May 2023

China looks at the Mediterranean Region
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In May, the Chinese media debate on the wider Mediterranean region was dominated by three issues: the elections in Türkiye, Syria’s re-admission into the Arab League, and the evolution of the US’ Middle East policy.

Presidential elections were held in Türkiye, alongside parliamentary elections, to elect a president for a five-year term. In the first round on 14 May, the incumbent president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, exceeded expectations, garnering 49.5% of the vote, while the candidate of the (more or less) united opposition, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, secured just 44.9%. Since Erdoğan fell just 0.5% short of an outright victory, he and Kılıçdaroğlu contested a run-off election on 28 May, which Erdoğan won with 52.18% of the vote, being re-elected to a third term as president.

Chinese scholars, such as Gu Zhenglong and Niu Song of Shanghai International Studies University (SISU), identified the elections as a watershed moment for Turkish foreign policy and regional politics. [1] In the aftermath of Erdogan’s victory, it was The Observer that published the most interesting article: an interview with Dong Manyuan, a researcher at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs-affiliated China Institute of International Studies who also worked as a diplomat between 1993 and 1997 in Egypt and as First Secretary and director of the research office of the Chinese embassy in Ankara between 1999 and 2002. [2] According to him, while Kılıçdaroğlu was clearly not the best candidate the opposition could select, “Erdoğan's achievements during his 20 years in power in Turkey are noteworthy in both domestic and foreign affairs” and, therefore, it is not surprising that the “current economic situation and the earthquake somehow affected Erdogan's performance but not enough to shake his position in the hearts of Turkish voters.” Given the domestic and international challenges that Türkiye faces, the country “needs a strong political figure to lead the country from the perspective of strengthening the country.”

Looking ahead to the future, Dong expects “the AKP government and Erdoğan to continue guiding Turkey towards becoming a strong country continuing their current domestic and external policies.” He does not expect that any further future economic deterioration will undermine Erdoğan’s position. That said, Dong was sceptical about Türkiye’s capability to be more than a strong regional power. This viewpoint was echoed by others, including Fudan University’s Zou Zhiqiang. [3] It is important to emphasize, however, that this assessment appears rather optimistic when compared to comments made by Chinese scholars in the past that often stressed the unsustainability of Erdoğan’s domestic and foreign policy.

Dong’s interview concluded with a question on the impact of Erdoğan’s victory on Sino-Turkish relations. He was very straightforward: “Erdogan's victory is good for China-Turkey relations” because the two countries have increasingly supported each other over important domestic and international issues, often finding themselves under pressure from the West. As such, Dong believes that Türkiye’s China policy will remain largely unchanged under Erdoğan, though he also suggested that in the event of Kılıçdaroğlu’s victory, radical changes would have been surprising. While not specifically addressing the issue of Sino-Turkish relations, Li Yanan, an associate researcher at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), made similar remarks, emphasizing that Türkiye will likely continue to pursue its own “independent” foreign policy. [4]

A similar, if not stronger, sense of optimism can be found in Chinese reactions to the Arab League’s decision to reinstate Syria, following its suspension over a decade ago. Virtually all Chinese commentators argued that this marks a new era of Middle Eastern unity, driven by what they call “a wave of reconciliation” triggered by the China-hosted rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran. [5] 

In the words of Liu Xinlu, Dean of the School of Arabic Studies at Beijing Foreign Studies University, “people from all walks of life in the region are thinking deeply about whether Middle Eastern countries can turn their enemies into friends and whether they can escape the trap of conflict. The solution is becoming increasingly clear and has increasingly become the consensus in the region: to change the traditional concept of order and security based on Western geopolitical logic, abandon zero-sum thinking, and solve problems between countries peacefully through dialogue and consultation. The concepts of security, order, development and civilization advocated by China are widely recognized by Middle Eastern countries, which is conducive to the realization of peace and focused development in the Middle East.” [6] According to international affairs experts and finance professionals interviewed by the Global Times, recognition of China’s power and role in the region are also reflected in Middle Eastern sovereign funds’ growing interest in investing in China. [7] The region is “looking East” in both geopolitical and economic terms.

