December 2022

The Mediterranean Region looks at China
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As expected, the first China-Arab States Summit, the China-GCC Summit for Cooperation and Development and Xi Jinping’s state visit to Saudi Arabia – all held in Riyadh from December 7 to 10 – were the main topics covered by media outlets throughout the wider Mediterranean region.

During the visit, President Xi and King Salman signed a comprehensive strategic partnership committing the two countries to holding semi-annual meetings. Moreover, they also signed memoranda of understanding to align China's Belt and Road Initiative with Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030. Chinese and Saudi companies also signed 34 agreements worth approximately USD 30 billion, covering green energy, information technology, and infrastructure. According to an article published by al-Jazeera and the research center Asbab, these developments hint that Riyadh is making efforts to broaden its relationship with Beijing beyond the economic sphere. [1] According to the authors, Saudi Arabia needs to find alternative partners to the United States. However, with China still reluctant to play a more incisive security role in the region and with the US mainly preoccupied over preventing the Arab countries from establishing strategic relations with the People’s Republic in sensitive sectors, they believe that there are limits to if and how Beijing can credibly substitute Washington.

Nonetheless, Saudi observers expressed great enthusiasm over the outcomes of the meetings and their foreseeable impact on the Kingdom’s international status. For example, Fahim al-Hamed considered the Riyadh Summits as the beginning of “a new era of independence” for Saudi Arabia and the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), whose economies are “more connected to China than ever before.” [2] He believes that they will be able to strike a balance between the two superpowers while putting their economic and security interests first. For his part, Saddaqa Yahya Fadel added that the GCC countries will benefit from a so-called “Eastern NATO,” i.e., a strategic alliance between China and Russia, thanks to Beijing’s long-term energy needs and the consensus between Chinese and Arabs on issues like territorial integrity, sovereignty, and the Palestinian issue. [3]

The media based in the other countries which participated in the Riyadh Summits also highlighted the importance of multilateralism and alliance diversification. Ahmad Mustafa, for instance, writing for the Emirati newspaper al-Khaleej, pointed out that policies of diversification are only natural for countries that are trying to secure their national interests. [4] Therefore, Western “annoyance” with Arab rapprochement with China is unjustified, as it does not mean that Arab countries’ traditional partnerships will be downgraded. Moreover, in the same newspaper, Naji Sadeq Sharab stated that Arab countries have no alternative but to strengthen cooperation with all superpowers, as relations with each serve different interests: while the Palestinian question will not be solved without Washington’s support, to achieve a process of sustainable development countries like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt cannot ignore the strategic and economic weight that China has been exerting in the international arena. [5]

In the context of an evolving and challenging global situation, Egyptian media highlighted the importance of presenting the “Arab bloc as a unified front” during the China-Arab States Summit. [6] According to Ferdous Abdel-Baqi, a researcher at the Egyptian Center for Thought and Studies, the summit was the result of Arab countries needing to find alternative sources of cooperation to hedge against the negative repercussions of the war in Ukraine and of contrasting Chinese and American interests in the Middle East and Indo-Pacific. [7] In this context, Bishoy Ramzy, with al-Yawm al-7, suggested that Arab states might be more inclined to strengthen their partnership with China because of Beijing’s  keenness to enhance cooperation at the economic and political level, its support for Arab issues – especially the Palestinian cause – and its respect for the “Arab identity.” [8] For the author, this approach sharply contrasts with the one adopted by US administrations over the last decade. The support for domestic unrest during the “Arab Springs,” the attacks against the “Islamic and Arab identity” following 9/11, and the inauguration or the enhancement of relations with regional non-Arab actors, above all Iran and Israel, are all actions Ramzy identified as damaging to Arab trust.

