April 2023

China looks at the Mediterranean Region
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In April, the discussion among Chinese experts and commentators still revolved around what Chinese media have begun calling the “Beijing agreement” (animated by its own characteristic “Beijing spirit”) reached in mid-March. In the aftermath of the meeting between the Saudi and Iranian foreign ministers in early April, the focus shifted towards analyzing the agreement’s regional implications and the potential factors that could undermine its success. Unsurprisingly, Chinese analysts identified American actions as the main threat to peace. Beyond that, Chinese media also published a few articles on the situation in Sudan.

Tang Zhichao, a senior expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told Xinhua that the reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran will not only facilitate the de-escalation in Yemen, but will also result in numerous positive effects in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. Thus, it “will have a profound impact on the situation in the Middle East.” [1] This perspective has quickly gained popularity among Chinese experts under the name “reconciliation wave,” with it being used to highlight China’s distinct approach to the region in stark contraposition to that of the United States. [2]

Yet, amidst the prevailing optimism, there are also voices who urge caution. Li Yanan, an expert at the Middle East Studies Institute of Middle East Studies of the China Institutes of Contemporary Institute of International Relations, expressed to The Beijing News that discussing a permanent ceasefire in Yemen may be premature: “the easing of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran will not allow Yemen to end the conflict and achieve full reconciliation overnight” because both the Iranian-supported Houthis and the Saudi-backed internationally recognized Yemeni government will likely resist making concessions. [3]

Ding Long, a scholar based at Shanghai International Studies University (SISU), also emphasized that “the agreement reached between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis is only the beginning of the peace process in Yemen, and that there is still a long way to go before a final settlement. Mutual trust between the two sides remains fragile, and subsequent disagreements over political arrangements are bound to arise in the future.” That said, Ding also expressed his belief that “the United States-provoked confrontation between the camps in the Middle East is an important reason behind Yemen’s descent into the abyss of proxy war.” [4] Looking into the future, he and Li Shaoxian, the director of the China Institute for Arab Studies at Ningxia University, agreed that Washington is “the biggest loser at the level of major powers and external forces.” [5] Wen Shaobiao, a researcher at SISU, echoed this sentiment regarding American involvement in Syria. [6] Therefore, these Chinese scholars predicted that the United States will do to its utmost to prevent change in the region. Moreover, there was also speculation that Israel, given its alliance with the United States and tumultuous domestic politics, will also likely to try to sabotage the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement. [7] 

Ding Long, however, stated that China’s involvement will prevent any sudden reversal of the positive trajectory set by the “Beijing Agreement” in the immediate future. [8] In general, it seems that Chinese experts are increasingly confident in China’s ability to shape regional trends, especially due to Middle Eastern countries’ hope that Beijing can bring stability to the region. This sentiment is one of the main reasons identified by SISU’s Zhao Jun as being behind Saudi Arabia’s decision to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as a dialogue partner. [9] According to him, this move will also have significant ripple effects throughout the region, in particular it will increase the attractiveness of the China and Russia-led organization in the Middle East. Zhao was also straightforward in asserting that the SCO’s expansion in the region will help Beijing and Moscow further “hedge against American pressure” in a true win-win fashion for all parties involved.

It is against this background that Fudan University’s Sun Degang argued that "there are three levels of relationship between China and the United States: cooperation, competition and struggle. In the Middle East, the relationship should mainly be about cooperation," though he also stressed that it necessary a change in the American attitude for that to happen. [10] According to him, it will be difficult to “bypass the United States” for those who want to solve the Iranian and the Palestinian-Israeli issues. Hence, "the United States and China should work together to promote the resolution of hotspot issues in the Middle East [...] At the same time, they should work together to provide public goods to enhance security and development in the region.”

