July 2023

The Mediterranean Region looks at China
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July was a relatively tranquil month for Sino-Mediterranean relations. The most notable event was Algerian President and Minister of Defense Abdelmadjid Tebboune’s state visit to China, which took place from July 17 to 21. On the final day of his stay, President Tebboune announced Algeria’s intention to join the BRICS and become a shareholder member of the New Development Bank (i.e., the BRICS Bank). 

In response to this news, prominent Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram published an article featuring insights from various Algerian commentators. [1] According to Hamza Bekai, the editor-in-chief of the Algerian television news channel Al-Shorouk News, “Algeria appears to be pivoting towards the East to pursue mutual interests while maintaining a line of communication with the West… [This approach] has clearly contributed to Algeria’s return to a [central] position in Arab and global politics”. Bekai also emphasized the numerous agreements between China and Algeria – notably the 2nd five-year comprehensive strategic cooperation plan for the period 2022-2026 (signed in November 2022) – and Chinese firms' recent shift from solely participating in real estate, public works, and infrastructure projects to investing in Algeria’s manufacturing and mining sectors. 

On the other hand, Seif Ad-Din Kaddeche, editor-in-chief of E-Chaab Magazine, not only highlighted China’s transformation into a global economic power, but also its military advancements, in particular the deployment of three aircraft carriers. [2] He also suggested that China's interest in strengthening its strategic partnership with Algiers stems from Algeria’s attractiveness to Chinese investors but also Beijing’s voracious appetite for energy resources.

Al-Ahram also quoted several Algerian economists, such as University of Mostaganem’s Bouchikhi Bouhaous. [3] Although acknowledging the existence of a significant bilateral trade imbalance, Bouhaous maintained a positive outlook on the future of Sino-Algerian economic ties as he believes that Chinese firms are poised to establish operations in the North African country’s new industrial zones, driven by their desire to bring production closer to both Europe and Africa. According to Bouhaous, this development could create thousands of job opportunities and potentially increase Algeria's GDP from USD 220 billion to 300 billion.

While Professor Mourad Kouachi emphasized that Tebboune's primary objective during his visit to China was to secure Beijing's support for Algeria's BRICS candidacy, he also underscored the strong potential for expanding bilateral economic relations. [4] Algiers is keen to tap into Chinese expertise and investment to develop its industry, particularly the automotive sector. Meanwhile, Beijing perceives Algeria as a strategic gateway for advancing its Belt and Road Initiative into the African market.

Economist Abderrahman Hadef, on the other hand, directed his analysis towards Chinese infrastructure financing in Algeria, highlighting projects like the El Hamdania Central Port in Cherchell. [5] An allocation of USD 6 million from both countries has been earmarked to expand this port, aiming to transform it into one of the region's largest. Additionally, Hadef pointed to the Integrated Phosphate Project (PPI), a series of projects totaling USD 7 billion located in Eastern Algeria focused on producing phosphates and fertilizers with the ultimate goal of turning the country into a relevant agricultural exporter.

While Algerian analysts expressed confidence in their country's economic relations with China, their optimism is not shared by commentators elsewhere in the region. For instance, Tunisian news outlet Tunisie Numerique warned against Tunisia following Algiers’ lead in relying on Beijing, citing how Chinese investment “is not without a quid pro quo in terms of major concessions in local economies” and because China can allegedly seize entire economic sectors if loans are not repaid. [6] Additionally, the BRICS faces challenges in challenging the dominance of the US and the dollar, and China currently is grappling with severe domestic economic issues.

Journalist Farid Alilat, writing for Paris-based magazine Jeune Afrique, also pointed out that progress on the El Hamdania Port and the PPI has yet to materialize. [7] In fact, according to the pan-Arab newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi, one of the main objectives of Tebboune's visit was "accelerating the completion of these projects" and securing Chinese investments in Algeria's mining and manufacturing sectors. [8] This is seen as crucial because diversifying the Algerian economy away from its reliance on oil and gas is believed to be one of the conditions Algiers needs to meet to gain BRICS membership.

