June 2023

China looks at the Mediterranean Region
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June was a relatively uneventful month for Chinese commentators and journalists covering developments in Sino-Mediterranean relations. Among the few events that garnered any significant media attention was the state visit by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to Beijing. In line with the prevailing narrative since the Saudi-Iranian diplomatic rapprochement, i.e., the event that triggered/decisively contributed to what in China is now called the “reconciliation tide” of the Middle East, Abbas’s visit was described in positive terms. However, it is clear that Chinese experts harbor limited optimism regarding a substantial improvement in the Israeli-Palestinian situation.

In an interview with the Global Times, Fudan University’s Sun Degang described the Israeli-Palestinian issue as “the long-term, core, and sensitive root issue within the Middle East.”  [1] He expressed skepticism over the likelihood of significant reconciliation materializing in the foreseeable future, especially in light of Israel’s current “extreme right-wing government.” In this context, Sun argued that China’s own four-point proposal, introduced by President Xi Jinping in 2013, holds greater appeal to both parties compared to any initiative put forth by Washington. Thus, he contended that “China can exert its influence by managing the differences [between the Palestinians and the Israelis] and by bringing Palestine and Israel back to the negotiating table.” [2] Yet, speaking to a journalist of Liberation Daily, Sun acknowledged that “if China wants to facilitate the peace talks between Palestine and Israel, it may still need the United States to play some role. Whether a ‘China-U.S.-Palestine-Israel’ mechanism will be formed, and a phased agreement reached is something that has to be seen.” [3]

Despite the lingering issues between Israel and the Palestinians, Chinese commentators maintained a sense of optimism as they hailed the resumption of diplomatic relations between Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), along with the announcement of new Qatari investments in Iraq. [4] Similarly, the UAE’S withdrawal from the US-led Combined Maritime Forces and Iran’s proposal for a joint Gulf maritime patrol were also viewed positively by Chinese experts, though they highlighted that the Iranian initiative will unlikely be implemented and tempered expectations for substantial improvements in Iran’s economic and diplomatic situation in the immediate future. [5]

These trends are expected to persist. In an article published by Liberation Daily, Shanghai International Studies University’s Ding Long was quoted saying that “after the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the international status of Saudi Arabia and other oil-producing countries in the Middle East has risen significantly, contributing to their increased strategic autonomy and flexibility. Not only has their diplomatic room for maneuver expanded, but their diplomatic skills have also become more mature.” [6] Nonetheless, Ding noted that since the United States has invested so much in the region since the end of the Cold War, Washington will continue to preserve its primacy there, regardless of the fact that today no country in the region shares its regional and global outlook, especially with regard to containing China. Moreover, Washington’s focus on security, rather than development, is increasingly self-defeating. This point was also made by Yuan Wu, an associate researcher at the West Asian and Africa Affairs Department of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, in an article on Egypt’s recent application to join BRICS. [7]

Against this background, Liu Zhongmin published an interesting commentary in The Paper, discussing the consolidation of authoritarian institutions in the Middle East. [8] Liu sees the contradiction between democracy and authoritarianism as one of the main sources of tension in the region. As he explains, this is an increasingly important topic as the Arab Spring has not produced a democratization wave in the region and, at the same time, both Turkey and Israel are displaying characteristics reminiscent of authoritarian regimes. Liu contends that throughout Middle Eastern history, authoritarian institutions have played a positive role by limiting the excesses, or correcting the mistakes, made by multi-party democracies. As an example, he points to instances of military interventions in Turkish politics. However, Liu also acknowledges that “the negative effects of the authoritarian system cannot be ignored. Gerontocracy, military dictatorships, lack of popular support, arbitrary amendment of laws, excessive centralization, these are all problems of Middle Eastern authoritarian countries. Once a country’s political system becomes too rigid and fails to reform, its centralization and strongman politics will undermine development. Changes and reconstruction will eventually happen through reform or revolution. In the context of profound changes unseen in a century and great transformation in the Middle East, a certain degree of authoritarianism may help the countries of the region realize their major goals of domestic development and external peace. Yet, they also must not reject the global trends of democratization.”