If current trends persist, wrote Tang Zhichao, the region will quickly enter a “post-American” order characterized by five main aspects: 1) The importance of the Middle East at the global level will continue to increase; 2) The easing of regional tensions will accelerate; 3) The political and security strategic autonomy of regional countries will constantly increase; 4) The countries of the region will accelerate their own development and transformation; 5) The regional system will transition from having “one superpower and many great powers” to becoming truly multipolar. [8] Liu Zhongmin believes that if and how the Syrian issue will be eventually solved is a litmus test. [9] 

Tang Zhichao explicitly states that this transformation not only benefit the region but also China. Indeed, he argued that “China's successful mediation of the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, is not only a major breakthrough in China's Middle East diplomacy, but also a major victory in two rounds of China's struggle against the United States in the Middle East.” [10] This is why Niu Xinchun wrote the United States will continue to adjust its policy to weaken China’s relations in the region, though he believes that such efforts are unlikely to succeed. [11] Interestingly, he seems to imply that one of the reasons behind Washington’s likely failure is the United States’ inability to commit large amounts of capital for long periods of time to invest in and support the completion of economic projects desired by Middle Eastern policymakers. This observation aligns with Liu Zhongmin’s remarks in another article published in the Global Times, in which he added that political polarization in the Middle East will further aggravate this problem. [12]

Besides American attempts to undermine China’s position in the region, Niu Xinchun also warned that the Iranian nuclear issue and Iran-Israel-United States relations might become a time bomb and derail the positive changes that are happening in the region. [13] Liu Zhongmin, instead, expressed concern that the Palestinian issue might become the most difficult one to manage. [14] This opinion is shared also by SISU’s Niu Song. [15] In general, Liu hopes that regional powers will continue to do two interrelated things. [16] The first is to decrease their dependence on security and defence cooperation with the United States because that has been creating and deepening divisions in the region. The second, then, is to “reengineer their mindset” to find a compromise and a balance between two extremes, i.e., “blind rejection and blind imitation” of ideas coming from other countries.

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[1] Gu Zhenglong, Gùzhènglóng: Āi ěr duō ān dàxuǎn cèlüè:“Líng wèntí wàijiāo” huíguī 顾正龙:埃尔多安大选策略:“零问题外交”回归 [Gu Zhenglong: Erdogan's general election strategy: the return of "zero-problem diplomacy"], Cfisnet, May 12, 2023, link; Niu Song, Tǔ'ěrqí zǒu dào lìshǐ fēnshuǐlǐng 土耳其走到历史分水岭 [Türkiye reaches a watershed in history], Workers’ Daily, May 19, 2023, link.

[2] Dǒng màn yuǎn: Tǔ'ěrqí wèishéme xūyào āi ěr duō ān? 董漫远:土耳其为什么需要埃尔多安?[Dong Manyuan: Why does Türkiye need Erdogan?], The Observer, May 31, 2023, link.

[3] Zou Zhiqiang, Zōuzhìqiáng: Tǔ'ěrqí wàijiāo,“tè lì dúxíng”, duōyuán pínghéng 邹志强:土耳其外交,“特立独行”、多元平衡 [Zou Zhiqiang: Turkish foreign policy, independent and multi-balancing], Global Times, May 31, 2023, link.

[4] Wang Tengfei, Āi ěr duō ān shèng xuǎn liánrèn tǔ'ěrqí jiāng jìxù dúlì wàijiāo 埃尔多安胜选连任 - 土耳其将继续独立外交 [Erdoğan wins the elections and remains in power – Turkish foreign policy will remain independent], Xinhua, May 29, 2023, link.

[5] Zhang Quan, Xùlìyǎ chóng fǎn ā méng, zhōngdōng héjiě zài xiān gāocháo 叙利亚重返阿盟,中东和解再掀高潮 [Syria returns to the Arab League, and reconciliation in the Middle East reaches another climax], Liberation Daily, May 9, 2023, link; Lin Ziou and Xiao Tianyi, Zhōngdōng héjiě yíng lái gāocháo 中东和解迎来高潮 [Reconciliation in the Middle East reaches a new climax], Guangming Daily, May 10, 2023, link; Liu Zhongmin, Liúzhōngmín: Xīfāng céng shèxiǎng rúguǒ néng diānfù bā shā ěr zhèngquán, xià yí zhàn jiùshì “déhēilán zhī chūn” 刘中民:西方曾设想如果能颠覆巴沙尔政权,下一站就是“德黑兰之春”[Liu Zhongmin: The West once thought that the next stop would be the "Tehran Spring,” if the Bashar regime could be overthrown], The Observer, May 22, 2023, link; Yan Yu, Ālābó guójiā mài chū tuánjié zìqiáng xīn bùfá 阿拉伯国家迈出团结自强新步伐 [Arab countries take new steps towards unity and self-improvement], People’s Daily, May 30, 2023, link.