However, for Moroccan law professor and political scientist Abbas Louardi, interviewed by Moroccan online news website Hespress, Tebboune’s visit will fail to obtain any economic results as his presidency has generally been an economic failure and because Algeria does not occupy a strategic position on the continent given the instability in Mali and Niger. [9] Moreover, “a number of countries don't trust [Algiers] because of the [Western] Sahara issue”. For Louardi, Tebboune’s primary goal in China was to “thwart the progress made by Moroccan diplomacy and, above all, the success of [its] autonomy solution [to resolve the Western Sahara conflict]” and to weaken the “positive relations between Rabat and Beijing”. He posited that the Algerian leadership’s capacity to achieve these goals “is very low” as "China has a clear position in favor of UN resolutions”, “has sovereignty problems over some of its territories” and “heavily relies on Morocco due to its geostrategic position”. 

One supposed example of Algiers attempting to sway Beijing to its side on the Western Sahara dispute were the joint statements issued after the meeting between Tebboune and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on July 18. While Algeria’s statement included a paragraph affirming the right to "self-determination for the people of Western Sahara", China’s did not. Moroccan journalist Mohammed Jaabouk, writing for online news outlet Yabiladi, argued that Algiers is “attempting to create an illusion with its version of the communiqué”, as in reality Beijing had not changed its position. [10] Jaabouk was confident that China will continue to allegedly side with Morocco, as Rabat supports China’s territorial claim over Taiwan and “in exchange, Beijing continues to ignore calls from Algeria and South Africa to invite the Polisario Front to African Union-China summits”.

President Tebboune's state visit to China stirred debate in North Africa, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's intention to visit China at an undisclosed later date has also sparked discussion in the Israeli press. 

In a piece for the right-wing newspaper Maariv, veteran journalist Shlomo Shamir asserted that “it is impossible and inappropriate… not to express doubts over the necessity of [Netanyahu’s planned trip to China], especially given its timing”. [11] For Shamir “it is a shame, and regrettable and puzzling” that the Israeli PM travels to a major country prior to paying a visit to Washington. While noting that Netanyahu has “unusually and frustratingly” not yet received an official invite from US President Joe Biden, he maintained that this does not indicate a threat to “the special relationship between the US and Israel”. Moreover, while “the US is an invulnerable bastion of friendship for Israel”, Shamir described China as “a power that represents an anti-Israeli political and diplomatic presence, whose active role is consistently and systematically felt at the UN… and is a loyal supporter and sympathizer of the Palestinian cause more than any other power”. Thus, he suggested that if Netanyahu traveled to China, he would face such strong criticism from Xi Jinping over his treatment of the Palestinians, that the reprimands he received from European leaders over his judicial reform would “sound almost like compliments”.

On the contrary, former fighter pilot and author Yitzhak Nir offered a rather particular perspective in Walla!. [12] He called on the voices concerned that Israel is replacing the US with China to “relax” as this will surely not happen as for the time being. However, he remarked how “except for the economic interest in the massive American defense exports to Israel…, the US no longer has any real interest in being the big sister and unreserved supporter of Israel… [as] the US has a big and much more important matter to answer: the battle for global hegemony”. Considering the US government and the American Jewish population’s growing irritation for the Netanyahu government’s unpopular judicial reform, Nir asked what Israel should do in case Washington abandons Israel. Nir proposes China as a possible alternative partner, which, in exchange for territory, could help neutralize both the missile and Iranian nuclear threat. For Nir, this is one of the few solutions that can postpone, for at least a century, Israel from becoming an Arab-majority state or a nuclear war with Iran. He concluded by stating that “we must prepare and leave the doors open to the Chinese. No one is infallible. No one guarantees that the Americans will stand behind us even in the 22nd century”.

However, this positive perspective on China's role in Israel's future is not prevalent among Israeli commentators. For instance, Professor Daniel Chamovitz, the dean of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, shared his experiences in China as a cautionary tale against the prevailing political shifts in Israel. [13] He suggested that the lack of academic freedom in the People's Republic is a significant reason why, “despite the billions invested in research and the country’s scientific progress, China has yet to match the breakthrough innovation capacity of the West, including Israel”. Another negative viewpoint is offered by an article for Globes written by journalist Dean Shmuel Elmas accusing Beijing of engaging in "debt-trap diplomacy" due to its involvement in Jordan’s Attarat Power Plant. [14]

However, elsewhere in the region, there are fewer concerns over the possible negative implications of Chinese investments. [15] For example, the Turkish government has been actively attempting to court Chinese investment and foreign exchange. This development, together with the meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Ankara, has led Turkish online newspaper T24 to declare that the "hibernation" period of Sino-Turkish relations has come to end. [16]

Even some Turkish analysts have been calling for more Chinese investment. According to Gazete Pencere journalist Emre Özpeynirci, “Türkiye is missing out on a historic investment opportunity due to its decision to implement a 40% additional tariff on imported Chinese electric vehicles”. [17] While this decision aimed to protect the Turkish electric car manufacturer Togg from strong Chinese competition, Özpeynirci noted that it has driven Chinese manufacturers, especially SAIC, interested in producing electric vehicles for the European market in Turkey, to explore other options.

