January 2023

The Mediterranean Region looks at China
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January was marked by China’s new Foreign Minister Qin Gang’s firstdiplomatic visit. For 33 consecutive years now, Africa has been the destinationof the first annual overseas trip of every Chinese Foreign Minister. Qin Gangdid not break this tradition, travelling to Ethiopia, Gabon, Angola, Benin andEgypt. Moreover, he also visited the headquarters of the African Union in AddisAbaba and those of the Arab League in Cairo.

While in Cairo, Qin met with the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and his counterpart Sameh Shoukry. During his meeting, Qin stressed the importance of the deepening of the strategic partnership between China and Egypt within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative to advance cooperation in development, counterterrorism and achieving regional security and stability. Qin also addressed the Palestinian cause and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, confirming China’s keenness to implement the decision taken during last December’s Riyadh summits by which regional and international matters are to be considered “issues of common concern” between China and Arab states. Former Egyptian deputy minister Ambassador Ali al-Hefni commented in the news outlet Independent Arabic that the next stage of China-Arab and China-Africa relations will expand to take into consideration regional and global challenges like the food and energy crises unleashed by the Russo-Ukrainian war and the Sino-American great power competition. [1]

Despite the American retrenchment in the Middle East, Arab commentators from the Gulf agreed that both the US and China will continue to be present in the region, with Washington acting as a security provider and Beijing sticking to its trade and investment agenda. Saudi columnist Ali al-Khashiban observed in al-Riyadh that China’s “political speed and flexibility” and assurance to not interfere in other countries’ internal affairs is favorably seen as a formidable comparative advantage vis-à-vis the US, as it allows Beijing to better provide the development opportunities that region’s countries need “regardless of the direction, East or West”. [2]

However, in an interview released to al-Hall, Rami Zohdy, a member of the advisory board at the Arab Center for Studies and Research, was more skeptical about China’s strength as an economic partner given that the Gulf states do not lack financial assets, and insisted that Sino-Gulf economic cooperation is bound to remain fraught due to obstacles and difficulties stemming from the Gulf’s security linkages to the US and Chinese foreign policy’s “lack of experience with the nature of the region, the dangers and threats in it.” Zohdy concluded that even if a China-GCC free trade agreement were to be activated, economic relations between the two parties would “remain in a framework that does not exceed Western interests in any case.” [3]

On the other side of the Strait of Hormuz, Iranian commentators started the year by unanimously expressing their concerns over the future of the 25-year Iran-China strategic partnership due to regional and international considerations. Both Mohammed Javad Qahremani, a researcher on Chinese affairs, and Hossein Siyahi, a researcher of international politics, expressed in an article published in Donya-ye Eqtesad their dissatisfaction over deepening Sino-Saudi and Sino-Gulf relations. They worry that these strengthening ties may affect Beijing’s attitude toward Iran as economic partner/oil supplier and as well as a strategic partner, especially in light of the Saudi-Iranian “Cold War.” [4]

A report by Etemad also interpreted a weakening in Tehran’s position with respect to Beijing. The latter was accused of “pleasing one of its strategic partners at the expense of another” in last month’s diplomatic incident over the three islands of Abu Musa, Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb. In the same report, Hamidreda Azizi attributed the uncertain implementation of the 25-year agreement and China move toward the GCC to the failure to revive the JCPOA negotiations, the consequent protraction of sanctions resulting in Iran’s increased international isolation, especially when compared to the more stable investment environment of the Gulf markets. [5]

In an interview with the private Iranian news agency Fararu reported by Donya-ye Eqtesad, foreign policy expert Rahman Qahremanpour argued that in the context of Sino-American competition, the US clearly has no intention to revive the JCPOA. This is because blocking the Iranian nuclear deal helps stop Iran from selling its oil to China, which may further impact Beijing’s relations with Tehran and make China “less resistant to American pressure on Iran than in the past”. [6] However, most commentators seemed to agree that Iran and China will likely continue their relations in the same way as before.

