April 2021

China looks at the Mediterranean Region
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In looking for a common theme in the commentaries written by Chinese journalists and scholars in April, it is clear that there is great concern in China about the evolution of many of the crises that are taking place in the wider Mediterranean region. From the situation in Libya to the Greek-Turkish tensions, from the elections in Israel to instability in Jordan and the slow progression of talks in Vienna on the Iranian nuclear issue and the related American sanctions–Chinese analysts are rather pessimistic about the foreseeable future.

Liu Zhongmin, the Director of Middle East Studies Institute at Shanghai International Studies University, wrote an overview of the situation in an article published by Xinhua’s Globe. [1] According to him, two factors prevent the continuation of existing crises and the breaking of new ones. First is that extra-regional actors are increasingly less willing and/or capable of influencing local dynamics. This, according to Liu, is especially the case of the United States, Russia, and European countries. The United States has not decided whether to leave or remain the dominant power, and this ambiguity has undermined its influence. As to Russia, “its return to the Middle East mainly took place at the ‘tactical’ level. Russia does not have the ability and willingness to fully dominate the region, nor does it have the ability to provide public goods for the region from any point of view.” The European attempts to integrate the Mediterranean region through the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership and the Union for the Mediterranean have clearly failed while even the strongest European countries have lost their capability to act independently from the United States. At the same time, “rising and economic powers” like China, India, and Japan are expanding their influence but they have little interest in doing more than pursuing their economic and energy interests. The second, related factor that Liu describes is the growing activism of regional powers. The Mediterranean Sea, the Gulf, and the Red Sea now form a “geopolitical triangle” that is plagued by continuous competition among different countries. Interestingly, Liu concludes his analysis saying that regional stability requires the countries there to focus more on economic development at home, and extra-regional powers to start promoting “justice and fairness” in the solution of the regional crises.

Liu Zhongmin elaborated more about the negative role of extra-regional powers, especially the United States, in two other articles on Iran’s role in the Syrian conflict that the contacts between Iran and Saudi Arabia. [2] Liu argues that sectarian divisions are an important factor in the relations within the Muslim world, but their negative influence has largely been amplified by the United States. Essentially, the Americans have leveraged those tensions to shift the focus of geopolitical competition in the region from being in favor or against American presence, to sectarian primacy. According to him, Iran’s support to the Syrian government has little to do with the struggle between Sunni and Shia forces. Iran is simply protecting itself against the United States by supporting another government that share a similar position vis-à-vis Washington. Against this background, Liu also believes that the talks between the Saudi and the Iranian governments are not completely surprising. If the two countries can put aside the sectarian struggle fueled by the United States, their rapprochement would greatly contribute to regional stability.

For the moment, however, the situation remains rather bleak. When it comes to the talks in Vienna between Iran and the other parties to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Chinese scholars do not believe there will be much progress soon because both Iranian and American negotiators and leaders are under pressure at home to appear tough. [3] Hence, as summarized by the Director of the CICIR Institute of Middle East Studies, Niu Xinchun, “the problem of who makes the first step toward reaching an agreement is far from being the only obstacle.” The real issue is that Iran sees the revival of the JCPOA as the end of American sanctions and pressure; the Americans, instead, look at that as the first step toward the reconstruction of a multilateral system to constrain Iranian moves. While both sides must find ways to continue their dialogue, it is the United States that has to take the initiative and immediately return to the JCPOA. This, wrote Fudan University’s Sun Degang, must happen quickly, before the Iranian presidential election of June. [4] 

