April 2021

The Mediterranean Region looks at China
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We start this issue of the ChinaMed Observer with the debate in Iranian media over the signing of the Iran-China 25-year Cooperation Program. In this regard, Abolfazl Olamayifar, Director of the China Desk at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, from the pages of the economic newspaper Donya-ye Eqtesad, addressed some of the concerns raised lately over the cooperation document, including the reasons behind the perceived secrecy of its details and the fear of granting excessive concessions to China, thus undermining Iran’s independency. [1] Olamayifar stated clearly that not one of these concerns have any foundation, as the signed document is a roadmap, in which “the two countries have agreed on outlining a shared vision for a long-term cooperation plan”, and that does not mention any numbers, or binding contracts. Moreover, he affirmed that this document is a great opportunity to take advantage of the cooperation with China, especially in the economic and political fields, vis-à-vis the Western countries’ weakness in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and in supporting the revival of the JCPOA. The hopes for the potential of this envisioned future cooperation are also shared by the CEO of the Chabahar Free-Trade Zone Organization, Abdolrahim Kordi, who sees in the development of the port of Chabahar the “intersection of the two economies of Iran and China." [2] According to him, this document could bring forth numerous development projects in the area, such as the developments of the petrochemical complexes in Chabahar and Makran, and the railway network connected to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Thus, Chabahar and the surrounding Makran region could become a great trade hub on the Indian Ocean and boost the regional economy in the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

However, there are some who call for a more cautious approach to the matter. For example, Kourosh Ahmadi, a former diplomat and expert on international affairs, claimed that this type of strategic partnership, that does not consider any numbers or binding executive agreements, cannot have a substantial impact on the relations between the two countries, nor on the conflict between the United States and China. [3] Referring to the figures of the trade volume between Iran and China, which, from 52 billion dollars in 2014, decreased to 20 billion dollars in 2020, Ahmadi stated that “as long as the sanctions are not lifted and the problems between the Financial Action Task Force and Iran persist, […], the volume of exchanges cannot increase”. Similarly, Ahmadi also believes that this document will not have a great influence on the ongoing negotiations regarding the revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) because, although China and Russia are encouraging the parties to resolve their controversies, the need of the re-negotiation of the nuclear treaty was already in both Iran’s and the United States’ agendas.

On the contrary, a new study by the president of the International Institute for Iranian Studies, Dr. Mohammed Saqr al Sulami, considers the Iran-China cooperation agreement and the return to the nuclear talks among the indicators of the increasing US-China strategic competition in the Middle East. [4] This is because, according to al Sulami, the policies of the two global powers take shape as strategies of “action and reaction”. Meaning that, to the United States “heading East policy” to counter Chinese economic expansion and access to energy resources, China will respond by “going West” to “create geopolitical complexities in Washington’s areas of influence”. In fact, this study foresees that the countries of the region will face increasing tensions created by American military supremacy and China’s economic clout. Against this background, the comments made by Qatar’s former Prime Minister, Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, are extremely interesting. He said that the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council will be particularly vulnerable to the tensions between China and the United States, unless they “achieve clear understandings, take practical measures, and act according to the dictates of [their] common interests and not the interests of others.”

According to Twaseef al-Maqbal, a journalist with the al-Riyadh newspaper, the struggle between the great powers is also one of the causes of the diplomatic deadlock over the future of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). [5] The countries involved in the process, namely the United States, China, and Israel, she wrote, “do not object to the implementation of the project and it will serve their interests without exception.”  While Israel would benefit from the weakening of its neighbor, al-Maqbal wrote, China might be more concerned with the protection of its investments in and relations with key regional players, such as Ethiopia. The United States is also trying to preserve its political influence. So far, both Beijing and Washington stated their support for a diplomatic solution to the dispute. According to al-Maqbal, although Egypt had previously called for a US-led mediation, appealing to China might be more effective because it is the country with the largest regional influence, at least in economic terms. After all, Sudan has already been seeking Chinese support on the issue. [6] Against this background, it is interesting to read a series of articles written by Kamal Gaballah for al-Ahram Gate in the occasion of the anniversary of the establishment of Sino-Egyptian relations that show some potential cracks between Beijing and Cairo. [7] In particular, the writer pointed out that, while Egypt assists China in all its sensitive issues, Egyptians expected the Asian country to take a position on the dispute over the GERD and, in one way or the other, sustain Egypt and Sudan against Ethiopia in the UN Security Council. [8] However, the failure of the Security Council to find a solution to the issue, and the perception that the relations between Egypt and China are not deep enough, some begin to think that there might be a silent crisis going on between the two countries.  