For his part, the President of Libya’s Presidential Council Mohamed al-Menfi called on Beijing to “play an international role that is commensurate with its international weight,” and to return to complete the infrastructure and development projects that it started in 2010. [9] Interestingly, he added that China’s growth and the rapid economic and political changes that are taking place at the global level “require us to be more flexible in defining the concept of economic partnerships, and to move away from the rigid traditional templates that have governed the political and economic relations of our countries since the middle of the last century.” [10]

In Iraq there have been conflicting reactions to the Riyadh Summits. On one hand, some observers, such as the economic expert Maladh al-Amin, believe that the summits will breathe new life into the already flourishing Sino-Iraqi relationship, especially in the field of technology- and knowledge- transfer and in the framework of the “oil-for-reconstruction agreement.” [11] Others, such as Fateh Abdel-Salam, Editor-in-Chief of al-Zaman, commented that Iraq has not gained much from the summits as the country is unable to “strategically benefit from China” due to widespread corruption and external pressure from the United States. [12] Aliya Nassif, an MP with the State of Law Coalition, shared the same views and added that the only way to reconstruct the country is by implementing the just-mentioned Iraqi-Chinese agreement, and by following the lead of “some Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia,” that “are racing to side with China, defying American pressure.” [13] It is noteworthy that similar concerns have been voiced in Lebanon. For example, diplomat Khaled Hamadeh, while praising Saudi achievements during the summits, lamented the little consideration that Beirut enjoys in international fora, and urged the Lebanese political establishment to solve the country’s political impasse so as to clear the way for stronger international cooperation. [14]

However, besides the discussion over the outcome of the summits, there remain many doubts surrounding the Sino-Iraqi agreement. In this context, Harith Hasan, a Senior Non-resident Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writing for the independent newspaper al-Mada, criticized not the agreement per se, but the confidence that several political parties have in it. [15] Hasan explained that since its signing, the agreement has been considered as a “sure promise to develop the country” in addition to relieving Baghdad from US efforts to keep it dependent on Washington. This point of view is particularly common among those groups close to Iran that have included upholding the deal with China in their domestic political platform. However, Hasan highlighted, China and Iraq already have strong economic relations since Baghdad is Beijing’s third oil supplier and Chinese energy companies, such as PetroChina and Sinopec, have been active in the country for more than a decade. The real issue is whether “China will dominate the energy sector in this country, especially with the withdrawal of many Western energy companies,” and whether the environment in which it operates is appropriate from a political, security and economic perspective. The author underlines that this task befalls upon the Iraqi government, not the Chinese companies themselves. Therefore, Hasan concluded that without proper domestic reform the Chinese agreement, and cooperation with China in general, will remain influenced by the “rentier culture” that is typical of the Iraqi political and economic environment.

The issue of Iran-China relations was also discussed in the wake of the Riyadh Summits, as the inclusion in the Riyadh Declaration of remarks on the need to limit the Iranian nuclear program and on the islands of the Persian Gulf disputed between Iran and the UAE raised much discontent among Tehran’s elites. However, the statements issued by several Iranian high rank officials during the visit of China’s Deputy Prime Minister Hu Chunhua to Tehran on December 13 at the head of a trade and economic delegation confirm that the relations between the two parties remain stable. [16] Overall, Iranian public opinion seems to maintain an optimistic view of the Sino-Iranian partnership, especially for what concerns the 25-year cooperation document and the alliance to contain Western hegemony. [17] The most interesting analysis of the Riyadh Summit’s outcomes from an Iranian perspective is that of Hamid Vafaei, a professor of Chinese Studies at Tehran University. [18] Vafaei stated that a significant rapprochement between China and Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia and the GCC, should not be surprising. After all, the scope of China's cooperation with Arab countries in the areas outlined in the decade-long plan known as “3+2+1 policy” – energy, infrastructure and trade, and nuclear energy, renewable energy sources and aerospace – is far larger than that with Iran. According to Vafaei, however, the expansion of China’s relations with the Arabs and even Israel also serves Tehran’s interests because they weaken the United States’ influence and contribute to realigning the regional equilibrium. Vafaei concluded that while Tehran’s policy of “Look East” is correct and in line with the global shift of power, the apparent stall in the development of Sino-Iranian relations should be linked to Tehran’s domestic situation and its inability to actively implement its agreements with China. Iran’s isolation from the international market system is also a significant problem.

