August 2018

China looks at the Mediterranean Region
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While many China watchers were enjoying their holiday in August and Beijing was preparing for the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation scheduled for September 3-4, the Chinese media reported on some interesting news and commentaries during the month. In particular, four issues are especially worthy of attention: China’s Charge d'Affaires in Libya Wang Qimin’s meetings and comments about the current situation in Libya, China’s expanding military diplomacy and cooperation within the region, the evolution of the Sino-Turkish relations, and China’s approach to the worsening relations between the United States and Iran. Also of importance is the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between Greece and China to strengthen bilateral cooperation within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative (the two countries also approved a 3-year cooperation plan in 2017). Greece is the first developed country to do so, yet the Chinese media provided almost no additional analysis of this fact (here are the comments of the Chinese MFA’s spokeswoman Hua Chunying).

Recently, the situation in Libya has dramatically worsened, following intense clashes between the 7th Brigade and a coalition of armed brigades made up of the Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade, the Bab Tajoura Brigade, Ghanewa Brigade, the Nawasi Brigade, and the Misrata’s 301 Brigade in Tripoli, where the UN-backed Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) is situated. This escalation in fighting has seemingly frustrated Wang Qimin’s efforts to mediate between the warring parties. Indeed, while Wang has held meetings with several members of the GNA over the past few months, he also met separately with both Khalifa Haftar, the leader of the Libyan National Army in control of eastern Libya, and the GNA’s Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj in mid-August.[1] He also visited several locations where Chinese companies in Tripoli had been in the process of building residential units before the war broke out to verify the conditions for eventually restarting construction.[2] Consequently, while al-Sarraj told Xinhua of his hopes for Chinese companies to soon return to Libya, Wang stated that they must wait for the right moment given the “uncertain” security conditions even in the capital.[3] The situation remains critical as China is not only dealing with significant security threats which prevent its companies from returning to Libya, but tensions are also brewing between Italy and France, which have lent their support to al-Sarraj and Haftar respectively. The United States has backed Italy as it decides on how to bring stability to the region. Yet, Egypt, a critical partner in the region for China, along with France remain strong supporters of Haftar. The risks and the uncertainties for China are significant from a diplomatic standpoint.

Among other methods, China is attempting to reduce risks in the region by strengthening military cooperation with other countries engaged in peacekeeping and antiterrorism activities. On August 23, Chinese and Italian peacekeepers held a “joint emergency defense and medical rescue training exercise” (应急防卫和医疗救援训练) involving 60 officers from both sides.[4] The soldiers also exchanged rifles (the QBZ-95 and the Beretta ARX-160 respectively) and conducted testing. According to the Chinese Ministry of Defense, the “shooting training consisted of basic shooting, tactical shooting and group-coordinated tactical shooting.” The Chinese commander stated that his contingent has established emergency response and information exchange mechanisms with that of Italy, and is planning to do more within the framework of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon. As far as we know, this is the first exchange of its kind between Chinese and European peacekeepers. Also, for the first time, China participated in the Russia-led Zapad-81 military exercise. China is expected to contribute 3.000 soldiers, 900 pieces of military equipment, 30 planes, and a number of helicopters (Carnegie Moscow Center’s Senior Fellow Alexander Gabuev posted a very informative thread on Twitter about the main aspects of China’s participation in the exercise). Shi Yang, a commentator on military affairs for The Observer, noted that a key advantage of Chinese military participation in Zapad-81 is that lessons learnt in Syria by the Russian military will be at its center. Thus, the People’s Liberation Army, which critically lacks combat experience, must do its best to learn as much as possible.[5] Since Russia’s actions in war are closely watched by Chinese military observers, Sino-Russian military cooperation is likely to become another important link between China and the eastern part of the Mediterranean region. Meanwhile, Chinese-made weaponry continues to be sold and used in both the Middle East and in North Africa. For example, at least one Wing Loong 2 drone, an upgraded variant of the Wing Loong drone with provisions for up to twelve air-to-surface missiles, has been deployed by the UAE on its base in Assab, Eritrea.[6] Chinese drones have both carried out attacks and have been attacked in wars currently being waged in the region, including in Iraq and Yemen. A Saudi-owned CH-4 was shot down by Houthi forces on August 30. Also, Norinco has completed the delivery of AH4 155mm howitzers (similar to BAE Systems M777 lightweight howitzers) to an unknown client in the region (possibly Kuwait or the UAE).[7] Modern Chinese artilleries have started appearing in battlefields within the region, following Saudi Arabia’s use of the Norinco-made PLZ-45 self-propelled howitzers in Yemen. According to Eastern Arsenal, this Chinese-made howitzer might be superior to its American counterpart.

China’s relationship with both Turkey and Iran continues to grow stronger, as the United States is increasingly viewed as an antagonist and the main cause of instability within both countries. Two editorials published by the Global Times highlight this situation, the first of which directly declared that “China needs to coordinate with Russia and the European Union” over Iran. The decision to attack Iran with economic sanctions will benefit American interests in the short term but, the Global Times argues, it will also cost the United States greatly in the long run.[8] Xinhua also published articles in favor of greater coordination with the Russians and the Europeans.[9] Interestingly, no statement has been made regarding Total S.A.’s decision to pull out of the Iranian oil market, and preparations by the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) to take its place. Although the Chinese government declared it will continue to work with Iran, Chinese companies are preparing to minimize the impact of the sanctions. The second article is generally supportive of the Chinese government’s decision to offer diplomatic back-up to Turkey. After all, as Shanghai International Studies University’s Sun Degang told the People’s Daily, neither Turkey nor the United States currently see much value in their relationship.[10] However, according to the Global Times, the deepening of relations with Ankara must be based on mutual recognition that China is strong and that Turkey’s interference within China’s Xinjiang province can no longer be tolerated. Turkey must not continue to be the “country in the Middle East that caused troubles the most to China over the last fifty years.” These troubles include sending solders to Korea, “playing” with China over the purchase of the HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles, and influencing the events in Xinjiang.[11]

