June 2023

The Mediterranean Region looks at China
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This month’s big news item in Sino-Mediterranean relations was the state visit to China by President of the State of Palestine and of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas from June 13 to 16. This marked Abbas' fifth visit to the People's Republic since taking power almost two decades ago. During his four-day-long sojourn in Beijing, the Palestinian president met his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping and together signed a “strategic partnership” agreement between China and the Palestinian Authority. 

President Xi also conveyed China’s readiness to facilitate peace talks with Israel (a proposal reminiscent of the one made by former Foreign Minister Qin Gang back in April). Furthermore, Xi presented his three-point proposal to settle the Palestinian question: 1) the establishment of an independent State of Palestine that enjoys full sovereignty on the basis of the 1967 borders and with East Jerusalem as its capital; 2) an escalation of international development assistance and humanitarian aid to Palestine; and 3) the convening a large-scale, more authoritative and influential international peace conference to create conditions for the resumption of peace talks.

In a related development, Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed on June 27 that he had received an invitation from Xi to visit China later in the year, although a specific date for this visit has not yet been determined.

The idea of China mediating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been gaining momentum, particularly following China's successful brokering of the reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran in March. These recent events have reignited debates within the regional media ecosystem regarding China's expanding diplomatic role, not only concerning Palestine but across the entire Middle East.

Starting with Palestinian media, the Gaza-based newspaper Felesteen featured an article from Dr. Youssef Rizqa, a political analyst, literature professor and former information minister for the Hamas administration in Gaza. [1] Rizqa questioned whether Beijing could realistically replace the US and Western European states in pressuring Israel to address Palestinian concerns with regard to ending the occupation, dismantling illegal settlements and lifting the blockade of the Gaza Strip. He expressed his doubts as “China’s role in the Middle East is limited and… [it is more] interested in its domestic problems”. Additionally, “China has close political and commercial ties with Israel” and the conditions that enabled China’s success with Iran and Saudi Arabia do not exist with respect to the Palestinian question. Consequently, Rizqa concluded that “while exploring a potential Chinese role can be good, overstating is not and [can lead] to exaggerations; Palestinian policy should be objective and put things in perspective.”

Felesteen also published another article by Dr. Maher Al-Taher, the leader-in-exile of the far-left Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which is designated as a terrorist organization by the US and EU. [2] In his piece, Al-Taher discussed President Xi’s “three-point proposal”. While celebrating the historic friendship between the People’s Republic and the Palestinian people and how Beijing’s emergence as “an economic, political, military, and cultural superpower that rejects US dominance over the international system”, Al-Taher ultimately dismissed Xi’s peace plan. He argued that it does not acknowledge “the heart and essence of the Palestinian question… the return of Palestinians to their land and homes, those they were forced to leave in 1948”. However, even with provisions on Palestinian refugees, Xi’s proposal based around the two-state solution would have never obtained Al-Taher’s support as for him “there is no possibility for coexistence with the illegitimate Zionist colonial project occupying Palestinian land and [the Palestinian people] will not accept any solution perpetuating the Zionist presence on its territory”. 

While it is evident that the more radical elements of Palestinian society would not endorse Beijing's mediation efforts and peace plan, there was also a lack of enthusiasm among moderate voices. For instance, al-Quds al-Arabi, an independent London-based pan-Arab newspaper owned by Palestinian expatriates, published an article by Egyptian writer and economist Ibrahim Nawar. [3] Nawar argued that Arabs should not overly rely on China to resolve the Palestinian question. He pointed out that China's plan is unclear, and the rightward shift in Israeli politics makes it highly improbable that Tel Aviv would willingly engage in negotiations centered on concepts like "land for peace," "the two-state solution," or "Palestinian-Israeli coexistence”. Additionally, China's involvement may face opposition from the United States, which could perceive Beijing’s diplomatic efforts as a challenge to its influence in the Middle East. Thus, Nawar suggested that it is “necessary for Chinese diplomacy to be open to other ideas and effective solutions to achieve the goal of regional peace and of peaceful coexistence and cooperation between the peoples of the area, including Israelis and Palestinians”.