Still, some concerns remain with regard to the oil relations between the two countries. As reported by Sharq, several energy analysts expressed worries over China’s apparently diminishing purchases of Iranian oil and natural gas in favor of heavily discounted Russian oil, as well as over the 27-year sale contract for the purchase of natural gas from Qatar. [19] Hamid Hosseini, head of the Oil, Gas and Petrochemical Products Exporters Union, believes that this is in part a consequence of the anti-Covid restrictions in China that have slowed down the country’s economy, as well as of the failure of the negotiations to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. In any case, Fereydoun Majlisi, a foreign policy analyst, confidently stated that China will not be able to completely move away from Iran’s oil market even if it wanted to, as it still needs to ensure its energy security. Therefore, Tehran’s shares in Beijing’s maritime imports are likely to remain stable at 6-10% for the foreseeable future.

Iran-China relations are being closely watched by Arab observers, too. In this context, Muhammad al-Zaghul with the Emirati Policy Centre wrote that the outcomes of the Riyadh Summits and the apparently new Chinese positions on issues in the Gulf, especially with regard to its neutrality in the Iranian nuclear issue, are to be read in light of a “repositioning process in the regional political arena” that could affect the depth of Tehran-Beijing cooperation. [20] In fact, al-Zaghul pointed out that the trade exchanges between Iran and China have been faltering for some time due to sanctions and the differences in the two countries’ foreign policies. Moreover, Tehran’s efforts to establish a “strategic alliance” with Beijing following its “Look East” policy have not brought about significant economic benefits for the Islamic Republic. On the contrary, it provided “opportunities for China's ‘strategic presence’ [to expand] in the Gulf region, which is an American arena of influence.” The “Look East” strategy, coupled with the rhetoric of a “tripartite alliance against the West” that also includes Russia, also creates more risks than opportunities given the competing Russian and Chinese interests in Asia and on the international stage. However, according to al-Zaghul, this situation might turn in Iran’s favor if in the future Beijing decides to develop its presence in the Gulf beyond the economic dimension, especially if Washington increases its pressure in the South China Sea.

Other than the Riyadh Summits, there have been other interesting developments and contributions from other countries of the wider Mediterranean region. For example, on December 5, Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra and Chairman of China’s National Development and Reform Commission He Lifeng signed two cooperation plans to strengthen bilateral relations. These are the “Executive Plan for the Joint Realization of the Belt and Road Initiative,” that Algeria joined in 2018, and the “Three-Year Plan of Cooperation in Key Areas 2022-2024”, a mechanism to enhance economic and development cooperation. [21]

The debate on China continues as usual in Türkiye. On the one hand, increasing cooperation with China in different fields is seen as a very attractive option, as proven by the annual reports of the National Energy Investment Institution on sustainable development in China and Turkey. [22] It should also be mentioned that negotiations are underway for the development of new technologies related to rare earth elements. [23] On the other hand, the Uyghur issue continues to be at the center of a very heated debate, especially after the meeting between the Turkish and Chinese interior ministers on the possible deportation of Uyghur resident in Türkiye who have not yet acquired Turkish citizenship. [24]