In a debate reported by al-Modon on how to re-establish the structure of the Lebanese state – which has been undergoing a serious financial and political crisis since 2019 – Hassan Nasrallah, the Secretary General of Hezbollah, a Shia Islamist political party backed by Iran, openly called for changing the system of Lebanon’s foreign relations to open up towards Iranian, Russian and even Chinese investments. [7] Although this is in line with the general trend among Arab countries looking for development opportunities, Samir Geagea, leader of Lebanese Forces, a Christian-based militia and party, discarded Nashrallah’s proposal arguing that there cannot be a “realistic economic vision for the next stage” if Lebanon does not first address its internal divisions and political instability. [8]

ʿAbd-allah al-Ashʿal, Professor of International Law and Relations at the University of Cairo, published an interesting opinion piece on al-Quds al-Arabi with five key points on Qin’s diplomatic visit to Egypt and Africa more broadly. In two of the points, he argued that thanks to Beijing’s focus on development and common interests rather than other countries’ political conditions such as democracy and human rights, “[China] gained Africa and the decline of Western influence” in it. However, he was also concerned that with the deepening of Sino-African relations, Beijing may review Egypt’s role in them, stating that even if Cairo had once been China’s main gateway to Africa and the Arab world, its Arab and African assets have significantly eroded by now. [9] In the remaining notes, al-Ashʿal called for Arab countries to beware of Sino-Israeli cooperation as Tel Aviv relies more and more on China to “compensate for the decline of American influence in the region” and as the Palestinian cause risks being further marginalized in the main discourse. He is of the opinion that in its foreign policy, Beijing should avoid Arab divisions and establish a clearer position on Israel and the Palestinian issue. [10]

Israeli media, on the other hand, did not seem to have paid attention to Qin’s diplomatic visit to their neighborhood and focused more on Tel Aviv’s stance in Sino-American relations and economic ties with China as usual. In a security analysis published by Maariv, former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Zalman Shoval stated that while Israel must continue its strategic ties with the United States against the Iranian nuclear threat, “economic and pragmatic ties” with China are also necessary. However, these ties should take into account American interests. [11] Moreover, according to a report by Ynet, 3,000 Chinese workers had already entered Israel by January, among the 10,000 expected to arrive in 2023 to support the construction industry and meet the current great demand for apartment construction in Israel, [12] giving impetus to the economic ties between the two countries right after China re-opened its borders on January 8 after three years of strict lockdown.

Sino-Turkish economic ties were also strengthened with Alibaba Group President Michael Evans’ visit to the country and his laying out of the Chinese company’s plans to invest 1 billion USD in the construction of a logistics hub at Istanbul airport and a data center near the Turkish capital of Ankara after completing taking over the Turkish e-commerce platform Trendyol, Medyascope reported. During a meeting with the Turkish Minister of Treasury and Finance Nureddin Nebati in Ankara, Evans stated that Türkiye’s geographical location and existing production facilities for e-commerce made it the preferred choice for the company to reach European and Middle Eastern markets. [13]

However, unsympathetic voices towards China are also a constant in Turkish media due to the Uyghur issue and the significant presence of Uyghur expatriates in the country. Commenting on the same takeover of Trendyol by Alibaba Group, a report by Sol Haber connected the purchase to covert Chinese activities and secret overseas police stations in Türkiye spying on Uyghur expatriates, to the “point of threatening national sovereignty." [14]

We conclude this issue of the ChinaMed Observer with a piece published by the French media outlet Le Monde by their North African correspondent Frédéric Bobin, which analyzed with caution a possible rapprochement between Beijing and Tunis. At the moment, the Chinese presence in Tunisia is still at a timid stage with Chinese FDI accounting for just 0.08% of the total stock (33.5 million USD in 2021) compared to neighboring Algeria (1716 million USD) or even Morocco (349.2 million USD). As Tunis strives to recover from full economic stagnation by seizing new opportunities, the idea of joining the “Sahelian Silk Road” under the framework of the BRI has gained more and more traction in Tunisian think tanks. North African security expert Oussama Dhiab predicted that with the changing of the geopolitical context — Tunis getting increasingly close to Algeria and aiming at strategically readjusting its foreign policy from Western-oriented to “omni-alignment,” “the strengthening of ties with China will not be abrupt but gradual.” [15]

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[1] Ahmad ʿAbd al-Hakim, Hal yahmalu khitam al-jawlat al-siniya bi-Afriqiya bidayat jadida? هل يحمل ختام الجولة الصينية بأفريقيا بداية جديدة؟ [Does the conclusion of the Chinese tour in Africa carry a new beginning?], Independent Arabic, January 16, 2023, link.