The Iranian reformist newspaper Ham-Mihan shared a similar perspective, noting that “while the Palestinian side might benefit from Beijing’s involvement, Israel has little incentive to welcome Chinese mediation”. [4] Dr. Khalil Jahshan, a Palestinian-American analyst and executive director of the Arab Center Washington, was quoted in the article, expressing doubts about China's ability or willingness to dedicate the necessary time and financial resources to reach a satisfactory resolution between Israel and Palestine.

While Israelis and Palestinians currently struggle to find common ground on a potential peace plan, Israeli commentators are in agreement with their Palestinian counterparts in the Chinese peace proposal’s lack of merit. Historian Galia Lavi, Deputy Director of the Diane and Guilford Glazer Israel-China Policy Center at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), dismissed the Chinese President’s three-point proposal, deeming it “too generic and devoid of specific practical steps”, akin to Xi’s previous "four-point" and "five-point" plans. [5] Lavi also hypothesized that the Palestinian leader might not genuinely support China’s plan, perhaps offering mere "lip service" to maintain Chinese support at the UN while signaling to the US that – like Saudi Arabia and the UAE – Palestinians are willing to consider Beijing as an alternative to Washington. Lavi concluded by stating that “even if [Abbas’] visit does not yield him any benefits, in the current situation, given China’s clear pro-Palestinian stance, Israel cannot afford to alienate its close ally, the US”. However, she cautioned that fully aligning with Washington could have severe economic repercussions.

Lavi wrote her article prior to Netanyahu’s announcement that he was invited to visit Beijing (this absence of a parallel visit was an “alarming diplomatic signal” for her). However, the news of Xi’s invitation was met with concern by many Israeli analysts amid deteriorating relations with the US. The Biden administration has not yet extended an invitation to the Israeli PM to visit Washington, likely due to the violent repression of the protests against the reforms curtailing judiciary autonomy pushed by his government.

In a guest column for Walla!, Major General Amos Yaldin, president of Mind Israel and former head of the IDF’s Intelligence Division and of the INSS, interpreted Netanyahu’s announcing his intent to travel to China “as a signal to the Biden administration that Israel has other policy alternatives”. [6] For Yaldin, this attempt to emulate the Saudi model of “diversification of foreign partners” is “a move that will harm the Israeli national interest, not advance it” as, unlike Riyadh, Tel Aviv depends on US military aid, its UN Security Council veto, and its support against Iran and Hezbollah. Considering Washington’s focus on competing with Beijing, he warned that “attempting to play the China card… may endanger the relationship with a president sympathetic to Israel and committed to its security”. Indeed, according to Yaldin, “the road to normalization with Saudi Arabia, to deterring Iran, to furthering Israel’s advantages in technology and innovation, and to membership in the club of free nations, passes through Washington, not Beijing”.

In an article for Calcalist, journalist Yuval Sade similarly posited that “Washington might see the trip as a poke in the eye… potentially interpreting the flirtation with Xi Jinping as an attempt by Israel to demonstrate that it has alternatives”. [7] Dr. Tomer Fadlon, an Associate Researcher at the Glazer Center for Israel-China Policy, was interviewed regarding Chinese economic influence in Israel. [8] Faldon highlighted that while trade with China has grown impressively, the Israeli service and high-tech sector (“the engine of the economy”) predominantly relies on exports to the US. Indeed, “in 2021, Israel exported services to the US in the amount of USD 20.5 billion, to the EU in the amount of USD 5.4 billion, while to China only 153 million USD”. Fadlon also suggested that China’s growing economic interest in the Middle East “stems not from a desire to have influence here, but from the fact that many countries in the Middle East allow [their] activity”, given the restrictions in other parts of the world due to superpower competition.

While there has been significant media attention on China’s potential role in the Palestine question, commentators in other parts of the wider Mediterranean have taken a broader regional perspective to analyze these recent developments. [9] Many analysts have been considering whether China is attempting to "fill the void" left by the decline of US influence in the Middle East and what potential implications this could have for the region, especially in light of the growing tensions between Washington and Beijing. [10]

Indeed, this month there was considerable interest in the Middle Eastern press for China-US relations, partly sparked by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent trip to Beijing (June 18-19), which took place after his initial trip was canceled due to the "Chinese spy balloon" incident.

