April 2022

China looks at the Mediterranean Region
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Like during the previous month, Chinese observers have paid great attention to Turkey’s stance vis-à-vis Russia, as well as to the recent trip made by the U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to the Middle East. Much of the content of the commentaries made on these two topics remained largely consistent with that of the past month. The clashes between the Israeli and the Palestinians in Jerusalem have also caught the attention of Chinese commentators. Unfortunately, though not unsurprisingly, there was very little media coverage of the visit made by the Chinese State Councilor and Minister of National Defense Wei Fenghe to Tehran.

In mid-April as part of Operation Claw-Lock, Turkish commando units and special forces, backed by unmanned aerial vehicles and attack helicopters, targeted Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) hideouts in Northern Iraq. The operation was launched two days after a rare visit to Turkey by the prime minister of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, Masrour Barzani, suggesting that he had been briefed on Ankara’s plans. In comments regarding this development, Chinese scholars believe that the Turkish government wanted to seize the opportunity created by the international community’s focus on the war in Ukraine to boost its image at home. According to Tang Tianbo, a scholar at the Chinese Institute of Contemporary International Relations, Western countries are not interested in what happens in Iraq because the Kurds are not “civilized” like the Ukrainians. [1] This attack is part of Erdogan’s strategy to prepare for the 2023 Turkish general election as the opposition is trying to unite against him. However, while it is true that having security issues dominating the political debate might help Erdogan, Chinese experts agree that any short-term foreign policy-related popularity boost will evaporate quickly as inflation in Turkey reaches new highs (almost 70% in April) despite tax cuts on basic goods and government subsidies for some electricity bills. [2]

At the same time, clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces have started again after Israeli forces stormed Al-Aqsa Mosque using tear gas shells and stun grenades in order to stop Palestinians from throwing rocks at police officers. On April 19, the Israeli military struck targets in the Gaza Strip in response to a rocket fired from there. These events have raised fears of another armed conflict similar to last year’s 11-day Israeli assault on Gaza which was triggered by similar unrest at the mosque. Commenting on these events, Li Weijian, a researcher at the Shanghai Institute of International Studies and vice president of the Middle East Society of China, pointed out that the Palestinian issue has become less important in recent years due to great power competition intensifying and the priority of Arab leaders shifting to economic development. [3] According to him, the United Nations, the League of Arab States, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and others should make more efforts to promote peace, and the great powers should promote a shared solution. Chinese scholars, however, doubt that anything like this will happen. [4] "Israel wants to guarantee its absolute security and has made the West Bank look like a giant prison," stated Li Shaoxian. In the same article, Wang Zezhuang, a professor at the Center for West Asian and North African Studies at Anhui University, argued that much of the ongoing conflict originates from the fact that "the creation of the state of Israel and the organized expulsion of Arabs is the result of the historical Jewish people taking full advantage of the law of the jungle in international relations."

Regarding Blinken’s trip to the Middle East that took place at the end of March, Sun Degang, a senior expert at Fudan University, argues that it was not very effective as Blinken did not manage to convince Middle Eastern countries to oppose Russia, he failed to obtain Israeli support for the ongoing negotiations with Iran, and, finally, he did not reduce the gap between the Israeli and Palestinian positions. [5] Part of the reason for this failure is that “currently there is a momentum of détente and improvement of the relations between all Israel, Turkey and Iran, on the one hand, and the Arab states, on the other. There is also a détente in relations between Israel and Turkey and among the Arabs. […] With the general détente in the relations between Middle Eastern countries, their strategic autonomy will grow further in the future."

As we noticed in previous issues of the ChinaMed Observer, this assessment of the situation is increasingly shared also by other important Chinese scholars. It was also used by Qian Feng, director of the National Institute of Strategic Studies at Tsinghua University, to explain the context in which the Chinese defense minister visited Tehran on April 28. [6] Interestingly, Qian emphasized the role of anti-terrorism cooperation during the visit. According to him, “Terrorism has no national boundaries and needs to be tackled by all countries in the world. There is also the threat of religious extremism and ethnic separatism, which countries including China, Central Asian countries and Iran share.” Wei Fenghe discussed the same issues in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, which he visited before arriving in Iran. It is also possible that the defense-related content of the much-discussed 25-year strategic cooperation agreement was also among the topics that were touched upon during the meetings in Tehran. It seems that this exchange was particularly important, as suggested by the fact that it happened in person, rather than online like most Chinese diplomatic activities today.

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[1] Tang Tianbo, Tǔ'ěrqí wèihé cǐ shí duì yīlākè dòngwǔ? 土耳其为何此时对伊拉克动武? [Why is Turkey launching a military operation in Iraq now?], China.com, April 26, 2022, link.

[2] Gu Zhenglong, Gùzhènglóng: Wūkèlán wéijī duì tǔ'ěrqí jīngjì shì jīyù háishì tiǎozhàn? 顾正龙:乌克兰危机对土耳其经济是机遇还是挑战? [Gu Zhenglong: Is the war in Ukraine an opportunity or a challenge for the Turkish economy?], Cfisnet, April 6, 2022, link; He Lingyao, Chōutì jīngjì kùn jú tǔ'ěrqí wèihé zài shēn rán jìnqí zhànhuǒ? 深陷经济困局 土耳其为何再燃中东战火?[With so many economic problems, why does Turkey restart the war in the Middle East?], Tianmu News, April 22, 2022, link.

[3] Lin Zizhan, Chōngtú bùduàn lìng bā yǐ júshì zàidù jǐnzhāng 冲突不断令巴以局势再度紧张 [The continuous escalation makes the situation between Israel and the Palestinians worse], People’s Daily, April 21, 2022, link.

[4] Wang Tanglin, Zhāiyuè, yúyuè jié, fùhuó jié: Bā yǐ chōngtú zài jiérì zhōng mànyán 斋月、逾越节、复活节:巴以冲突在节日中蔓延 [Ramadan, Passover, Easter: Palestinian-Israeli conflict breaks during festivals], Southern Weekly, April 15, 2022, link.

[5] Zhang Hong, Zhōngdōng guójiā zìzhǔ yìshí rìjiàn zēngqiáng 中东国家自主意识日渐增强 [The strategic autonomy of Middle Eastern countries is growing], People’s Daily, April 6, 2022, link.

[6] Guo Yuandan, Zhōngguó fáng zhǎng fǎngwèn yīlǎng, zhuānjiā: Shuāngfāng huò kě jiāqiáng fǎnkǒng hézuò 中国防长访问伊朗,专家:双方或可加强反恐合作 [China’s defense minister visits Tehran. Expert: The two parties might strengthen antiterrorism cooperation], Global Times, April 28, 2022, 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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