January 2023

China looks at the Mediterranean Region
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Chinese commentators did not pay much attention to the wider Mediterranean region in January. This is especially true in comparison with December, when numerous commentaries were published in the aftermath of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Saudi Arabia. Nonetheless, the beginning of 2023 brought forth a series of analyses on the possible future direction of the Middle East and North Africa. Southern Europe, on the other hand, was completely ignored.

Gu Zhenglong, a researcher at Shanghai International Studies University (SISU), wrote an article based on a report published by the Emirati think tank Future Center UAE on the possible evolution of the conflicts in Syria, Libya, and Yemen, concluding that none of them will end in 2023. [1] Interestingly, when outlining the situation in Libya, Italy’s involvement was mentioned, which in the past has often been ignored with respect to that of France.

Niu Song, another scholar at SISU, writing in the People’s Liberation Army Daily, was a bit more optimistic, stating that the Middle East’s future might have both opportunities and challenges in store. [2] He believes that “Since 2020, the patterns of Middle Eastern politics have changed under the combined effect of internal and external factors. The Abraham Accords and the continued spread of the COVID-19 have played a particularly critical role. Compared with 2022, the situation in the Middle East in 2023 will be generally stable and even good in some areas.” He goes on to identify four issues that should receive great attention. The first concerns the relations among Arab countries, which have been improving since they reached their nadir first with the Arab Spring in the early 2010s and then with the Qatar diplomatic crisis of summer 2017. Secondly, he maintains that Middle Eastern economies, especially those of oil and gas producing countries, will continue to grow and diversify. The third issue is Israeli politics and the status of the Palestinians. Their situation is likely to worsen as a result of the policies adopted by the new right-wing Israeli government, which Chinese experts identify as a product of the growing fragmentation and polarization of the Israeli political environment that even Benjamin Netanyahu struggles to control. [3] Finally, the future of the Iranian nuclear deal and Tehran’s relations with the West remain key issues for the region. On this latter issue, Fudan University’s Sun Degang and SISU’s Liu Zhongmin seem convinced that there will be hardly any positive developments regarding the Iranian situation, which might only worsen as 2023 began with a probable Israeli or American drone attack against a weapons factory in the central city of Isfahan. [4]

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs-affiliated China Institute of International Studies’ Liu Chang is another scholar that weighed in on the future of the Middle East. [5] He did so with a long article published in The Paper in which he also discussed China’s role and interests in the region. In many ways, Liu agrees with Niu with regard to regional diplomatic and economic trends, especially in the Gulf. However, he believes that those positive trends might be short-lived. For example, the impact of the war in Ukraine on food prices is a challenge for many countries. The risk of a food crisis should not be overlooked also in the region’s richer oil-producing countries, as high energy prices fuel inflation, thereby pushing governments to increase the subsidies for their populations. Moreover, the surge in oil and gas revenues might delay much-needed economic reforms.

Looking at the United States, Liu highlighted three main elements of its current Middle East policy. The first is a shift from “leading the region” to “controlling the region.” The second is manipulating relations among Arab countries by using Iran and Israel, with the latter being seen by Chinese experts as essential for American plans to “integrate the Middle East into the Indo-Pacific region.”  [5] The third is Washington’s focus on preventing its Arab allies from getting too close to China and Russia. Liu also predicted that the Biden administration’s approach toward Iran will become increasingly hard while that on human rights will become more flexible, though not forgotten.

Hence, Liu writes that a more confident (in resisting great powers) and united Middle East is what China needs. While the United Nations should be allowed to play a more direct and central role when it comes to the Palestinian issue, Gulf countries should be encouraged to deepen mutual trust and to step up their efforts to preserve regional stability. The promotion of economic development is central as well, and the strengthening of policy communication and technology sharing are other important measures that should be implemented by both sides to build “a future-oriented China-Arab and China-Sea community of shared future, as well as to promote lasting peace and universal prosperity in the Middle East.”

Against this background of disagreements on whether a bright or dark future awaits the region, it is important to highlight that the rise of Gulf countries, especially the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, is an issue on which all Chinese experts and commentators seem to agree on. As Yu Guoqing, an expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, pointed out, “the influence of the Gulf countries in the Middle East and even in the world is steadily increasing. On the one hand, it derives from their increasing importance in the international energy market. On the other hand, the Gulf countries are actively and consciously improving and deepening their participation in global governance, using their huge oil wealth to increase their foreign economic assistance and investment. One can predict that they will continue to improve their international influence through their energy status and oil wealth, and play an important role in the international arena.” [7] Liu Zhongming made similar comments in an article published in Xinhua’s Globe magazine. [8]

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[1] Gu Zhenglong, Gù zhènglóng:2023 Nián zhōng dōngbù sān dà chōngjí fāzhǎn qūshì jí qí yǐngxiǎng 顾正龙:2023年中东三大冲突发展趋势及其影响 [Gu Zhenglong: The trends and influence of the three main conflicts in the Middle East in 2023], Cfisnet, January 9, 2023, link.

[2] Niu Song, Zhōngdōng dìqū xíngshì zǒngtǐ wěn zhōng xiàng hǎo 中东地区形势总体稳中向好 [The overall situation in the Middle East is stable and improving], People’s Liberation Army Daily, January 13, 2023, link.

[3] Shu Meng, Nèi tǎ ní yǎ hú duì “zuì yòu zhèngfǔ” yǒu duōshǎo kòngzhì lì 内塔尼亚胡对“最右政府”有多少控制力 [How much control does Netanyahu have over his far-right government?], Wen Wei Po, January 5, 2023, link; Niu Song, Bā yǐ wèntí wèilái kǒng nán shàng jiā nán 巴以问题未来恐难上加难 [The Palestine-Israel issue may become even more difficult in the future], Workers' Daily, January 13, 2023, link.

[4] Qiu Wenhan, Yīlǎng jūn gōngchǎng yù xí, mùhòu zhǔ shǐ shì shéi? 伊朗军工厂遇袭,幕后主使是谁? [Who is behind the attack against the Iranian weapons factory?], Jiefang Daily, January 31, 2023, link.

[5] Liu Chang, Huǎnhé fùxīng shìtóu zhōng qiáncáng yǐnyōu,2023 nián zhōngdōng huì biàn dé gèng hǎo ma? 缓和复兴势头中潜藏隐忧,2023年中东会变得更好吗?[Concerns and worries under the surface of warming up and recovery, will the situation in the Middle East get better in 2023?], The Paper, January 16, 2023, link.

[6] Niu Song, Nèi tǎ ní yǎ hú zài dēngtái shìfàng duōchóng xìnhào 内塔尼亚胡再登台释放多重信号 [Netanyahu’s return sends multiple signals], Globe, January 29, 2023, link.

[7] Yu Guoqing, Hǎiwān guójiā yǐngxiǎng lì rì shèng 海湾国家影响力日盛 [The rising influence of Gulf countries], Globe, January 19, 2023, link.

[8] Liu Zhongmin, Lìshǐ dà biànjú zhōng de ālābó shìjiè 历史大变局中的阿拉伯世界 [The Arab world in the midst of a great historical change], Globe, January 10, 2023, l.

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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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