December 2022

China looks at the Mediterranean Region
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Unsurprisingly, the Chinese media debate on the wider Mediterranean region was dominated by discussions on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s trip to Saudi Arabia between December 7-10. Besides paying a state visit to the Kingdom, Xi also attended the first China-Arab States Summit and the China-GCC Summit. As such, the Chinese President met leaders from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Palestine, Egypt, Sudan, Iraq, Morocco, Algeria, Lebanon, and other Arab states. Moreover, Chinese and Saudi firms signed 34 investment deals in green energy, information technology, cloud services, transport, construction and other sectors reportedly valued at USD 30 billion.

Chinese commentators spared no effort emphasizing the significance of Xi’s trip. For instance, the head of the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations’ Middle East Institute Niu Xinchun wrote that the trip signals the beginning of “Sino-Arab relations 4.0.” [1] During the first two phases that lasted from 1949 to 1978 and from 1978 to 2013, respectively, great power competition and energy were the main drivers of the relationship between Beijing and Arab states. During the third phase (2013-2022), trade relations expanded beyond energy through the “1+2+3” model to include nuclear energy, space and renewable energy as key areas of cooperation. Finally, Niu argued that this new 4.0 phase is characterized by cultural and political ties growing to match the importance of trade and investment. Other commentators, on the other hand, mostly considered investment projects and energy trade issues (in particular the emerging conditions for the “petroyuan”) as the main results of Xi’s visit. [2]

Niu also mentioned a number of Chinese security-related initiatives and peace plans. Similarly, Niu Song, a researcher at Shanghai International Studies University (SISU), wrote that the three summits are the beginning of a new phase of China’s “great power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics” in the Middle East, which is developing in the context of “the GCC, composed of six Gulf Arab monarchies, having become increasingly dominant in the Arab world.” [3] In another article, he also wrote that “in the new era, China pays more attention to Saudi Arabia’s special status and important role in China-Arab relations and in China's engagement in the Middle East.” [4] That said, others also pointed out the importance of other non-Arab countries like Turkey, suggesting to keep an eye on Ankara as its evolving relationship with NATO reflects a broader change in Western countries’ influence in the region. [5]

Regarding what is behind this change, Niu Xinchun explained that “Since the end of the Cold War, the Middle East has experienced an era of American dominance. For a long time, the United States was the ‘dominant player’ in the Middle East security field, leaving little room for China. At the same time, American and European companies monopolized the upstream industries of the Middle East’s economy, making it difficult for China to participate [economically] as well. China imports large amounts of Middle Eastern oil, making energy security the focus of China’s Middle East policy. The ‘contraction’ of the US’ Middle East strategy, the global energy transition, and the accelerated pace of economic reform in the Middle East are behind an unprecedented and comprehensive transformation of the region. The common values and shared interests between China and the Arab world are gradually expanding, and Arab countries are urgently looking for partners beyond the United States.” [6] A similar opinion was expressed in the People’s Daily by Dong Mangyuan, a researcher at the China Institute of International Studies, who stated that “both China and the Arab states are developing countries, sharing the same development aspirations and the same dream of rejuvenation.” [7] This idea of shared values was also at the center of an article on the construction by China State Construction Engineering Corporation of the Central Business District project in Egypt’s new administrative capital. [8]

Related to this, Chinese media outlets praised the development policies enacted by Arab governments, in particular those of Saudi Arabia. Many articles quoted Chinese and foreign commentators extolling Riyadh’s focus on development, its independent foreign policy and the country’s bright future. For example, Li Weijian, a senior expert at SISU, described Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as champions of a new state-building effort in the Middle East that, supported by the growing populations of the region, will bring renewed economic development. [9] The Global Times, in an article dedicated to Saudi Arabia, also noted how “in order to get rid of dependence on the oil economy, Saudi Arabia is promoting the long-term development of the country through a series of methodical ‘Saudi-style reform and opening up’ policies. The changing Saudi Arabia is also playing an increasingly important role in international affairs. ‘Investing in the future’ and ‘looking eastward’ have become the general trend in Saudi Arabia.” [10] Finally, the magazine Global People published an article on the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, describing him as an “alternative” Saudi leader and the undoubtably positive role that he is playing in his country’s transformation. [11]

That said, it seems that Saudi Arabia has not surpassed Qatar in the eyes of Chinese commentators. Niu Song, for example, pointed to China’s relations with Doha as evidence for Beijing’s desire to maintain balanced relations with all GCC countries, rather than favoring solely Saudi Arabia. [12] Other Chinese experts praised Qatar for leading the economic transition away from relying on oil and natural gas revenue, as well as its role as a regional mediator and host of major events. For Chinese commentators, it is this skillful diplomacy that has allowed Qatar to weather the diplomatic confrontation with Saudi Arabia and emerge as a diplomatic heavyweight. [13]

Moving on to other countries, we finally found what appears to be the first articles published by Chinese media on the situation in Iran. China Business Network interviewed SISU’s Han Jianwei on Iran’s mandatory headscarf law. [14] Han made no reference to the protests that have been rocking the country since 22-year-old Mahsa Amini’s death in September. However, the article mentions how there is significant popular demand for that law to be changed. Han added that “cultural reforms” are not the only thing that the Iranian people want as the economy is also collapsing. Outside Mainland China, Hong Kong China News Agency interviewed Fan Hongda, another expert at SISU. [15] He emphasized how revising or repealing the headscarf law will be seen as a concession to the protesters. He also explained that the reason why this issue has become more complex than in other countries in the region is the combination of Iran’s more conservative customs and its greater economic difficulties. Neither Han nor Fan expressed opinions on the future direction of Iranian politics and stability.