[6] Wang Jian, Zhōngdōng “héjiě cháo” wèi jiějué xùlìyǎ wèntí dài lái xīn jīyù 中东“和解潮”为解决叙利亚问题带来新机遇 [The "tide of reconciliation" in the Middle East brings new opportunities for resolving the Syrian issue], Xinhua, May 4, 2023, link.

[7] Ni Hao and Huang Peizhao, Zhōngdōng zīběn fēnfēn “jiā cāng” zhōngguó! Xuézhě: “Xiàng dōng kàn” bèihòu shì dìyuán zhèngzhì guānxì wéimiào zhuǎnbiàn 中东资本纷纷“加仓”中国!学者: “向东看”背后是地缘政治关系微妙转变 [Middle Eastern capital expands its presence in China! Scholars: There is a subtle change in geopolitical relations behind this "looking East" trend], Global Times, May 12, 2023, link.

[8] Tang Zhichao, Tángzhìchāo:“Hòu měiguó shídài” zhōngdōng dìqū zhìxù jiāsù yǎnjìn 唐志超:“后美国时代”中东地区秩序加速演进 [Tang Zhichao: In the "Post-American Era", the regional order of the Middle East is evolving quickly], Cfisnet, May 5, 2023, link.

[9] Liu Zhongmin, Zhōngdōng ruì píng |xùlìyǎ chóng fǎn ā méng: Dìqū héjiě cháo de fēngxiàngbiāo yǔ shìjīnshí 中东睿评|叙利亚重返阿盟:地区和解潮的风向标与试金石 [Middle East Insight|Syria's Return to the Arab League: A weathervane and milestone for regional reconciliation], The Paper, May 8, 2023, link.

[10] Tang, Tángzhìchāo:“Hòu měiguó shídài” zhōngdōng dìqū zhìxù jiāsù yǎnjìn.

[11] Huang Peizhao and Ding Yazhi, Měi zài zhōngdōng gǎo tiělù wǎng “duìchōng zhōngguó yǐngxiǎng lì”, zhuānjiā: Jìhuà wèibì néng luòshí 美在中东搞铁路网“对冲中国影响力”,专家:计划未必能落实 [The United States is building a railway network in the Middle East to "hedge against China's influence.” Expert: The plan may not be implemented], Global Times, May 9, 2023, link.

[12] Liu Zhongmin, Liúzhōngmín: Xiá'ài páitā de gōnglì wàijiāo zài zhōngdōng xíng bùtōng 刘中民:狭隘排他的功利外交在中东行不通 [Liu Zhongmin: A narrow, exclusive, and utilitarian diplomacy will not work in the Middle East], Global Times, May 10, 2023, link.

[13] Qiu Wenhan, Xù zǒngtǒng xiàn shēn ā méng fēnghuì yìwèizhe shénme 叙总统现身阿盟峰会意味着什么 [What does the presence of the Syrian President at the Arab League summit mean?], Liberation Daily, May 19, 2023, link.

[14] Wang Haizhou, Guójì guānchá gǔn ā méng fēnghuì zhǎnxiàn sān dà tèdiǎn: Tuánjié, jīyù, liánhé xíngdòng 国际观察丨阿盟峰会展现三大特点:团结、机遇、联合行动 [International Observer丨The three key features of the Arab League summit: Unity, opportunity, and coordinated action], Xinhua, May 20, 2023, link.

[15] Niu Song, Bā yǐ yuánhé zàiqǐ chōngtú 巴以缘何再起冲突 [Why has the Israeli-Palestinian conflict started again], People’s Liberation Army Daily, May 19, 2023, link.

[16] Liu Zhongmin, Zhōngdōng ruì píng |ā méng fēnghuì hòu, ālābó shìjiè tuánjié zìzhǔ réng yǒulài “sīxiǎng zàizào” 中东睿评|阿盟峰会后,阿拉伯世界团结自主仍有赖“思想再造” [Middle East Insight|After the Arab League summit, the unity and independence of the Arab world still depends on a "mindset reengineering "], The Paper, May 23, 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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