more advanced equipment and offers logistical support and training. The Vice President of the Sudanese Veterans Association, Brigadier General Maash Al-Sir Ahmed Saeed added that military cooperation with China is also important to secure a diversified portfolio of partnerships. Developments in China’s engagement in the Horn are also relevant with regard to debate in the region over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). According to Somali sources, the emergence of terrorist groups connected to al-Shabab along the border between Somalia and Ethiopia could, if left unchecked, lead to a change of leadership in Addis Ababa bringing it to lean more towards the United States rather than towards China.

Saudi Arabia

Diversification of partnerships continues to be a topic of discussion also in Saudi media, with the rumors of Xi Jinping’s fictitious trip to Saudi Arabia highlighting the considerable increase in trade between the two countries. Saudi expert in international trade Dr. Fawaz al-Alami signaled that Saudi Arabia’s non-oil exports to China rose 31% to 86 billion riyals in the second quarter of 2022, while total exports grew by 85% to 430 billion riyals. This is thanks to a significant increase in industrial production, as well as to the disturbances in the global markets caused by the war in Ukraine, which pushed several countries in the Middle East and Asia, above all China, to increase their imports from the Kingdom.

Saudi-American Relations

Interestingly enough, the conservative Iranian newspaper Iran suggested that this improvement in Sino-Saudi relations should be read in light of a cooling down in Saudi-American relations. According to the newspaper, there are political reasons behind the tensions between Washington and Riyadh, in particular the Biden administration’s criticisms regarding the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and Riyadh’s ambiguous position vis-à-vis Russia on the conflict in Ukraine. Moreover, the declining importance of US-Saudi energy exchanges over the past few years has led Saudi Arabia to move toward Beijing to secure its national interests concerning not only oil exports, but also maritime security along the Aden-Red Sea corridor and military cooperation, especially in relation to ballistic missiles.

Iran and the Nuclear Deal

For its part, Iranian media shared some doubts on China, mainly regarding its role in the nuclear deal negotiations. Ferdowsi University’s professor Fatemeh Mahrouq, for example, linked China’s “passive role” in the negotiations to the cautious nature of its diplomacy. However, he also stated that Beijing itself may be worried about Iran’s nuclear program but “prefers to let others do the job” to maintain stable relations with all the actors involved. Moreover, Mahrouq suggested that China may not want to reach a final agreement because it would entail a significant Iranian rapprochement with the United States, which may run against its interests in the context of the increasing tension between the two superpowers and Tehran’s reliance on its energy exports to China to bypass sanctions. It could be relevant to note here that there has also been a heated debate between the conservative newspaper Iran and the Tehran Chamber of Commerce (TCC) surrounding the actual figures of Iran’s oil exchanges with China. As the statistics on oil exchanges are kept confidential by both the Iranian and Chinese governments, sources for such data may vary greatly: the figures reported by the TCC, based on data from the General Administration of Customs of China (GACC), are significantly inferior (between 20 and 30 thousand barrels in the first five months of 2022) to those reported by other international institutions and media such as OPEC, Reuters, Oil Price and the Kepler Institute (around 600 thousand barrels in the same period). The newspaper suggested that the data may be being used as a political and diplomatic tool by the two countries to support their stances against the United States.


In any case, the perceived alliance between Iran and China continues to play an important role also in Iraq’s ongoing political crisis. Several political researchers and activists claimed that “Foreign companies, specifically Korean, Italian and German companies operating in southern Iraq, have been threatened by armed factions and militias linked to Iran on behalf of Chinese companies in Iraq.” Although these allegations remain unverified, it is interesting to note that political analyst Muhammad al-Jammal confirmed that “The forces of the Coordination Framework [a coalition of Shiite political forces mostly anti-Sadrist] stipulated that to have their support, Muhammad Shia’a al-Sudani, the new candidate to head the Iraqi government, must revitalize the ‘Chinese agreement’.” According to al-Jammal and as we have reported in the past months, pro-Iranian militias and political forces have not been satisfied by the steps taken by former Prime Minister al-Kadhimi regarding the implementation of the “oil-for reconstruction deal” and are pushing to revive the original agreement signed in 2019, “which allows Beijing to expand its investments, especially in oil fields, housing projects, roads and bridges.”

European Union

We conclude this issue of the ChinaMed Observer with the point of view of Grzegorz Stec, the founder of the EU-China Hub and contributor to Le Monde, on the diplomatic openings by Chinese officials towards the European Union in preparation of the G20 Bali Summit on November 15-16. According to Stec, European countries should welcome China’s efforts to reach a rapprochement, especially if related to the “communal fight against the repercussions of the war in Ukraine,” and if they point to stronger cooperation in international fora. However, the European Union should be aware that only Xi Jinping can effectively “change the course of the diplomatic apparatus of the People’s Republic of China” and that this will depend on the outcome of the 20th Party Congress. Keeping this in mind, the analyst suggested that a real change in Sino-European interactions is unlikely, as the divergences that caused the degradation of relations, such as the economic measures against Lithuania over its position on Taiwan, China’s continuing economic and political exchanges with Russia, and the Uyghur situation, remain.

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