For their part, Israeli media continued to highlight how trade relations with China remain beneficial in economic terms but also a critical reason behind American pressure. In fact, a foreign investments report published by the Chief Economist at the Ministry of Finance showed that China and Hong Kong together ranked as the third-biggest source of investment into Israel. [25] Commenting on the report, Doron Ella, researcher and lecturer at the School of Political Science of the University of Haifa, said that the Chinese involvement in sectors such as technology, food, and infrastructure has grown considerably over the past decade as the two countries have complementary economies with Israel excelling in innovation and development while China has great production capacity and access to international markets. Nonetheless, Chinese investment has been on a downward trend since 2018 due to a change in China’s priorities, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, and American pressure. As Ella points out, since “Chinese investments constituted much less than 10% of the total foreign capital invested in Israel, far behind investments from the US and Europe,” the reasons behind Washington’s concerns are not related to the amount of Chinese investment but, rather, to where in the Israeli economy that capital goes. This view is confirmed by the statement released by Jung Pak, a US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, during a conference at the SIGNAL Institute for Israel-China Relations, stressing that “the US wants to see more activity from Israel to protect its advanced critical technologies from China.” [26] Praising the mechanism known as the Advisory Committee for Evaluating National Security Aspects of Foreign Investments established within the Israeli Ministry of Finance, Pak offered the United States’ continued support in the management of risk and the protection of shipping lanes, innovative technologies and chip supply chains, stating that “the US does not want to disconnect Israel’s economy from China’s economy. We want to promote trade relations in areas that do not threaten our economic and security interests or human rights values. At the same time, we need to be clear about national security risks.”

Israeli media also paid attention to the impact of China’s Covid-19-related restrictions on global trade due to some major Israeli companies specialized in international cargo shipping, semiconductors, and chemical products having their main production centers in China. [27] Although some concerns remain, the companies that made statements on this subject to The Marker claimed that those restrictions have not significantly disrupted the supply chains and that the situation should soon return to normality.

Related to this issue, the Spanish El País published a contribution by José Miguel Blasco Hernandez, a commercial law expert, who hopes for an improvement of Sino-Spanish trade following the end of China’s “zero-Covid” policy. [28] Blasco Hernandez pointed out that although the trade imbalance between the two countries has increased in the last few years, China remains a key hub and market for Spanish companies. Moreover, he argued against the common belief that China does not provide sufficient legal guarantees in its commercial exchanges, as “China has ratified the United Nations Convention on contracts for the international sale of goods in 1986” and “the Chinese Contract Law itself allows formal freedoms in the conclusion of such contracts.”

Meanwhile, the mainstream position on China in Italy remains more critical. As stated by Federico Fubini, a senior journalist with Il Corriere della Sera, the new far-right Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who during last year’s electoral campaign strongly criticized Italy’s Memorandum of Understanding with China for cooperation in the framework of the BRI, is now expected to have a far less confrontation approach to Beijing, thereby risking to “irritate Italy's allies in America and Europe” as they are scaling down their diplomatic ties with Beijing. [29] According to Fubini, Meloni is in a difficult position: her visit to Beijing might be canceled if she announces not to renew the Memorandum of Understanding. However, Italian companies in China might be the victims of Chinese retaliation if she makes that move after her visit.

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[1] Al-Saʿudiya wa-l-Sin… hudud al-shiraka fi ʿalam mudtarab السعودية والصين.. حدود الشراكة في عالم مضطرب [Saudi and China… limits of partnership in a turbulent world], al-Jazeera and Asbab, December 23, 2022, link.

[2] Fahim al-Hamed, Qimam al-Riyadh asasat li-haqbat istiqlaliya قمـم الريـاض أسسـت لحقبـة استـقلاليـة [The Riyadh Summits established an era of independence], al-Riyadh, December 15, 2022, link.

[3] Saddaqa Yahya Fadel, AL-qimam al-ʿarabiya-al-siniya al-thalath!, القمم العربية - الصينية الثلاث.. ! [The three Arab-Chinese summits!], Okaz, December 17, 2022, link.

[4] Ahmad Mustafa, Inziʿaj ghayr mubarrar انزعاج غير مبرر [Unjustified annoyance], al-Khaleej, December 16, 2022, link.

[5] Naji Sadeq Sharab, La badil ʿan al-ʿalaqat al-dawliyat al-ʿarabiya لا بديل عن العلاقات الدولية العربية [There is no alternative for Arab international relations], al-Khaleej, December 28, 2022, link.

