August 2022

The Mediterranean Region looks at China
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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. [1] 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.” [2] 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. [3] 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. [4] 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. [5] 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. [6] 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. [7] 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. [8] 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. [9]

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. [10] 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. [11] 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.

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. [12] 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.

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. [13] 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. [14] 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.” [15] 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.”

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. [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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[1] Xi Jinping’ in Semerkant'ta Putin ve Erdoğan ile görüşmesi bekleniyor [Xi Jinping expected to meet Putin and Erdogan in Samarkand], T24, August 23, 2022, link.

[2] Çin'den Ankara'ya: "Söyleyin, Pelosi gitmesin [China to Ankara: "Tell Pelosi not to go"], T24, August 30, 2022, link.

[3] Pekino stirizei athina se OHE gia tin kyriarchia ton nision tou Aigaiou Πεκῖνο στηρίζει Ἀθήνα σέ ΟΗΕ γιά τήν κυριαρχία τῶν νησιῶν τοῦ Αἰγαίου [Beijing supports Athens at UN over sovereignty of Aegean islands], Estia, August 5, 2022, link.

[4] Anass Machloukh, Maroc-China: ce que gagnera le Maroc de la « Nouvelle Route de la Soie » [Morocco-China : what Morocco will gain from the « New Silk Road »], L’Opinion, August 23, 2022, link.

[5] Assaf Orion, Mashber Reviyi BeTaiwan Hu Hatra’a Astrategit LeYisrael משבר רביעי בטייוואן הוא התרעה אסטרטגית לישראל [The fourth crisis in the Taiwan Strait is a strategic warning to Israel], Wallah, August 22, 2022, link.

[6] Tali Goldstein, Lamrot HaYiyumim Vehahafkhadot: “Sin Eina Meunienet Bemilkhemet Olam Shlishit” "למרות האיומים וההפחדות: "סין אינה מעוניינת במלחמת עולם שלישית [Despite the threats and intimidations: “China is not interested in a third world war”], Wallah, August 3, 2022, link.

[7] Essam Al-Zoʿbi, Nizaʿ muhtamal bayna al-Sin wa-Israʾil fi Surya? نزاع محتمل بين الصين وإسرائيل في سوريا؟ [A conflict between China and Israel in Syria?], al-Hall, August 1, 2022, link.

[8] Ismaʿil Muhammad ʿAli, Maalat taʿawun al-Sudan al-ʿaskari maʿa al-Sin مآلات تعاون السودان العسكري مع الصين [The outcome of Sudan’s military cooperation with China], Independent Arabia, August 13, 2022, link.

[9] Mo‘tamir Amin, Tawatur wa ‘unf fi al-qarn al-’ifriqii وعنف في القرن الإفريقيتوتر [Tension and violence in the Horn of Africa], Alsomal Alyaum, August 30, 2022, link.

[10] Muhammad al-Hamza, Al-Saʿudiya wa-l-Sin… shirakat istratijiya السعودية والصين.. شراكة استراتيجية [Saudi Arabia and China… a strategic partnership], al-Riyadh, August 17, 2022, link.

[11] Madha yaʿni ziyadat sadirat al-saʿudiyat ghayr al-naftiya ila al-Sin? Khabir yajib ماذا يعني زيادة صادرات السعودية غير النفطية إلى الصين؟.. خبير يجيب [What does the increase of non-oil Saudi exports to China mean? An expert answers], al-Arabiya, August 24, 2022, link.

[12] Faeze Sadat Yusefi, Arabestan, meydan-e jadid-e reqabat-e Cin va Amrika عربستان، میدان جدید رقابت چین و امریکا [Saudi Arabia, the new field of China-US competition], Iran, August 15, 2022, link.

[13] Reyhane Khosrojerdi, Cera dar mozakerat-e barjam shahed-e konshkari-e feʿal-e Cin nistim? چرا در مذاکرات برجام شاهد کنشگری فعال چین نیستیم؟ [Why are we not witnessing China’s active participation in the JCPOA negotiations?], ISNA, August 30, 2022, link.

[14] Otaq-e bazargani-e Tehran naqes budan-e gozaresh-e montashar-shode dar tir-mah-ra taʾyid kard: amarsazi-e jadid-e otaq-e bazargani اتاق بازرگانی تهران ناقص بودن گزارش منتشر شده در تیر ماه را تایید کرد : آمارسازی جدید اتاق بازرگانی [Tehran’s Chamber of Commerce confirmed the incompleteness of the report published in July: the new statistics], Iran, August 16, 2022, link.

[15] Muhammad al-Amir, Al-sharakat al-siniya fi al-ʿIraq : hal sarat laʿiban asasiyan fi al-azmat al-siyasiya? [Chinese companies in Iraq : have they become a fundamental player in the political crisis ?], al-Hall, August 17, 2022, link.

[16] Grzegorz Stec, L’Europe ne doit pas être naïve face à l’offensive de charme de la diplomatie chinoise [Europe must not be naive towards Chinese diplomacy’s charm offensive], le Monde, August 22, 2022, link.

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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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