Iraq is another country eager for additional investments, which, according to Iraqi commentator Muhammad Hassan Al-Saadi, has benefited significantly from the regional stability facilitated by China-mediated reconciliation between Iran and Saudi Arabia. [18] Iraq's Prime Minister Mohammed Shia’ al-Sudani recently announced the "Strategic Development Road," aiming to connect the southern city of Basra with Turkey by rail and road. According to Iraqi economist Bassem Antoine, “this development route could bring Iraq between USD 4 to 5 billion a year, and complements China's Belt and Road Initiative, [helping transform Iraq] into a major trading hub”. [19]

The Iranian newspaper Sharq has also covered Chinese investments in Iraq, particularly highlighting China's involvement in the construction of the Grand Faw Port. [20] The reformist paper noted that China's economic presence in Iraq has created a significant political divide in the Iraqi parliament, with a pro-China "Silk Road Alliance" of Shiite parties contrasting with the more China-skeptical political coalition of influential cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Sharq suggested that Iraqi parties' stance on China “is not only a question of economic relevance… but is linked to China's close relations with Iran”.

Sharq suggested that China's increasing role in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Israel, indicates its successful “infiltration of  the Middle East”. [21] However, Beijing's strategy, which prioritizes economic engagement, avoids military entanglements, and focuses on enhancing its image, has allowed it to cultivate a positive reputation. This is evident in a recent survey by Dubai-based public relations firm Asda'a BCW, which found that among young Arabs, China is more popular than the United States and Russia.

The survey also revealed that only 4% of respondents considered China to be an influential country in the region, in stark contrast to the United States, which scored 72%. According to Sharq, “this indicates that China has managed to penetrate the region without being perceived as an interfering nation attempting to impose its policies”. [22] Nevertheless, for Sharq both Beijing and Washington share an interest in preventing the escalation of regional tensions, as it safeguards China's economic interests, and Washington now recognizes it cannot reverse existing Arab-China cooperation or dictate terms to its allies.

Despite China's increasing role in the region and its role in facilitating the reconciliation between Tehran and Riyadh, some Iranian commentators have expressed doubts about their government's 'Look East' foreign policy, which seeks to strengthen ties with China and Russia at the expense of relations with the West. Recent concerns were triggered by a joint statement released after the Russia-GCC Ministerial meeting in Moscow, which commented on the territorial dispute between Iran and the United Arab Emirates over the islands of Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb, and Abu Musa in the Gulf. This incident reminded journalists and diplomats of China's similar joint statement with the GCC in January, which also questioned Iran's sovereignty over the islands. [23] For Fajirad, China and Russia’s lackluster support for Iranian territorial integrity is an example of why “it is necessary to have balanced relations with East and West… While we work with Russia and China, we must have relationships with Europe, the West and even the US, and this is the balancing act that will make not only the GCC, but also China and Russia pay more attention their relationship with us.”

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[1] Zeinab Hāshem, Ba’ad ziyārat ir-rayīs ‘Abd Al-majīd Tabūn li-s-Sīn mundh 'ayām.. as-Sīn tushārik fi bina' Al-jazāyir al-jadīda بعد زيارة الرئيس عبد المجيد تبون للصين منذ أيام.. الصين تشارك فى بناء الجزائر الجديدة [After President Abdelmadjid Tebboune’s visit to China a few days ago, China is participating in building a new Algeria], Al-ahrām, July 25, 2023, link.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Souleymane Loum, La prestation de Tebboune en Chine ravira Saied : Un virage anti-occidental assumé, des annonces fortes [Tebboune’s performance in China will delight Saied: An assumed anti-Western turn, strong announcements], Tunisie Numérique, July 24, 2023, link.

[7] Farid Alilat, Abdelmadjid Tebboune à Pékin pour relancer le partenariat algéro-chinois [Abdelmadjid Tebboune in Beijing to relaunch the Algerian-Chinese partnership], Jeune Afrique, July 20, 2023, link.

