May 2023

The Mediterranean Region looks at China
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In May, a pivotal event with far-reaching implications for China’s influence in the wider Mediterranean region was the Turkish general elections. The Turkish press was active in reporting and analyzing Chinese perspectives on Türkiye’s political future, specifically opinions on the two main presidential candidates: the incumbent president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and the six-party opposition coalition candidate, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. In the first round held on 14 May, Erdoğan and Kılıçdaroğlu came first and second, respectively. However, as neither candidate secured more than 50% of the vote, a run-off election was scheduled for 28 May.

Similarly to an article covered in last month’s ChinaMed Observer, a piece by the local newspaper RHA Ajans concluded that Chinese analysts and scholars view an Erdoğan re-election as a more positive outcome for Sino-Turkish relations, as there are concerns that “Türkiye may turn to the West in case…[Kılıçdaroğlu] wins” [1] (for more Chinese commentary on the Turkish elections, see the “China Looks at the Mediterranean” edition of this month’s ChinaMed Observer). Thus, Erdoğan’s victory in the second round may be regarded as a boon for Beijing from those who analyze it from the perspective of US-China great power competition.

The narrative of a Sino-American “new Cold War” is not confined to Turkish media; rather, it has become the prevalent, if not dominant, lens through which commentators from across the wider Mediterranean are analyzing regional dynamics. Moreover, recent events like the “Beijing Agreement” (the China-mediated deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran), Syria’s readmission into the Arab League, the Turkish elections, and the many requests from MENA states to join or participate in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the BRICS have led many analysts in the region to reach the same conclusion: US dominance of the Middle East is coming to an end as China becomes an ever more important actor in the region’s affairs.

Articles in this vein include one provocatively titled “Has the end of the American century in the Middle East started?” by Mohammed Kharoub for the Jordanian government-owned newspaper Al Ra'i. [2] This piece highlighted comments from American analysts lamenting Beijing’s diplomatic superiority over Washington in the region and the “inevitable” decline of the US dollar from its long-held position of dominance.

The Saudi newspaper Al Riyadh has also been actively discussing the impact of US-China tension on the region. However, the articles the newspaper publishes seem to promote Beijing over Washington, Saudi Arabia’s supposed most important partner and ally. For instance, a piece by Saudi opinion writer Azzam Al-Mashaal criticized Western offensive military aid to Ukraine and NATO’s plan to open its first Asian office in Tokyo, decrying how “NATO allies led by the US are dragging the world into a dangerous chapter.” [3] Moreover, the article does not level any criticism against Beijing over the increasing global tensions.

However, it would be incorrect to describe Al Riyadh’s editorial line (and the position of the Saudi government) as inherently favoring a Chinese-led order in the Middle East or further tensions between Beijing and Washington. This can be gleaned from its decision to feature an article dissecting a report from the American newspaper The National Interest. The piece suggests an alternative approach: both China and the US should strive for a compromise to avoid further escalation, drawing inspiration from the historical lessons of the "previous" Cold War.

On the contrary, pro-government Iranian media, while echoing the belief in waning US hegemony in the Middle East, distinguishes itself by very much advocating increased Chinese influence in the region, especially through the establishment of a tripartite bloc between China, Russia and Iran. This perspective is clearly presented in a report released by the Iranian official press agency IRNA, which asserts that “Russia, China and Iran share a common project aimed at stemming the tensions and conflicts fueled by the West.” [4] The report also delves into China's “strategy” – including the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), its apparent diplomatic impartiality and the Beijing Agreement – concluding that it “shows Beijing's commitment to present itself as a sincere ally” (similar praise for China’s foreign policy can be found in an article penned by researcher Behruz Dini for Iranian economic newspaper Donya-ye Eqtesad [5]).