We close this issue of the ChinaMed Observer with a rare article on another part of the wider Mediterranean region: the Balkans. The Global Times interviewed Sun Keqin, a researcher at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, who contends that the problem is that the Albanian Kosovo authorities are not satisfied with the status quo and refuse to recognize the rights and interests of the Serbs in northern Kosovo, as defined in the 2013 Brussels Agreement. [9] Sun argues that they want to take advantage of the Russia-Ukraine conflict and achieve total domination of Kosovo with the acquiescence or support of the West. According to him, the history of Kosovo demonstrates Western countries’ determination to eliminate Russian influence from the region. Western intervention, then, has also affected the Serbian economic situation. Serb nationalism, Sun points out, is another obstacle to the issue’s peaceful resolution, though it helps to strengthen the authority of the Serb government vis-à-vis Western pressure. Sun concludes stating that in the long run Serbia must find a way to alter these dynamics with the West

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[1] Huang Peizhao and Chen Zishuai, Gēng xù shuāngfāng chuántǒng yǒuyì, huíyīng zhōngguó hétán chàngyì, ā bā sī dài zhuó zhòngyào mùbiāo fǎng huá 赓续双方传统友谊,回应中国和谈倡议,阿巴斯带着重要目标访华 [Continuing the traditional friendship between the two sides and responding to China's peace talks initiative, Abbas visits China with important goals], Global Times, June 14, 2023, link.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Zhang Quan, “老朋友”要来了,巴勒斯坦总统将访华 [An “old friend” has come, Palestine’s Abbas will visit China], Liberation Daily, June 12, 2023, link.

[4] Niu Song, Kǎtǎ'ěr wàijiāo “pòbīng” hǎiwān guójiā guānxì qū hǎo 卡塔尔外交“破冰”海湾国家关系趋好 [Qatari diplomacy "breaks the ice" and the relations between Gulf countries improve], People’s Liberation Army Daily, June 28, 2023, link.

[5] Qiu Wenhan, Jūnshì shàng “xiù” dǎodàn, tán “jiéméng”, wàijiāo shàng tàzhǎn “péngyǒu quān” yīlǎng pínpín “chūjí” chuándì shénme xìnhào军事上“秀”导弹、谈“结盟”,外交上拓展“朋友圈” 伊朗频频“出击”传递什么信号 [Shows off new missiles, talks about "alliances," and expands its "circle of friends": What message are Iran initiatives sending?], Liberation Daily, June 9, 2023, link.

[6] Qiu Wenhan, Jì zhōngqíngjú júzhǎng, báigōng guó'ān gùwèn hòu, guówùqīng yòu “jiàdào”, yǐqī xiūfù guānxì měi gāoguān pín fǎng shātè,“guò qì” zhànlüè néng fǒu zòuxiào 继中情局局长、白宫国安顾问后,国务卿又“驾到”,以期修复关系 美高官频访沙特,“过气”战略能否奏效 [After the CIA director and the national security adviser, the Secretary of State also comes. Many American officials go to Saudi Arabia to repair relations, will this “out-of-breath” strategy work?], Liberation Daily, June 6, 2023, link.

[7]Yuan Wu, Āijí shēnqǐng jiārù jīn zhuān guójiā zǔzhī, jiāng tíshēng jīn zhuān guójiā yǐngxiǎng lì 埃及申请加入金砖国家组织,将提升金砖国家影响力 [Egypt's application to join the BRICS will enhance the influence of the block], China.org, June 21, 2023, link.

[8] Liu Zhongmin, Zhōngdōng ruì píng |zhōngdōng zhèngzhì zhuǎnxíng qūshì: Huíguī huò zǒuxiàng wēiquán? 中东睿评|中东政治转型趋势:回归或走向威权?[Middle East Insight|Political trends in the Middle East: Returning or going toward authoritarianism?], The Paper, June 5, 2023, link.

[9] Zhang Xiaoya and Li Lushan, Yīwén shūlǐ: Bā'ěrgàn de “huǒyào tǒng” kēsuǒwò, dàodǐ fāshēngle shénme? 巴尔干的“火药桶”科索沃,到底发生了什么? [What happened in Kosovo, the "powder keg" of the Balkans?], Global Times, June 1, 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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