[6] Bassam Ramadan, Ustadh ʿulum siyasiya yudahu ahmiyat al-qimmat al-ʿarabiyat al-siniya أستاذ علوم سياسية يوضح أهمية القمة العربية الصينية [A professor of political studies explains the importance of the Arab-Chinese Summit], al-Masry al-Yawm, December 10, 2022, link.

[7] Bassam Ramadan, Bahitha bi-l-markaz al-misri li-l-fikr wa-l-dirasat: al-qimmat al-ʿarabiyat al-siniya taʾty fi siyaq al-tanafus ʿala al-sharq al-awsat باحثة بالمركز المصري للفكر والدراسات: القمة العربية الصينية تأتي في سياق التنافس على الشرق الأوسط [A Researcher with the Egyptian Center for Thought and Studies: the Arab-Chinese Summit comes in the context of competition over the Middle East], al-Masry al-Yawm, December 8, 2022, link.

[8] Bishoy Ramzi, Bayna al-shiraka wa-l-musalaha… Al-Sin wa-Amrika fi mizan al-ʿarab بين "الشراكة" و"المصالحة".. الصين وأمريكا في ميزان العرب [Between “partnership” and “reconciliation”… China and America in the Arabs’ balance], al-Yawm al-7, December 10, 2022, link.

[9] Al-Menfi: natmah ‘an tal‘ab al-sin dawraha al-dawli min ’ajl ’istiqrar libia المنفي: نطمح أن تلعب الصين دورها الدولي من أجل استقرار ليبيا [Al-Menfi: We hope that China will play its international role for the stability of Libya], Libya Al-Mostakbal, December 9, 2022, link.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Iqtisadi li-NINA : al-ʿamal bi-ittifaqiyat al-Sin al-iqtisadiya sayanʿakisu ijabiyan ʿala tabiʿat al-iʿmal fi al-ʿIraq اقتصادي لـ/نينا/ : العمل باتفاقيات الصين الاقتصادية سينعكس ايجابيا على طبيعة الاعمال في العراق [Economist to NINA : working through the Chinese economic agreements will reflect positively on the nature of Iraqi business], NINA, December 12, 2022, link.

[12] Fateh ʿAbd al-Salam, Al-Sin wa-l-Saʿudiya… wa-l-ʿIraq, الصین والصعودیة... والعراق [China and Saudi Arabia… and Iraq], al-Zaman, December 9, 2022, link.

[13] ʿAliya Nasif : iradat dakhiliya wa-kharijiya tuqifu fi tariq ibram al-ittifaqiyat al-ʿiraqiyat al-siniya عالية نصيف: ارادات داخلية وخارجية تقف في طريق ابرام الاتفاقية العراقية الصينية [Aliya Nasif : domestic and foreign wills stand in the way of concluding the Sino-Iraqi agreement], NINA, December 9, 2022, link.

[14] Khaled Hamadeh, Baʿd al-qimmat al-siniyat al-saʿudiya ayy hiwar fi Lubnan? بعد القمّة الصينية - السعودية أي حوار في لبنان؟ [Is there any dialogue in Lebanon after the Chinese-Saudi Summit?], al-Liwa, December 13, 2022, link.

[15] Harith Hassan, ʿAn al-ittifaqiyat al-siniya عن الاتفاقية الصينية [About the Chinese agreement], al-Mada, December 18, 2022, link.

[16] Erade-e ye Cin bara-ye towseʿe-ye ravabet ba Iran qavvi اراده چین برای توسعه روابط با ایران قوی [China’s will to develop relations with Iran is strong], Resalat, December 14, 2022, link.

[17] Mohammad Reza Manafi, Ravabet-e iran va Cina rishe dar tarikh darad/ zarurat-e jodul-e zaman-bandi bara-ye ejra-ye tavafoq-e 25-sale روابط ایران و چین ریشه درتاریخ دارد/ ضرورت جدول زمان‌بندی برای اجرای توافق ۲۵ ساله [The Iran-China relations are rooted in history/ A timetable for the implementation of the 25-year agreement is needed], IRNA, December 14, 2022, link.