This defense of China likely arises as a response to the ongoing criticism from the Iranian reformist press concerning Tehran's "Look East" foreign policy, in particular its emphasis on cultivating ties with Beijing rather than seeking to mend relations with Washington and the West. A case in point can be found in an article published by reformist newspaper Sharq titled “Reasons for turning to China.” [6] The article responds to its title’s question by highlighting the allure of China's model, which it describes as “aiming exclusively at significant economic growth without paying attention to democracy and social freedoms.” While acknowledging this model’s current appropriateness for China, the author does not regard it as apt for Iran as the Islamic Republic does not have a “national social project,” and because “China's social and cultural model, devoid of democracy and based on social control, would not work for a plural and diverse society like Iran's.. Consequently, the article concludes that Tehran “should not neglect the economic relations with other states and try not to have economic relations exclusively with China and a handful of small neighboring countries.”

While the Middle Eastern press has predominantly directed its focus towards how China’s growing influence is impacting the US’ hegemony in the region, media outlets in North Africa and Southern Europe have also been delving into the repercussions that China’s engagement in the wider Mediterranean is having on the EU and European countries. For instance, French newspaper Le Monde featured a column from Mehran Haghirian, the Director of Regional Initiatives at the Bourse & Bazaar Foundation. In this column, Haghirian concludes that “while China now occupies, alongside the United States, a central place in the strategic calculations of all the states in the region, the Europeans are almost totally absent." [7] Given the improved relations between France and China following Macron’s state visit to the People’s Republic, Haghirian contends that Paris and the EU as a whole “must find a way to continue cooperation with Chinese leaders in order to support and develop regional diplomacy in the Gulf.” One potential avenue for such collaboration could be participating in the proposed Middle Eastern regional summit in Beijing, allegedly scheduled for later this year. Notwithstanding European reservations regarding direct engagement with the Iranian regime, Haghirian cautions that “in the absence of Europe, the upcoming summit would appear as a meeting of autocrats and could solidify an alliance, thereby shattering hopes for democratic change in the region.”

This perspective on the potential for European engagement in the region through cooperation with China is rather optimistic, considering how most EU member states do not necessarily share France’s pronounced interest in the Middle East and North Africa, nor its openness to more constructive relations with Beijing. Moreover, while it may be true that China and the EU share similar interests in the Gulf, in North Africa growing Chinese influence is often perceived by both the European and the North African press as being to the detriment of the EU, particularly France.

On this note, the online news outlet Algérie 360° reported that “China is on the way to supplant France as Algeria's main economic partner.” This observation stems from a USD 1.5 billion agreement Algeria’s state-owned oil and gas company SONATRACH signed with Petrofac-HQC (HQC is a construction subsidiary of the China National Petroleum Corporation), rather than with French energy giant TotalEnergie. [8] According to Algérie 360°, “Algerian authorities’ choice to pursue the project with the Chinese company HQC reflects, according to several analysts, the political will to strengthen cooperation with China to the detriment of France.” Furthermore, “Chinese FDI will allow Algeria to relaunch its economy, support its BRICS membership application, and also emancipate itself from French oversight.”

Moving on to Tunisia, the online Tunisian newspaper African Manager covered a study by the Observatoire tunisien de l'économie that “showed a downward trend in Tunisian imports to the EU in favor of China, Türkiye and other countries.” [9] The report blames this shift on China and Türkiye’s exploitation of trade agreements, which has “resulted in a cumulative deficit of nearly 2.7 billion dinars out of the country's total deficit of 3.8 billion dinars.” This situation has “virtually wiped out the country's foreign exchange reserves and poses a real threat to local production.”

In Morocco, on the other hand, the Moroccan online news platform Hespress reported China's efforts to secure the contract for building a high-speed rail line connecting Casablanca and Agadir. [10] Hespress notes that “China’s desire collides with the aspirations of other countries, first and foremost France, which… constructed the first line linking Tangiers and Casablanca…However, with the emergence of the current crisis between Paris and Rabat, France’s hopes of winning the deal to construct Morocco’s second high-speed train line appear ‘slim’.” Rachid Sari, an economic analyst interviewed for this article, while shedding light on Morocco’s increasing involvement in the BRI, cautions against “placing complete trust in Beijing’s terms for executing strategic economic projects, as China usually requests financial guarantees that may mortgage a country’s economy, and this is what happened in many African countries — foremost among them, Uganda.”