On this issue, the Emirati newspaper Al Khaleej published two articles, one by Ahmad Mustafa, the other by Dr. Muhammad Al-Saeed Idris, both of whom considered Blinken’s visit as an inevitable “failure”. [11] They believed that the trip could not achieve its objective of preventing the further escalation of competition between the US and China. These two analysts assigned some responsibility for the deterioration in Sino-American relations to both sides. While the US “does not want anyone to grow up to compete with it for its role, or even to push for a “multipolar world”, China “wants to test its development and opposes a single superpower’s control over the whole international system”. [12]

A more optimistic perspective is presented by Dr. Saleh Lafi Al-Maaita in the Jordanian government-owned newspaper al-Rai. [13] For him, the Sino-American relationship offers not only challenges but also opportunities. Al-Maaita noted that “China avoids involvement in conflicts in the Middle East and Africa… [and does not] challenge American hegemony and military superiority in the post-Cold War Middle East”. As a result, he suggested the US should not see China’s political, economic and technological presence in the region as a threat to its interests, but as an opportunity for the two states to come closer and enhance cooperation”.

The Iranian press offered a more negative view of the US’ role in the region and a more positive take on China’s. Professor of International Relations Mahmoud Sari al-Qalam, in an interview on why Iran turned towards Russia and China for economic daily Eghtesad News, blamed the US’ withdrawal from the JCPOA nuclear deal in 2018 for “definitively undermining any chance that Iran could have had a healthy dialogue with Washington”. [14] In response, the newly-“elected” hardliner government of Ebrahim Raisi adopted a new foreign policy based around “forging ever closer relations with Russia and China”. While this pivot away from the West has been having negative effects on Iranian economic and industrial development, al-Qalam contended that “closer ties with Russia and China not only help de-risk Iran's foreign economic relations, but also help maintain the optimal rate of advancement of its nuclear program as a strategic component of the country's national security doctrine”. Interestingly, the term "de-risking," popularized in the EU to describe the need to reduce economic dependency on China, is employed in this article to describe strengthening economic ties with China to reduce dependency on the West.

Despite Iranian interest in deepening economic relations with the People’s Republic (and even in China’s economic model [15]), Iran has been struggling to attract Chinese investment. Indeed, even though the two countries signed a 25-year strategic cooperation agreement in March 2021, there have been few tangible economic results (see ChinaMed Data for more). Moreover, the agreement remains secret to the public and even to members of the Iranian parliament. As reported by the reformist Iranian newspaper Sharq, this secrecy has fueled outrage among Iranian MPs, with some rumors suggesting that the agreement is supposedly “selling out the country” and that it has alleged secret provisions including “handing over of the island of Kish to the Chinese, [and] a ban on Iranian fishermen fishing in the Persian Gulf”. [16]

A similar discussion is taking place in Italy regarding the country's own deal with China, the Memorandum of Understanding on cooperation within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). With the current Meloni government indicating its intention to withdraw Italy from the BRI, the Italian media debate has shifted not only to criticizing the BRI’s lacking results in Italy, but the need for Europe to offer an alternative as, to quote the right-wing magazine Panorama, China “uses debt traps” and “should instead be recognized for what it is: an economic competitor and a systemic rival that, thanks to its governance, [that of] a ruthless dictatorship, operates in a parallel universe of state support and unfair competition". [17] Concerns over Chinese influence were also perceived as being behind Rome’s latest use of the “golden power” (the Italian government’s ability to intervene against foreign investments and acquisitions in strategic sectors of the economy) to force the Chinese state-owned conglomerate Sinochem to divest from the Italian tire giant Pirelli. [18]

Elsewhere in the wider Mediterranean, Chinese economic engagement appears to face fewer obstacles. In Türkiye, for instance, CRRC, the Chinese state-owned rolling stock manufacturer, was awarded the contract to construct the country's first driverless metro project in Ankara, featuring trains with top speeds of up to 120 km/h, as reported by Cumhuriyet Gazetesi. [19]