[18] Afshin Shaʿeri, Ostad-e motaleʿat-e Cin: negah-e Iran be sharq dorost bude va be maʿna-ye nafi-e gharb nist استاد مطالعات چین: نگاه ایران به شرق درست بوده و به معنی نفی غرب نیست [Professor of Chinese studies: Iran’s Look East has been correct and does not mean negating the West], IRNA, December 18, 2022, link.

[19] Mehfam Soleyman Begi, Tasmim-e ezhdeha تصمیم اژدها [The Dragon’s decision], Sharq, December 26, 2022, link.

[20] Muhammad al-Zaghul, Al-Sin al-haqiqiya, wa-l-Sin al-mutakhayyala: hal wasala tahaluf Iran al-istritiji maʿa Bijin ila nihayatihi? الصين الحقيقيّة، والصين المُتخيَّلة: هل وصل تحالف إيران الاستراتيجي مع بيجين إلى نهايته؟ [The real China, the imagined China: has Iran’s strategic alliance with Beijing come to an end?], EPC, December 27, 2022, link.

[21] Lilia Aït Akli, L’Algérie et la Chine consolident leur partenariat stratégique [Algeria and China consolidate their strategic partnership], Le Jeune Indépendant, December 5, 2022, link.

[22] Çin ve Türkiye arasındaki iş birliği genişliyor [Cooperation between China and Türkiye is expanding], Dunya Gazetesi, December 23, 2022, link.

[23] Çin'den Türkiye'ye 'milyar dolarlık' teklif! 'Gelin birlikte yapalım' ['Billion-dollar' offer from China to Türkiye! 'Let's do it together'], Sabah Gazetesi, December 20, 2022, link.

[24] Çinli bakanın Ankara ziyaretinin ardından Türkiye’deki Uygur mülteciler Çin’e sınır dışı edilmekten endişeli [Uyghur refugees in Türkiye worried about deportation to China after Chinese minister's visit to Ankara], Bandalogy, December 15, 2022, link.

[25] Sonia Gorodisky, Hevenu Tishlum Aleykhem: Sin Bimkom HaShlishi BeHeykef HaHashkaot HaNikhnasot LeYisrael הבאנו תשלום עליכם: סין במקום השלישי בהיקף ההשקעות הנכנסות לישראל [We brought you a payment: China ranks third in the volume of FDI entering Israel], Israel Hayom, December 29, 2022, link.

[26] Itamar Eichner, Sin Bekhira Amerikanit: Rotzim SheYisrael Nif’al Yoter Lehagen Al HaTechnologiot Shela Mipnei בכירה אמריקנית: רוצים שישראל תפעל יותר להגן על הטכנולוגיות שלה מפני סין [Senior American official: We want Israel to do more to protect its technologies from China], Ynet, December 8, 2022, link.

[27] Yoram Gabison and Itay Patya, Mediniut HaKorona Shel Sin Avra Me-Efes Le-Mea — Ekh Yushpeu Khevrot Israeliot? מדיניות הקורונה של סין עברה מ-0 ל-100 – איך יושפעו חברות ישראליות [China’s coronavirus policy went from 0 to 100 - how will Israeli companies be affected?], The Marker, December 28, 2022, link.

[28] José Miguel Blasco Hernandez, Las relaciones comerciales entre China y España y la importancia de la seguridad jurídica [Sino-Spanish trade relations and the importance of juridical security], El País, December 14, 2022, link.

[29] Federico Fubini, Il ricatto della Cina in Italia (e l’invito di Xi a Meloni sulla Via della Seta) [China’s blackmail to Italy (and Xi’s invitation to Meloni on the Silk Road)], Il Corriere della Sera, December 19, 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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