[2] ʿAli al-Khashiban, Al-tanafus al-amiriki al-sini wa-l-furas al-siyasiya fi al-sharq al-awsat التنافس الأميركي الصيني والفرص السياسية في الشرق الأوسط [The Sino-American rivalry and political opportunities in the Middle East], al-Riyadh, January 16, 2023, link.

[3] ʿAssam Zoʿbi, Al-ʿalaqat bayna al-Sin wa-l-Khalij… ijraʾat akthar sirama li-mutabaʿat taʿahhudat Bikin? العلاقات بين الصين والخليج.. إجراءات أكثر صرامة لمتابعة تعهدات بكين؟ [Sino-Gulf relations… stricter measures to face Beijing’s pledges?], al-Hall, January 31, 2023, link.

[4] Saʿide Sadat Fahri, Tehran va Pekan dar vazʿiyat-e napaydar تهران و پکن در وضعیت ناپایدار [Tehran and Beijing in an unstable situation], Donya-ye Eqtesad, January 1, 2023, link.

[5] Bedun-e barjam ejra-ye tavafoq-e 25-sale ba Cin momken nist بدون برجام اجرای توافق 25 ساله با چین ممکن نیست [Without the JCPOA it is impossible to implement the 25-year agreement with China], Etemad, January 11, 2023, link.

[6] Cin dar hal-e baznegari dar ravabet-e khwod ba Tehran ast چین در حال بازنگری در روابط خود با تهران است [China is reviewing its relations with Tehran], Donya-ye Eqtesad, January 30, 2023, link.

[7] Muhannad al-Hajj ʿAli, Mashariʿ taʾsisiya farigha مشاريع تأسيسية فارغة [Empty-foundation projects], al-Modon, January 20, 2023, link.

[8] Ibidem.

[9] ʿAbd-allah al-Ashʿal, Al-diblumasiyat al-siniya tijjah Israʾil wa-l-ʿarab الدبلوماسية الصينية تجاه إسرائيل والعرب [The Chinese diplomacy towards Israel and e Arabs], al-Quds al-Arabi, January 25, 2023, link.

[10] Ibidem.

[11] Zalman Shoval, Hamegama Lefiha “Sin BeRosh MeAyaneinu” Tzrikha Lehashpia Al HaTikhnun HaAstrategi Shel Israel המגמה לפיה "סין בראש מעיינינו" צריכה להשפיע על התכנון האסטרטגי של ישראל [The trend of “China as top priority” should influence Israel's strategic planning], Maariv, January 31, 2023, link.

[12] Itamar Eichner and Hila Tsion, Leakhar Hasarat HaMigbalot Al Tnu’ah BeSin: Ke-Sheloshet Alafim Ovdei Binyan Yikansu LeYisrael לאחר הסרת המגבלות על תנועה בסין: כ-3,000 עובדי בניין ייכנסו לישראל [After the lifting of restrictions on movement in China: about 3,000 construction workers will enter Israel], Ynet, January 10, 2023, link.

[13] Alibaba Türkiye’ye 1 milyar dolarlık yatırım yapacak [Alibaba to invest $1 billion in Turkiye], Medyascope, January 9,2023, link.

[14] The espionage case that broke out in Zeytinburnu: Does China have illegal police stations in Turkiye? [ The espionage case that broke out in Zeytinburnu: Does China have illegal police stations in Turkiye?], Sol Haber, January 18, 2023, link.

[15] Frédéric Bobin, La Tunisie tentée par un rapprochement avec la Chine [Tunisia is tempted by a rapprochement with China], Le Monde, January 11, 2023, 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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