On the other hand, Morocco recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the Sino-European group Guchen Hi-Tech, securing a substantial USD 6.4 billion investment to establish a "gigafactory” for electric vehicle battery production in Rabat. [20] This development is part of a broader trend of MoUs between Rabat and Beijing, attracting significant Chinese investments in Morocco (see ChinaMed Data for more), particularly in the Port of Tangiers. L’Économiste Maghrébin reported that the total value of China's foreign direct investment now stands at USD 380 million, “a figure that does not represent the size of China's aspirations in this African country, according to experts”. [21] Moreover, Morocco has become the favorite North African destination for Chinese tourists, much to the chagrin of Tunisian analysts. [22]

In addition to economic investments, China is also expanding its security ties with Morocco. However, this presents a challenge as Beijing is simultaneously enhancing its security relations with Morocco’s main geopolitical rival, Algeria. Notably, as reported by journalist Hamza Fawzi for Moroccan news outlet Hespress “China decided to supply both Morocco and Algeria with its ‘Wing Loong II’ drones, despite the existence of an ‘arms race’ between the two countries”. [23]

The Hespress article went on to interview security expert Mohamed Akdid, for whom “Algeria’s acquisition of the Wing Loong II drones is aimed primarily at gaining China’s vote to join BRICS, whose members are still currently refusing to let Algeria enter”. [24] Akid had little concern for China selling the same drones simultaneously to Morocco and Algeria, considering how Beijing “takes a positive distance from the Western Sahara conflict”. 

While Akid acknowledged that “Algeria has the right to diversify its military partnerships and strengthen its defensive and offensive arsenals”, the article also interviewed security expert Ihsan Al-Hafidi, who criticized the arms race, attributing it to Algeria's actions and viewing China as “exploiting global crises to sell its weapons and more bolster its military reputation”. [25] Nonetheless, it appears that China is currently managing to balance its relations with both Algeria and Morocco, avoiding the pitfalls faced by France and Spain.

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[1] Yousef Rizka, يوسف رزقة, Dawr al-sin fi qadiatina, دور الصين في قضيتنا, [China’s role in our case], Felesteen, June 15, 2023, link.

[2] Maher al-taher, ماهر الطاهر, ‘an al-ru’ya al-siniyya dhat al-nuqat al-thalath bi-sha’n hall al-qadiya al-falastiniyya, عن الرؤية الصينية ذات النقاط الثلاث بشأن حل القضية الفلسطينية, [On China’s three-point vision on solving the Palestinian issue], Felesteen, June 19, 2023, link.

[3] Ibrahim Nawar, Hal lada al-sin ma taqaddumuhu li-ihlal al-salam bayna al-’isra’iliyyn wa-al-falastiniyyin?, هل لدى الصين ما تقدمه لإحلال السلام بين الإسرائيليين والفلسطينيين؟, [Does China have anything to offer for peace between Israelis and Palestinians?], al-Quds al-Arabi, June 20, 2023, link.

[4] Arya Sediqi, قمار چین در طرح صلح خاورمیانه [China's gamble in the Middle East peace plan], Ham-Mihan, June 16, 2023, link.

[5] Arya Sediqi, قمار چین در طرح صلح خاورمیانه [China's gamble in the Middle East peace plan], Ham-Mihan, June 16, 2023, link.

[6] Amos Yadlin עמוס ידלין, Ma SheNakhon LeSa’udim Lo Nakhon LeYisrael: Asur Lehipanot Oref LeArtsot HaBrit | Da’a — מה שנכון לסעודים לא נכון לישראל: אסור להפנות עורף לארה"ב | דעה, [What is true for the Saudis is not true for Israel: we must not turn our backs on the USA | Opinion], Walla!, June 28, 2023. link.

[7] Yuval Sade יובל שדה, HaNesi’a Shel Netanyahu LeSin Hi Od Himur Mesukan VeLo Mutsdak הנסיעה של נתניהו לסין היא עוד הימור מסוכן ולא מוצדק, [Netanyahu's trip to China is another dangerous and unjustified gamble], Calcalist, June 28, 2023, link.

[8] Ibid. 

[9] Guillaume de Dieuleveult, La Palestine, nouvelle cible du président Xi Jinping [Palestine, the new target of President Xi Jinping], Le Figaro, June 15, 2023, link

[10] Ibrahim Nawar, إبراهيم نوار, Al-su’ud al-sini wa-tada’iyatuhu ‘ala tawazun al-quwa fi-al-sharq al-awsat, لصعود الصيني وتداعياته على توازن القوى في الشرق الأوسط, [China's rise and its repercussions on the balance of power in the Middle East], al-Quds al-Arabi, June, 13, 2023, link.