Chinese media also discussed Israeli politics. The Paper published an article tellingly titled “There is no far right, only more right?” [16] The authors, SISU’s Liu Zhongmin and Wang Lixin, expressed opinions that broadly overlap with those of commentators and experts outside China: the new Benjamin Netanyahu-led government represents an unprecedented rightward shift for Israeli politics. While balancing the governing coalition’s many personalities and parties will be an issue for Netanyahu, he can at least rely on shared positions on many key domestic and foreign policy issues. Liu and Wang therefore foresee Israel’s relations with its neighbors worsening, as well as rising tensions and clashes with Palestinians.

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[1] Niu Xinchun, Niú xīnchūn: Zhōng ā guānxì zhèng mài rù 4.0 bǎn牛新春:中阿关系正迈入4.0版 [Niu Xinchun: Sino-Arab relations are entering the 4.0 phase], Global Times, December 9, 2022, link.

[2] For example: Ding Long, Dīng lóng: Fēnghuì jiànzhèng zhōng ā guānxì lìshǐ xìng fēiyuè 丁隆:峰会见证中阿关系历史性飞跃 [Ding Long: The summits demonstrate a historic leap in China-Arab relations], Global Times, December 8, 2022, link; Shu Xiaoting, Shǒujiè zhōng ā fēnghuì jǔxíng, zhōng ā guānxì fāzhǎn yíng lái xīn de lǐchéngbēi 首届中阿峰会举行,中阿关系发展迎来新的里程碑 [The first China-Arab summit was held and Sino-Arab relations reached a new milestone], 21st Century Business Herald, December 9, 2022, link.

[3] Niu Song, “Sān huán fēnghuì”: Zhōngguó wàijiāo de yòu yī zhòngdà chuàngjǔ “三环峰会”:中国外交的又一重大创举 [The “three summits”: Another Pioneering Chinese Diplomatic Initiative], Dazhong Daily, December 14, 2022, link.

[4] Niu Song, Kāiqǐ zhōng shā guānxì xīn shídài 开启中沙关系新时代 [The beginning of a new era for Sino-Saudi relations], Dazhong Daily, December 9, 2022, link.

[5] Qi Xu, Guānyú 2023 nián guójì géjú yǎnbiàn de liù gè zhòngyào pànduàn, xīnmín huánqiú nián huì shàng zhuānjiāmen zhèyàng shuō… 关于2023年国际格局演变的六个重要判断,新民环球年会上专家们这样说… [Six important opinions on the development of the international situation in 2023, this is what the experts said at the annual conference of Xinmin Evening News…], Xinmin Evening News, December 19, 2022, link.

[6] Niu, “Niu Xinchun: Sino-Arab relations are entering the 4.0 phase.”

[7] Fang Jinglun and Zhang Guigui, Qiáng guānchá |zhōng ā hézuò wéi hé bùduàn mài shàng xīn táijiē? Zhèxiē yuányīn hěn guānjiàn 强观察|中阿合作为何不断迈上新台阶?这些原因很关键 [Strong Country Observer| Why does China-Arab cooperation continue to reach new heights? These are the main reasons], People’s Daily, December 13, 2022, link.

[8] Huang Peizhao and Pan Xiaotong, Fēizhōu zuìgāo lóu chéng zhōng ā yǒuyì xīn xiàngzhēng, āijí zǒngtǒng: Bù yǎ yú zài záo yītiáo sūyīshì yùnhé 非洲最高楼成中阿友谊新象征,埃及总统:不亚于再凿一条苏伊士运河 [The highest building in Africa is a new symbol of Sino-Arab friendship, the Egyptian president: This is not less important than digging a new Suez Canal], Global Times, December 10, 2022, link.

[9] Qi, "Six important opinions."

[10] Huang Peizhao, Xia Xue, Yuqing, and Wang Zhen, [Huán shí shēndù] biàngé zhōng de shātè, zài dōngfāng tànxún wèilái zhī lù【环时深度】变革中的沙特,在东方探寻未来之路 [Global Times Indepth: Saudi Arabia in the middle of revolutionary changes, exploring the path to the future in the East], Global Times, December 5, 2022, link.

[11] Mao Yufei and Chen Jiali, “另类”沙特王储:不抽烟,不晚归,只有一位妻子 [An "alternative" Saudi crown prince: no smoking, no returning home late, only one wife], Global People, December 9, 2022, link.

[12] Niu Song, Zhōnghǎi guānxì dìngwèi yīcì zhì de fēiyuè 中海关系定位一次质的飞跃 [A lead in the relations between China and Gulf countries], Dazhong Daily, December 12, 2022, link.

[13] “Dànwán xiǎoguó” kǎtǎ'ěr píng shénme wòxuán zhōngdōng?  “弹丸小国”卡塔尔凭什么斡旋中东?[How can tiny Qatar mediate in the Middle East?], Southern Weekly, December 2, 2022, link.

[14] Qian Xiaoyan, Zhuānjiā jiědú yīlǎng zhèngfǔ yù chóngxīn shěnchá tóujīn fǎ, shì hé qiányīnhòuguǒ? 专家解读伊朗政府欲重新审查头巾法,是何前因后果?[Expert explains the reexamination of the mandatory headscarf law in Iran, what are the causes and outcomes?], China Business Network, December 5, 2022, link.

[15] Yīlǎng tóujīn fǎ shìfǒu huì zhēn de fèichú? 伊朗頭巾法是否會真的廢除?[Will Iran's Hijab law really be repealed?], Hong Kong China News Agency, December 6, 2022, link.

[16] Liu Zhongmin and Wang Lixin, 中东睿评|没有最右,只有更右?内塔尼亚胡面临的组阁挑战 [Middle East Insight|There is no far right, only more right? The challenges that Netanyahu faces to form a cabinet], The Paper, December 12, 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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