Similarly, the tension between Turkey and China seems to grow. As reported by the Sozcu Gazetesi, there has been another clash between the leader of the Good Party, Meral Akşener, the Mayor of Ankara, Mansur Yavas, who commemorated the Baren Township conflict in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, and the Chinese Embassy, that invited them to respect China’s territorial integrity. [9] However, according to the Greek journalist Giorgos Pavlopoulos, the real reason behind the cooler relations between Ankara and Beijing, and the resort of the former to the problematic Uygur issue, would be the failure of the Chinese “vaccine diplomacy.” [10] Indeed, Turkey, that has relied on with Sinovac for its vaccination campaign, has received, so far, less than half of the 100 million doses that it ordered from the pharmaceutical company. This could be used by President Erdogan as a bargaining tool against China, especially now that Turkey is once again reaching out to the United States.

We conclude with the latest report on the developments in the Port of Piraeus. According to the Greek newspaper NewMoney.gr, the Piraeus Port Authority (PPA) succeeded in maintaining a smooth continuation to the port activities and in attracting new investments for a total worth of 221.7 million euros, despite the coronavirus pandemic. However, the Chinese partner is concerned that the stagnation in the construction of Pier IV and the crisis between the contracting company COSCO may undermine the pre-eminence of the Greek port over its Mediterranean counterparts, above all the ports of Valencia and Tangier, which are currently implementing their containment capacities. [11]

[1] Abolfazl ʿOlamayifar, Barname ya tavafoq-name برنامه یا توافق‌نامه؟ [Program or agreement?], Donya-ye Eqtesad, April 7, 2021, link.

[2] ʿAbd al-Rahim Kordi, Manafeʿ-e Chabahar dar hamkari-e Iran va-Cin منافع چابهار در همکاری ایران و چین [Chabahar’s interests in the Iran-China cooperation], IRNA, April 3, 2021, link.

[3] Zeynab Esmaʿili Siviri, Sanad-e hamkari, feʿlan monsha-e asar nist سند همکاری، فعلا منشا اثر نیست [The cooperation document is not actually effective], Sharq, April 22, 2021, link.

[4] Muhammad bin Saqr al-Sulami, Al-tanafus al-amriki al-sini wa-inʿikasatuhu ʿala mintaqat al-sharq al-awsat التنافُس الأمريكي-الصيني وانعكاساته على منطقة الشرق الأوسط [The Us-Chinese competition and its implications for the Middle East], Rasanah, April 22, 2021, link.

[5] Twaseef al-Maqbal, “Al-Nahda”… hilbat siraʿ al-qiwa al-kubra «النهضة».. حلبة صراع القوى الكبرى [Renaissance… the arena for the great powers’ struggle], al-Riyad, April 20, 2021, link.

[6] al-sudan yutli‘ al-sin ‘ala ’akhar tatawwurat mulaf sadd al-nahda السودان يطلع الصين على آخر تطورات ملف سد النهضة [Sudan informs China of the latest developments in the Renaissance Dam file], Al-Ain, April 25, 2021, link.

[7] Kamal Jaballah, Al-Qahira wa-Bikin… 'alamat istirshadiya li-shirakat istratijiya القاهرة - بكين .. علامات استرشادية لشراكة إستراتيجية [Cairo and Beijing… benchmarks for a strategic partnership], al-Ahram Gate, April 12, 2021, link.

[8] Kamal Jaballah, Al-Qahirat wa-Bikin… wiqfa maʿa al-sadiq, القاهرة - بكين .. وقفة مع الصديق, [Cairo and Beijing… a hiatus with the friend], Al-Ahram Gate, April 26, 2021, https://gate.ahram.org.eg/News/2701112.aspx

[9] Çin’den Meral Akşener ve Mansur Yavaş’a tepki [China’s Reaction to Meral Akşener and Mansur Yavaş], Sozcu Gazetesi, April 6, 2021, link.

[10] Giorgos Pavlopoulos, I Kina poulaei ton Erdogan me ta emvolia kai aytos thimatai tous… Uigurus Η Κίνα «πουλάει» τον Ερντογάν με τα εμβόλια και αυτός θυμάται τους… Ουιγούρους [China "sells" Erdogan vaccines, and he remembers…the Uighurs], in.gr, April 8, 2021, link.

[11] Minas Tsampopoulos, OLP: Ti fermi I epomeni mera - ta sedia tua dikoikisis ΟΛΠ: Τι φέρνει η επόμενη ημέρα – Τα σχέδια της διοίκησης [PPA: what the next day brings - Management plans], newmoney.gr, April 16, 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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