Shifting back to the Gulf, the Emirates Policy Center (EPC), an Abu Dhabi-based think tank, recently published a report delving into a question that has risen amidst the ongoing debates regarding the potential emergence of a China-led regional order in the Middle East: Can the People's Republic effectively mediate the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? [11] This question gained even more prominence after (now former) Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang’s calls to both the Israeli and Palestinian foreign ministers, wherein he invited them to resume peace talks and offered China’s availability to act as mediator. However, any expectations for China to play a more active role in diplomatic efforts were dashed this month when Beijing refrained from directly intervening in the de-escalation negotiations between Israel and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, following the clashes that occurred from May 9 to 13, which resulted in 14 Palestinians killed, over 147 wounded, and more than 800 displaced, as well as the loss of 1 Israeli life and injuries to 7 other Israelis. At the emergency session of the United Nations Security Council regarding the Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip, China only proposed issuing a statement calling for de-escalation, which was promptly blocked by the US. [12]

The EPC report goes over these recent developments, the history of the Chinese position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as China’s possible advantages such as: its previous mediation experience, its positive relations with both sides, its distance from the conflict’s religious aspect, and its mediation style, which is more aligned with the prevailing principles and values in the region. Nonetheless, the report also brings up the many obstacles that await Beijing if it attempts to wade into the midst of this enduring dispute. Firstly, China lacks the motivation to address Israel’s hegemonic power and prompt it to make concessions to the Palestinians, particularly regarding Tel Aviv’s occupation and settlement of the West Bank. Furthermore, Beijing would encounter difficulties in working with both the fragmented Palestinian political landscape and the Israelis, who have displayed minimal interest in internationalizing the conflict beyond the framework of US mediation. As such, the report contends that “China’s traditional approach to mediation has characteristics that may contribute to building more obstacles to a just, comprehensive and sustainable peace between Palestinians and Israelis, rather than addressing the existing challenges.” It thus posits that “China’s offer of mediation seems to aim at building its image as a responsible great power and to challenge American influence, rather than creating realistic solutions to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.”

The lack of confidence in the region to Beijing's proposal to mediate can be observed in the scant attention it received in both the Palestinian and Israeli press. As an example, Al-Quds Al-Arabi, a London-based pan-Arab newspaper owned by Palestinian expatriates, featured an article analyzing Chinese foreign policy. [13] The piece praises Beijing's pragmatic approach, its emphasis on building partnerships without imposing ideological conditions, and its advocacy for peaceful conflict resolution. It also highlights China's opposition to Israeli occupation and settlement of Arab land and its support for an independent Palestinian state. However, despite acknowledging the superiority of Chinese foreign policy over that of the US, the article made no mention of Qin Gang's offer. This omission may stem from the evident fact that the proposal is most likely more symbolic than substantial, as mediating the Palestinian question doesn't offer any tangible benefits to China.

In the meantime, the Israeli media ecosystem, similar to that of other Middle Eastern nations considered so far, displayed greater interest in discussing the rise of Chinese influence in the region, with a particular focus on its implications for Israeli national security. In a recent article by Israeli online news outlet Walla!, Israeli journalist Udi Etsion hypothesizes that Egyptian and Saudi interest in purchasing Chinese fighter jets and advanced weapons systems are an attempt to reduce technical and political dependence on the US and, in the case of Saudi Arabia, to get American approval for purchasing F-35 stealth fighter jet aircraft and the ability to enrich uranium. [14]

A lack of trust in China’s ability to act as a mediator was also present in the Egyptian press, wherein there was much coverage of the civil war occurring in neighboring Sudan and Beijing’s possible role in de-escalating the conflict. In comments cited by the Egyptian newspaper al-Masry al-Youm, Dr. Mohammad Fayez Farhat, the Director of the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, noted that “China may play a mediating role with regard to ending the Sudanese crisis, but it will make careful calculations before interfering with this issue, because it is selective with regard to international crises.” [15] Farhat also warned that “no Chinese mediation project with the goal of de-escalating or settling the conflict in Sudan will receive Western support, because they would ultimately improve China’s international standing.”