‘Atif al-Ghamri, عاطف الغمري, al-’alam al-’arabi… wa-mizan al-quwa al-duwaliyya, العالم العربي.. وميزان القوى الدولية, [The Arab world and the balance of international powers], al-Khaleej, June 14, 2023, link.

هل تملأ الصين الفراغ الأميركي في الشرق الأوسط؟ hal tamla’ al-sin al-faragh al-’amriki fi al-sharq al-awsat? [Is China filling the US void in the Middle East?], Mawazin, June 16, 2023, link.

sijal sini-’amriki yuhaddid bi-’ifsad thamar ziyarat Blinken, سجال صيني - أميركي يُهدد بإفساد «ثمار» زيارة بلينكن, [Sino-American sparring threatens to spoil the 'fruits' of Blinken's visit], al-Anbaa, June 22, 2023, link.

Muhammad Abu Al-Qasim, ‘Abdulghait: al-wadi e al-dawla bāligh al-khutūra wa-sayastamirru fatra أبوالغيط: الوضع الدولي بالغ الخطورة وسيستمر فترة [Aboul Gheit: The international situation is very dangerous and this will continue for a while], Al-ahrām, June 1, 2023, link.

[11] Ahmad Mustafa, أحمد مصطفى, Hal yumkin al-’isitghna’ ‘an al-sin?, هل يمكن الاستغناء عن الصين؟, [Can China be dispensed with?], al-Khaleej, June 21, 2023, link.

Muhammad al-Sa’id ‘Idris, محمد السعيد إدريس, ‘Asbab fashal ziyarat blinken li-al-sin, أسباب فشل زيارة بلينكن للصين, [Reasons for the failure of Blinken’s visit to China], al-Khaleej, June 23, 2023, link.

[12] Ahmad Mustafa, Can China be dispensed with?

[13] Saleh Lafi Al-Maaita, al-tanafus bayna amrika wa-al-sin - furas ‘aw tahdiyyat, أميركا والصين فرص أم تحديات, [America and China, opportunities or challenges], al-Rai, June 18, 2023, link.

[14] Hojjat Zamanirad, سه دلیل اصلی برای چرخش ایران به سوی روسیه و چین [Three main reasons for Iran's turn towards Russia and China], Eqtesad, June 5, 2023, link.

[15] Algoo-ye Chini dar Tajarat-e Azad الگوی چینی در تجارت آزاد [The Chinese model of free trade], Donya-e-Eqtesad, June 28, 2023, link.

[16] Masoumeh Moazzami, وعده رمزگشایی در کمیسیون امنیت ملی [The promise of decoding in the National Security Commission], Sharq, July 2, 2023, link.

[17] Giovanni Brussato, Via della seta o trappola del debito [Silk Road or debt trap], Panorama, June 6, 2023, link.

[18] Guido Santevecchi, Pirelli, la minaccia velata di Pechino dopo il Golden Power: «Cina mercato importante per il made in Italy» [Pirelli, Beijing’s veiled threat after the Golden Power: “the Chinese market is important for Made in Italy”], Corriere della Sera, June 23, 2023, link.

[19]  Türkiye ilk yüksek hızlı sürücüsüz metro projesi [Türkiye's first high-speed driverless metro project], Cumhuriyet Gazetesi, June 9, 2023, link.

[20] KG Agences, Les investissements de la Chine au Maroc progressent à un rythme soutenu [Chinese investments in Morocco are increasing steadily], L’Économiste Maghrébin, June 6, 2023, link.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Kais Ben Mrad, Pourquoi la Tunisie se prive des touristes chinois? [Why is Tunisia foregoing Chinese tourists?], Espace Manager, June 17, 2023, link.

[23] Hamza Fawzi, As-Sin tussalim tāyirā masīra mutattawira 'ilā Aljazāyir wal-Maghrib fi waqt wāhid الصين تسلم طائرات مسيرة متطورة إلى الجزائر والمغرب في وقت واحد [China delivers advanced drones to Algeria and Morocco at the same time], Hespress, June 27 2023, link.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

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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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