One of the issues that Chinese scholars identified as important to understand the American position in the negotiations with Iran is Israel’s pressure on the Biden administration. [5] And Israel is increasingly seen as prey of right-wing populism as the possibility that the country will hold its fifth election since 2019 looks large. This is because Netanyahu has increasingly tied himself to ultra-right-wing forces that push for a very assertive policy toward the Palestinians.  According to Zhu Zhaoyi, the director of the Israel Research Center at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing, the chances that new elections will be held and that the governments emerging out of them will be weak are extremely high as long as Netanyahu does not take a step back from Israeli politics. [6] Jordan is also seen as a country that is going through a period of transition and instability, as symbolized by the voices of an attempt coup led by Prince Hamza. Zhang Yuan, a researcher at Shanghai International Studies University, told to The Paper that the reforms promised by the Jordanian king during the Arab Spring are not enough to solve the country’s problems. [7] Zhang agrees with foreign experts about the fact that the alleged coup attempt is the harbinger of a larger political and economic crisis that might soon break out, though it remains difficult to determine when and how that could happen. Similarly, Chinese scholars have the impression that something tragic might happen between Greece and Turkey as the European Union and NATO have failed to constrain Erdogan’s Turkey. [8]

Against this background, it is interesting to read a statement made by Qin Tian, a researcher at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, about China’s capabilities to intervene in the region. [9] In an article on Wang Yi’s March trip to the Middle East, Qin highlights China’s growing participation in regional politics. However, he adds that “China’s overall understanding and research about the Middle East is not deep” and this undermines the implementation of Chinese foreign policy toward that region.

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[1] Liu Zhongmin, Zhōngdōng bóyì jìnrù hùndùn jiāngchí qī 中东博弈进入混沌僵持期 [The situation in Middle East is in a stalemate], Globe, April 30, 2021, link.

[2] Liu Zhongmin, Yīlǎng yǔ shātè: Hǎiwān shuāng xióng duìkàng de lìshǐ bēijù yǔ chéntòng jiàoxùn 伊朗与沙特:海湾双雄对抗的历史悲剧与沉痛教训 [Iran and Saudi Arabia: : The historical tragedy and the painful lessons from the confrontation between the two powers in the Gulf], The Paper, April 29, 2021, link; Liu Zhongmin, Yīlǎng duì xùlìyǎ bù lì bù qì, shì yīn jiàopài qīnyuán háishì lìyì yōu guān 伊朗对叙利亚不离不弃,是因教派亲缘还是利益攸关 [Is Iran’s closeness to Syria cause by sectarian kinship or by interests?], The Paper, April 19, 2021, link.

[3] Li Jiabao, Yī hé wèntí néng shíxiàn “ruǎn zhuólù” ma? 伊核问题能实现“软着陆”吗? [Is it possible to achieve a “soft landing” over the Iranian nuclear issue?], People’s Daily, April 13, 2021, link.  

[4] Sun Degang, Liú gěi měi yī gǎishàn guānxì de shíjiān bù duō 留给美伊改善关系的时间不多 [There is not much time for Iran and the United States to improve their relations], Global Times, April 7, 2021, link.

[5] Ling Xi, Xīnbǎn yī hé xiéyì yào láile? 新版伊核协议要来了? [Is the new version of the Iranian nuclear deal coming to life?], Nanfang Daily, April 4, 2021, link.

[6] Zhu Zhaoyi, Nèitǎníyǎhú yǔ fǎn nèitǎníyǎhú 内塔尼亚胡与反内塔尼亚胡 [Netanyahu and the anti-Netanyahus], Globe, April 16, 2021, link.

[7] Yu Xiaoyuan, Yuēdàn wángshì “gōng dòu”: Qián wángchú zāo ruǎnjìn, yīn “mìmóu fādòng zhèngbiàn”? 约旦王室“宫斗”:前王储遭软禁,因“密谋发动政变”? [Royal unrest in Jordan: Was the former crown prince put under arrest because of a secret coup attempt?], The Paper, April 6, 2021, link.

[8] Liu Linzhi, Tǔ'ěrqí xīlà zhēngduān shēngwēn jiǎodòng dōng dìzhōnghǎi júshì 土耳其希腊争端升温搅动东地中海局势 [The dispute between Turkey and Greece heats up and spoils the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean], Reference News, April 8, 2021, link.

[9] Qin Tian, Zhōngguó wàizhǎng fǎngwèn zhōngdōng de liǎng dà tèzhēng yǔ sì dà liàngdiǎn 中国外长访问中东的两大特征与四大亮点 [The two key features and the four highlights of the visits of the Chinese foreign minister to the Middle East], China.org, April 2, 2021, 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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