April 2020

China looks at the Mediterranean Region
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In April, Chinese commentators mostly focused on three issues: the impact of COVID-19 on the conflicts in region, the performance of the pandemic in different countries, and the relations between Iran and the United States. Chinese media also widely reported on the decision made by OPEC countries and Russia to cut oil production to try to stabilize the energy market. However, we have not found any commentary regarding how the turbulence in the oil market will influence the foreign policy of key actors in the region and their relations with China.

Will the conflicts and the clashes in the region be put on hold because of the novel coronavirus? According to Chinese journalists and experts, that is an unlikely development. In Yemen, Xinhua journalists write that the total lack of trust among the warring parties makes it impossible to agree on a ceasefire. [1] Mentioning a number of local experts, the journalists make it clear that COVID-19 is not enough to pressure the different factions about the necessity to stop fighting and any eventual commitment to peace is empty words. Yang Zhongjie, a journalist with the PLA Daily, writes that in Libya, too, there is little hope to see peace. [2] The direct and increasing involvement of foreign powers, from Turkey to the United Arab Emirates, the European Union, makes that impossible. He also does not miss the chance to remind his readers that the origin of today’s instability in Libya is the NATO intervention of 2011. Another article written by Niu Song, a researcher at the Shanghai International Studies University (SISU), focuses on the relations between Israel and the Palestinians. [3] Niu argues that cooperation between the two parties is a positive development but one should not be fooled. Israel transferred USD 33 million of withheld taxes and provided medical aid to the Palestinian Authority out of the recognition that the spreading of COVID-19 in the Palestinian territories would create a significant threat for the Israeli health system. Moreover, the Israeli economy benefits from cheap Palestinian labor. The delivery of Israeli assistance, Niu writes, offers another example of the unbalanced relationship between Israel and the Palestinian. Hence, COVID-19 has, at best, temporarily frozen the tense dynamics between the two parties. Against this background, it is not surprising that the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has issued new warnings to Chinese nationals against travelling to Yemen, Libya, and the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. [4]

Similar pessimism informs the analysis on the impact of COVID-19 in Europe written by Hu Dawei, a researcher with the China Institute of International Studies (CIIS). [5] After a review of the poor response to the virus of the different European countries, that he imputes to their overconfidence, Hu discusses the difficulties to reach an agreement about how to finance a Union-level economic stimulus to support European businesses damaged by the lockdown. His final assessment is unusually negative as he questions the reader “how can European integration go any further if European governments have so little trust in each other?” Turkey’s performance, too, is deemed insufficient. [6] The author of the article in the Beijing Daily criticizes Turkey for the lack of testing capabilities and, therefore, the ineffective control of the spreading of the virus. The presence of a large number of refugees makes the situation even more difficult for the Turkish government as the country seems destined to become “another Italy” at the doors of Europe.

Tang Zhichao, the Director of the Political Research Office of the Institute of West Asian and North Africa Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, is slightly more positive in his analysis of the situation in Iran. [7] Tang describes the Iranian government as under great pressure from its citizens and the rumors spread by the United States. Washington is also accused of plotting to use the pandemic to organize a coup. There is some sign that the strict measures enacted by the authorities in Tehran are working. However, the economic damage to the already-weak economy will likely further decrease the room for maneuvering of Iranian diplomacy. According to both Fudan University’s Sun Degang and former ambassador Hua Liming, the relations between Iran and the United States will remain tense as the two sides continue to exchange warnings and accusations. [8] As usual, it is the American side that is described as more aggressive and bent on confrontation, even by opposing Iran’s request for a loan from the International Monetary Fund. However, they predict that there will be no direct confrontation. As Hua writes, “like in the past, the United States does not dare to fight, the government makes only some threat against Iran for domestic reasons.”

Meanwhile, Chinese analysts also debate the status of the American military presence in Iraq. [9] CIIS’ Dong Manyuan and SISU’s Niu Song argue that the United States will preserve its presence in Iraq with its troops garrisoned in large and well-fortified bases. It is not impossible that the number of troops will be reduced as American soldiers continue to be the target of local Shiite forces and, in any case, the use of drones reduces the need for boots on the ground. Moreover, Trump might withdraw some troops to boost his chances to win the elections in the Autumn. However, both scholars believe the United States will not leave the Arab country and military operations might resume in case of attacks against the American contingent. The adoption of a strategy of off-shore balancing will not change this.