[8] Fi thalatha ‘as’ila… ma hiya dalalat ziyarat al-ra’is al-jaza’ir ila al-sin? في 3 أسئلة.. ما هي دلالات زيارة الرئيس الجزائري إلى الصين؟ [There are 3 questions. What are the implications of the Algerian president's visit to China?], al-Quds al-Arabi, July 17, 2023, link.

[9] Tebboune en Chine: En quête d'une position hostile au Maroc [Tebboune in China: Seeking a hostile position in Morocco], Hespress, July 19, 2023, link.

[10] Mohammed Jaabouk, [Desintox] La Chine soutien-t-elle «l’autodétermination du peuple sahraoui» ? [(Debunk) Does China support “the self-determination of the Sahrawi people”?], Yabiladi, July 19, 2023, link.

[11] Shlomo Shamir, HaMezifot SheKibel Netanyahu MeHaMaarav Yisham’u Kemo Makhma’ot Leumat Ma SheMetzapeh Lo BeSin הנזיפות שקיבל נתניהו מהמערב יישמעו כמו מחמאות לעומת מה שמצפה לו בסין [The reprimands Netanyahu received from the West will sound like compliments compared to what awaits him in China], Maariv, July 2, 2023, link.

[12] Yitzhak Nir, HaYom Akharei Amerika: Lehash’ir LeSin Delet Petukha Ze Lo Sof HaOlam היום שאחרי אמריקה: להשאיר לסין דלת פתוחה זה לא סוף העולם, [The day after America: leaving the door open to China is not the end of the world], Walla!, July 2, 2023, link.

[13] Daniel Chamovitz, Hatsatsa LeAtid “Bilti Savir” Efshari MeBeijing הצצה לעתיד "בלתי סביר" אפשרי מבייג'ינג [A glimpse of a possible “improbable” future from Beijing], Maariv, July 23, 2023, link.

[14] Dean Shmuel Elmas, Milkud HaKhov Shel Yarden: Kanta MeSin Energia BeMiliardim, Aval Matz’a Gaz Zol BeYisrael מלכוד החוב של ירדן: קנתה מסין אנרגיה במיליארדים, אבל מצאה גז זול בישראל [Jordan’s debt trap: bought billions of energy from China, but found cheap gas in Israel], Globes, July 13, 2023. link.

[15] İktidar, döviz arayışı için bu kez Çin’e gitti [The government went to China this time in search of foreign exchange.], Diken, July 25, 2023, link.

[16] Çin-Türkiye ilişkileri "hibernasyon" dan çıkıyor [China-Türkiye relations exit "hibernation"], T24, July 24, 2023, link.

[17] Emre Özpeynirci, Tarihi yatırım fırsatı kaçmasın! [Don't miss the historical investment opportunity!], Gazete Pencere, July 3, 2023, link.

[18] Muhammad Hassan Al-Saadi, hal istafad al-’iraq min al-istiqrar fi al-mintaqa? هل استفاد العراق من الاستقرار في المنطقة؟!! [Has Iraq benefited from the stability in the region?], Al Mada, July 29, 2023, link.

[19] hal sayakun tariq al-harir al-’iraqi ahdath khatawat al-tijara bayn asia wa-’urubba?, هل سيكون «طريق الحرير العراقي» أحدث خطوط التجارة بين آسيا وأوروبا؟ [Will the Iraqi Silk Road be the newest trade route between Asia and Europe?], al-Quds al-Arabi, July 5, 2023, link.

[20] Chean cheguwnh bh Khawrmaanh nfwd kerdh, ba ankeh ake qdrt mdakhlh gur shnakhth shwd? چین چگونه به خاورمیانه نفوذ کرده، بی آنکه یک قدرت مداخله گر شناخته شود؟ [How did China infiltrate the Middle East without being recognized as an interfering power?], Sharq, July 1, 2023, link.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23]  Chera saast haa Chean w Rwsah, Aaran ra ghaflguar ma kend چرا سیاست های چین و روسیه، ایران را غافلگیر می کند [Why do the policies of China and Russia surprise Iran?], Ensafnews, July 16, 2023, link.

Fatima Kalantari, Khawrmaanh Cheana w mnaf'e Aaran خاورمیـانه چینی و منافع ایـران [China's Middle East and Iran's interests], Hammihan, July 16, 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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