On Chinese mediation, Al-Masry al-Youm also quoted statements from Bassam Barandi, former Syrian diplomat and researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. [16] For Barandi, the Saudi-Iran deal is an outlier, as Chinese mediation in the last thirty years has generally yielded limited success. He elaborates that China often participates but offers only “general ideas and without instruments for a political solution.” This explains why Beijing has not managed to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Russo-Ukrainian war, and clarifies why there is so far an absence of Chinese initiatives in relation to the civil war in Sudan.

Wrapping up this edition of the ChinaMed Observer, we turn our attention to the economic ties between Southern Europe and China. The G7 Hiroshima Summit, which took place from May 19 to 21 and hosted French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni, placed a strong emphasis on forging a unified Western stance regarding economic relations with the People’s Republic. The compromise reached by the leaders of the largest Western democracies, subsequently presented in the G7 Hiroshima Leaders' Communiqué, highlighted the need to “coordinate our approach to economic resilience and economic security that is based on diversifying and deepening partnerships and de-risking, not de-coupling.” The term “de-risking”, which was popularized by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, pertains to trying to minimize the risk of economic coercion by reducing excessive dependency in critical sectors, often by re-shoring production or by collaborating with “like-minded” economies. As discerned by both Italian journalist Federico Rampini for Corriere della Sera and Spanish analyst Águeda Parra Pérez for Cinco Días, the adoption of de-risking over de-coupling is a victory for the more pragmatic EU (in particular Macron’s France) over the more hawkish US. [17]

Nonetheless, it is important to note that the absence of a precise strategy for de-risking has led to divergences among Western states on how to proceed. This is especially evident regarding batteries for electric vehicles (Chinese firms’ dominance in electric vehicle production has propelled China to surpass Japan this month and become the world’s leading car exporter). The Italian newspaper La Repubblica reports that while the US is attempting to “de-Sinicize” their “green” production chains, within the EU, Chinese investments for the construction of battery “gigafactories” are more than welcome. [18] However, La Repubblica also points out that Italy is the only large EU economy not to receive any Chinese investments in this sector.

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[1] Çinli uzmanlar Türkiye’deki seçimlere nasıl bakıyor? [How do Chinese experts view the elections in Türkiye?], RHA Ajans, May 13, 2023, link.

[2] Muhammad Kharrub, Hal bada’t nihayat al-qarn al-’amriki min al-sharq al-awsat? هل بدأت نهاية القرن الأميركي من الشرق الأوسط [Has the end of the American century in the Middle East started?], Al Ra’i, May 14, 2023, link.

[3] Azzam Al-Mashaal, Mu’adhalat al-’aman dakhil al-’alaqa al-siniyya al-amrikiyya معضلة الأمن داخل العلاقة الصينية الأميركية [Security dilemma in the Sino-American relationship], al Riyadh, May 15, 2023, link.

[4] Taʿamol-e Iran va Cin; kelid-e amniyat-e gharb-e Asya va Khalij-e Fars تعامل ایران و چین؛ کلید امنیت غرب آسیا و خلیج فارس [Interaction between Iran and China: the key to the security of the Middle East and Persian Gulf], IRNA, May 6, 2023, link.

[5] Behruz Dini, Hezhemuni-e jagozin-e Cin dar qebal-e hezhemuni-e hamishegi-e Amrika dar Khavar-Miyane هژمونی جایگزین چین در قبال هژمونی همیشگی آمریکا در خاورمیانه [China’s alternative hegemony against America’s eternal hegemony in the Middle East], Donya-ye Eqtesad, May 14, 2023, link.

[6] Hamze Nowzari, ʿElal-e garayeh be Cin علل گرایش به چین [Reasons for turning to China], Sharq, May 3, 2023, link.

[7] Mehran Haghirian, “While China now occupies a central place in the strategic calculations of the Gulf, the Europeans are almost completely absent” [« Si la Chine occupe désormais une place centrale dans les calculs stratégiques du Golfe, les Européens, eux, en sont presque totalement absents »], Le Monde, May 4, 2023, link.