We conclude this issue of the ChinaMed Observer discussing an article published in the PLA Daily on the creation of a France-led anti-terrorism taskforce in the Sahel. [10] The author’s opinion is rather positive and writes that this is a “an important result” for France’s strategy to strengthen anti-terrorism cooperation in West Africa. However, there are also three issues that might undermine this enterprise. The first is the fact that the turmoil in the region is caused by economic underdevelopment. Thus, a military solution will not necessarily work. The coalition might also suffer as its members have to focus on responding to the economic crisis caused by COVID-19 at home, thereby cresting the possibility that some will decide to scale back their commitment. Finally, France and its partners remain highly dependent on American logistical and intelligence support. If Trump will decide to decrease American presence in Africa and the Middle East as he promised, the anti-terrorism task-force will face a significant challenge.

[1] Wang Nei and Nie Yunpeng, Yìqíng bījìn yěmén néng fǒu yíng lái tínghuǒ 疫情逼近 也门能否迎来停火 [The epidemic is approaching, can Yemen welcome a ceasefire?], Xinhua, April 19, 2020, link.

[2] Yang Zhongjie, Lìbǐyǎ zhànjú shēngbiàn hépíng jiàn yuǎn 利比亚战局生变和平渐远 [Peace far from Libya as the situation continues to change], PLA Daily, April 22, 2020, link.

[3] Niu Song, Yēlùsālěng de tèshū chūntiān 耶路撒冷的特殊春天 [The special spring of Jerusalem], Globe, April 24, 2020, link.

[4] Zàicì tíxǐng zhōngguó gōngmín jìnqí zàn wù qiánwǎng bālèsītǎn jiāshā dìdài, jǐnshèn qiánwǎng yuēdàn hé xī'àn dìqū 再次提醒中国公民近期暂勿前往巴勒斯坦加沙地带,谨慎前往约旦河西岸地区 [Renewed warning to Chinese nationals against travelling to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank], PRC MFA, April 9, 2020, link; Zàicì tíxǐng zhōngguó gōngmín jìnqí zàn wù qiánwǎng yěmén 再次提醒中国公民近期暂勿前往也门 [Renewed warning to Chinese nationals against travelling to Yemen], PRC MFA, March 30, 2020, link; Zàicì tíxǐng zhōngguó gōngmín jìnqí zàn wù qiánwǎng lìbǐyǎ 再次提醒中国公民近期暂勿前往利比亚 [Renewed warning to Chinese nationals against travelling to Libya], PRC MFA, May 6, 2020, link.

[5] Hu Dawei, Shìjì yìqíng duì ōuzhōu yì tǐ huà de tiǎozhàn 世纪疫情对欧洲一体化的挑战 [The challenge to European integration from the pandemic of the century], Guangming Daily, April 26, 2020, https://news.gmw.cn/2020-04/26/content_33769908.htm.

[6] Yu Xiaoyuan, Tǔ'ěrqí kǒng chéng “dì èr gè yìdàlì”: Nànmín jiùyī nán chéng yǐnyōu 土耳其恐成“第二个意大利”:难民就医难成隐忧 [Turkey might become “another Italy”: The refugees having difficulty receiving help], The Paper, April 2, 2020, link.

[7] Tang Zhichao, Yìqíng yīnyǐng xià de yīlǎng: Shàngshēng shìtóu yīrán yánjùn nèiwài chéng yā tiǎozhàn chóngchóng 疫情阴影下的伊朗:上升势头依然严峻 内外承压挑战重重 [Iran under the influence of COVID-19: A difficult situation vis-à-vis significant challenges at home and abroad], Guangming Daily, April 7, 2020, link.

[8] Měi yī yìqíng xià zàiqǐ mócā qián zhù yī dàshǐ huá límíng: Měiguó bù gǎn zhēndǎ 美伊疫情下再起摩擦 前驻伊大使华黎明:美国不敢真打 [The friction between Iran and the United States continues even during the pandemic – Former ambassador to Iran Hua Liming: The United States does not dare to fight], Sina.com, April 26, 2020, link; Jia Yining,  Měiguó yīlǎng yòu dǎ qǐ xīnlǐ zhàn美国伊朗又打起心理战 [The United States and Iran are again fighting a psychological war], People’s Daily, April 30, 2020, link.

[9] Bi Zhenshan, Měiguó yào cóng yīlākè yī zǒu liǎo zhī? 美国要从伊拉克一走了之?[Is the United States leaving Iraq?], Workers’ Daily, April 2, 2020, link.

[10] Fang Xiaozhi, 法欲组多国联军推进西非反恐 [France establishes a multinational task-force to fight terrorism in West Africa], PLA Daily, April 8, 2020, link.

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