[1] Wáng qímǐn línshí dàibàn bàihuì lì guómín jūn zǒng sīlìng hā fū tǎ ěr 王奇敏临时代办拜会利国民军总司令哈夫塔尔 [Charge d'Affaires in Libya Wang Qimin meets with the Commander of the Libyan National Army Khalifa Haftar], PRC Embassy in Libya, 15 August 2018, http://ly.chineseembassy.org/chn/zlwl/t1585477.htm; Wáng qímǐn línshí dàibàn huìjiàn lì tuánjié zhèngfǔ zǒnglǐ sà lā ji 王奇敏临时代办会见利团结政府总理萨拉吉 [Charge d'Affaires in Libya Wang Qimin meets with the Prime Minister of the Libyan Government of National Accord Fayez al-Sarraj], PRC Embassy in Libya, 18 August 2018, http://ly.chineseembassy.org/chn/zlwl/t1586333.htm.

[2] Wáng qímǐn línshí dàibàn shídì kǎochá wǒ zài lìbǐyǎ yuán tíng jiàn de gōngchéng xiàngmù 王奇敏临时代办实地考察我在利比亚原停建的工程项目 [Charge d'Affaires in Libya Wang Qimin visits the places where Chinese companies were working], PRC Embassy in Libya, 1 August 2018, http://ly.chineseembassy.org/chn/zlwl/t1581948.htm.

[3] Zhuānfǎng: Lìbǐyǎ xīwàng jiāqiáng yǔ zhōngguó duō lǐngyù hézuò——fǎng zhōngguó zhù lìbǐyǎ dàshǐ guǎn línshí dàibàn wángqímǐn 专访:利比亚希望加强与中国多领域合作——访中国驻利比亚大使馆临时代办王奇敏 [Special interview: Libyan hopes to strengthen the cooperation with China in many areas – Interview with the Chinese Charge d'Affaires Wang Qimin], Xinhua, 29 August 2018, http://www.xinhuanet.com/finance/2018-08/29/c_1123347420.htm.

[4] Chinese, Italian peacekeepers in Lebanon hold joint emergency defense and medical rescue training, PRC Ministry of Defense, 23 August 2018, http://eng.chinamil.com.cn/view/2018-08/23/content_9261723.htm.

[5] Shi Yang, Zhōng é liǎng chǎng jūn yǎn yìyì dà bùtóng zhù jiěfàngjūn tíshēng fǎnkǒng zuòzhàn xiàonéng 中俄两场军演意义大不同 助解放军提升反恐作战效能 [The different meanings of the two Sini-Russian military exercises, helping the PLA to improve its anti-terrorism skills], Sina.com, 2 September 2018, http://mil.news.sina.com.cn/china/2018-09-02/doc-ihinpmnr7210484.shtml.

[6] Āliánqiú gòu zhōngguó yì lóng 2 wú rén jī jìnzhù fēizhōu jīdì bìng xīnjiàn jī kù 阿联酋购中国翼龙2无人机进驻非洲基地 并新建机库 [UAE’s Wing Loong 2 drones deployed in its African base and a new hanger is being built], Sina.com, 18 August 2018, http://mil.news.sina.com.cn/world/2018-08-18/doc-ihhvciix2420619.shtml.

[7] Guówài jiāo yàn shìyàn qǔdé chénggōng zhōngguó AH4 chāo qīngxíng pào wánchéng jiāofù 国外交验试验取得成功 中国AH4超轻型炮完成交付 [The tests abroad are positive, China completes the delivery of the AH4 155mm howitzers], Modern Weapons, 17 August 2018, https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/5K872EGHz1xLbXJlsM9cRA.  

[8] Shèpíng: Měi zhìcái yīlǎng, màoyì zhàn zhī wài rán qǐ xīn huǒ duī 社评:美制裁伊朗,贸易战之外燃起新火堆 [The United States sanctions Iran and ignite new fires along with the trade war (with China)], Global Times, 7 August 2018, http://opinion.huanqiu.com/editorial/2018-08/12667740.html.

[9] For example: Zhao Yan, Yang Dingdu, Ma Xiao, and Zhu Dongyang, Měiguó chóng shí zhìcái “dà bàng” yīlǎng rúhé yìngduì shí jiān 美国重拾制裁“大棒” 伊朗如何应对时艰 [The United States uses again the “big stick” of sanctions against Iran, how will it respond in these difficult times?], Xinhua, 6 August 2018, http://www.xinhuanet.com/world/2018-08/06/c_129927714.htm.

[10] Jiǎ píngfán, Měi tǔ shàngyǎn ài hèn qíng chóu dàxì 美土上演爱恨情仇大戏 [The play of love and hate between the United States and Turkey], People’s Daily, 25 August 2018, http://paper.people.com.cn/rmrbhwb/html/2018-08/25/content_1877059.htm.

[11] Shèpíng: Kèguān rènshì tǔ'ěrqí, zhǔnquè bǎwò zhōng tǔ guānxì 社评:客观认识土耳其,准确把握中土关系 [Opinion: Objectively judging Turkey and correctly assessing the status of the Sino-Turkish relations], Global Times, 19 August 2018, http://opinion.huanqiu.com/editorial/2018-08/12765879.html.

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