[8] Farid Larbi, Is Algeria abandoning France for China? [L’Algérie est-elle en train de laisser tomber la France pour la Chine ?], Algérie 360°, May 30, 2023, link.

[9] AM-TAP, China and Türkiye, 'predators' of the Tunisian trade balance [La Chine et la Turquie, « prédateurs » de la balance commerciale tunisienne], African Manager, May 8, 2023, link.

[10] Hamza Faouzi, hal taqtarib as-Sīn min al-fauz bi-safqat inshā’ “al-qitār as-sarī’i” bayna ad-Dar al-Baydā’ wa-Akādīr? هل تقترب الصين من الفوز بصفقة إنشاء "القطار السريع" بين الدار البيضاء وأكادير؟ [Is China close to winning the “high-speed train” deal between Casablanca and Agadir?], Hespress, May 12, 2023, link.

[11] China Studies Unit, Wasata kamila ‘am Shubh wasata? Hudud al-tadakhul al-sini fi al-sira’ al-falastini al-’isra’ili wa afaquhu وساطة كاملة أم «شبه وساطة»؟ حدود التدخُّل الصيني في الصراع الفلسطيني-الإسرائيلي وآفاقه [Full mediation or semi-mediation? Limits and prospects of Chinese intervention in the Palestinian-Israelian conflict], Emirates Policy Center, May 23, 2023, link.

[12] Itamar Eichner, Betom Diun Kherum Shel Mo’etset HaBitakhon: Artsot HaBrit Balma Hoda’a Al Mivtsa Magen VeKhets בתום דיון חירום של מועצת הביטחון: ארה״ב בלמה הודעה על מבצע ״מגן וחץ״ [At the end of an emergency discussion of the Security Council the US blocked the declaration on (Israel’s) “Shield and Arrow” operation (in Gaza)], Ynet, May 11, 2023, link.

[13] Amr Hamzawy, ‘Awluwiyyat al-sin al-kharijiyya - al-iqtisadi yusbiq al-siyasi أولويات الصين الخارجية… الاقتصادي يسبق السياسي! [Chinese foreign policy priorities - economy precedes politics], Al-Quds Al-Arabi, May 29, 2023, link.

[14] Udi Etsion, Divuakh: Mitsraim Menahelet Mum LeRekhishat HaLavi HaSini דיווח: מצרים מנהלת מו"מ לרכישת הלביא הסיני [Report: Egypt is conducting negotiations for the purchase of the Chinese “Lavi”], Walla!, May 31, 2023, link.

[15] Bassām Ramadān, mudīr markaz al-ahrām: ag-gharb saya’attal aya wisāta sīniya li-tahdiat as-sirā’ fi as-Sūdān مدير مركز الأهرام: الغرب سيعطّل أي وساطة صينية لتهدئة الصراع في السودان [Director of Al-Ahram Center: The West will block any Chinese mediation to calm the conflict in Sudan], Al-masry al-youm, May 2, 2023, link.

[16] Bassām Ramadān, Diblumasi suri sabiq: mubadarat al-sin lam tanjah ‘illa ma’a al-sa’udiyya wa-’iran دبلوماسي سوري سابق: مبادرات الصين لم تنجح إلا مع السعودية وإيران [Former Syrian diplomatic: Chinese initiatives didn’t succeed without Saudi Arabia and Iran], al-Masry al-youm, May 3, 2023, link.

[17] Federico Rampini, De-risking, il neologismo che cambia i nostri rapporti con la Cina [De-risking, the neologism that is changing our relationship with China], Corriere della Sera, May 22, 2023, link; Águeda Parra Pérez, China, en el centro del G7 [China, at the center of the G7], Cinco Días, May 23, 2023, link.

[18] Filippo Santelli, La mossa della Cina sull’auto: produrre le batterie in Europa [China's move on the automobile: producing batteries in Europe], La Repubblica, May 9, 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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