In contrast to the events in the Gulf, Chinese scholars seemed notably less certain regarding the local dynamics fueling the conflict in Sudan. In general, they concurred that the clashes will not last long and attributed the ongoing crisis in large part to the dire state of the Sudanese economy. For instance, He Yunfu, vice president of the Taizhou Overseas Chinese Chamber of Commerce and president of the Sudanese Association for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China, remarked that "In the beginning, 1 Sudanese Pound could be exchanged for 3.3 Yuan, but now a Sudanese Pound is only worth 1 cent." He that over the course of his more than 20 years in Sudan, the local economy has progressively deteriorated, leading an increasing number of Chinese to leave the country in search of other opportunities. [11] Nevertheless, while some argue that the conflict’s impact on the region will be limited because “there are no obvious motives or signs of external involvement,” [12] others, like Niu Song, argued that “there are obvious signs of external intervention, which is contrary to the current wave of reconciliation in the Middle East that is bringing about positive changes regarding regional peace.” [13]

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[1] Xin Jiaqiang, Shùpíng: Zhōngdōng yǒng dòng “héjiě cháo” de bèihòu 述评:中东涌动“和解潮”的背后 [Commentary: The background behind the “tide of reconciliation” in the Middle East], Xinhua, April 25, 2023, link.

[2] Zhang Zhiwen and Zhang Mengxu, Zhōngdōng dìqū chūxiàn “héjiě cháo” 中东地区出现“和解潮” [A wave of reconciliation in the Middle East], People’s Daily, April 25, 2023, link.

[3] Xie Lian, Shātè, yīlǎng běijīng héjiě hòu, yěmén yǒuwàng yíng lái hépíng? 沙特、伊朗北京和解后,也门有望迎来和平?[Is there hope for peace in Yemen after the reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Beijing?], The Beijing News, April 11, 2023, link.

[4] Ding Long, 丁隆:沙伊和解推开也门和平之门 [Ding Long: Saudi-Iranian reconciliation opens the door to peace in Yemen], Global Times, April 11, 2023, link.

[5] An Feng, “Héjiě cháo” chíxù, zhōngdōng jìnrù duō jí shídài? “和解潮”持续,中东进入多极时代?[The “tide of reconciliation” continues, is the Middle East entering a multipolar era?], Liberation Daily, April 20, 2023, link.

[6] Yu Xiaoxuan, Zhōngdōng júshì xīn dòngxiàng: Shātè lǜ ālābó shìjiè yǒngbào xùlìyǎ 中东局势新动向:沙特率阿拉伯世界拥抱叙利亚 [New trends in the Middle East: Saudi Arabia leads the Arab world to embrace Syria], The Paper, April 14, 2023, link.

[7] Gao Qiao, Měiguó zài zhōngdōng jiǎojú bù tíng 美国在中东搅局不停 [The United States keeps on causing trouble in the Middle East], People’s Daily, April 18, 2023, link.

[8] Chen Ke, Shā yī liǎng guó zài běijīng wòshǒu yán hé, zhōngguó “wèishéme néng”? 沙伊两国在北京握手言和,中国“为什么能”?[Saudi Arabia and Iran shook hands in Beijing to make peace, why could China make it happen?], China Reports, April 21, 2023, link.

[9] Zhao Jun, Shātè chéngwéi shàng hé zǔzhī duìhuà huǒbàn, qídài zhōngguó zài hǎiwān dìqū fāhuī gèng dà zuòyòng 沙特成为上合组织对话伙伴,期待中国在海湾地区发挥更大作用 [Saudi Arabia has become a dialogue partner of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, expecting China to play a greater role in the Gulf region], China.com, April 4, 2023, link.

[10] Chen, Shā yī liǎng guó zài běijīng wòshǒu yán hé, zhōngguó “wèishéme néng”?

[11] Qian Xiaoyan, Céngjīng de shíyóu chūkǒu guó měikuàngyùxià, sūdān júshì héyǐ zhìcǐ? 曾经的石油出口国每况愈下,苏丹局势何以至此?[The former oil exporting country is going from bad to worse. Why is the situation in Sudan so bad?], China Business Network, April 17, 2023, link.

[12] Liao Qin, Sūdān wǔzhuāng chōngtú chíxù, zhège fēizhōu dì sān dàguó yuánhé yòu xiàn dòngdàng? 苏丹武装冲突持续,这个非洲第三大国缘何又陷动荡?[The conflict in Sudan continues, why is Africa's third largest country in turmoil again?], Shanghai Observer, April 18, 2023, link.

[13] Qian, Céngjīng de shíyóu chūkǒu guó měikuàngyùxià, sūdān júshì héyǐ zhìcǐ

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Published with the support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation pursuant to art. 23-bis of Presidential Decree 18/1967. The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation.
Published with the support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation pursuant to art. 23-bis of Presidential Decree 18/1967. The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation.
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