August 2020

China looks at the Mediterranean Region
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This month, Chinese commentaries on the events taking place in the wider Mediterranean region revolve around four main issues: the devastating explosion in the port of Beirut, the normalization of the diplomatic relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the tensions in the East Mediterranean Sea between Turkey and Greece, and Wang Yi’s visit to Europe.

Among the different articles published by Chinese media, we selected two. The first is written by Ambassador Wu Sike, the former special envoy of the Chinese government to the Middle East. [1] While criticizing Donald Trump for stating that the explosion might have been caused by political actors, Wu makes two interesting considerations. The first is that Lebanon had an important position in China’s Belt and Road Initiative due to its position in the eastern Mediterranean. However, he states, the explosion in Beirut undermined this advantage. Wu does not further elaborate on this issue. Nonetheless, this might well reflect a more broadly held opinion in China about the situation in the Arab country that runs against what seems to be the narrative spread by Hamas, that describes China as the solution to Lebanon’s economic problems. The second consideration that is worth mentioning is regarding public opinion. Wu writes that government officials must be aware that the damage caused by incidents like the one in Beirut goes far beyond the material losses in the era of social media. The political damage is gigantic. Unfortunately, Wu’s comment is very generic, and it is not clear whether it is a not-so veiled criticism to the Lebanese government or a more general lesson for government institutions around the world. The other article that we selected contains an interview with Niu Song, a scholar at the Middle East Studies Institute of Shanghai International Studies University (SISU). [2] Niu declared that he was not particularly surprised when he heard the news of the explosion, as the poor performance and corruption in the Lebanese government and bureaucracy is well-known. The incident might be a turning point in Lebanese political life as it shakes the foundations of the political system. Niu also commented on Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Lebanon in the immediate aftermath of the explosion. According to him, France is reasserting its position in the Middle East in response to the growing differences between Europeans and American in the region.

As to the evolution of the relations between Israel and the UAE, this is an issue that attracted much attention in Beijing, where senior scholars–such as Niu Xinchun, Yang Guang, Li Zhaoxian, Dong Manyuan and others–gathered with diplomats like Ambassador Li Chengwen, to discuss the situation on August 20, 2020. [3] We begin with an article written for the Global Times, by Ding Long, the director of the Gulf Research Center of the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing. [4] Different factors determined this event. The first is the abandonment of the “politically correct” position on the Palestinian issue by Arab countries and the redefinition of their own national interests beyond that. Establishing diplomatic relations with Israel is a useful countermove for those countries that oppose Qatar, Iran, and Turkey, though public opinion might oppose such a move. The second is the change in the American approach to the Gulf. The achievement of energy independence is pushing the United States away from an oil-centered approach to a new one that is clearly Israel-centered. According to Ding, the result will be that the region will become more fragmented as the discussion on ties with Israel becomes more common in Arab capitals. Niu Song further elaborated on the role of the UAE in the American strategy and the future of the region. [5] According to him, the United States leveraged the UAE diplomatic ambitions to create a precedent among Gulf countries, breaking the ice about the establishment of the relations with Israel, hoping that others will follow. Saudi Arabia is the ultimate “target” of this strategy. In this way, Niu stated, it will be able to integrate the Gulf countries in a tighter coalition against Iran. Niu warned that it will remain, in any case, a fragile project because Israel and the Gulf countries share nothing beyond their rivalry with Iran. Moreover, he argued in another article, Iran is likely to gain popular support throughout the region if more Arab countries establish relations with Israel. [6] At the same time, some countries might seize the opportunity to make a bid for the leadership of the Arab world, thereby furthering the divisions in the Arab world. This debate was joined by another former diplomat, Ambassador Hua Liming. [7] Hua’s position does not differ from that of the other aforementioned scholars. However, he, like Wu in the case of Lebanon, also discussed China’s position in this issue. The bottom line, Hua argues, is that the improvement of the relations between Israel and the UAE is a welcome development that is in line with China’s main goal in the region, i.e. regional stability. However, he also clarified, China does not want to see the pressure on Iran to increase because of this event. More in general, China cannot accept American actions against Iran. Hua made these statements based on his opinion that “the academic world talks about the conflict between Sunni and Shia countries as a religious one but I believe that it is a geopolitical contest between pro- and anti-United States. The Sunni-Shia rivalry was created by the United States to unite the Arab world against Iran.”

Moving to the tensions in the eastern Mediterranean, Yang Chen, the director of the Turkish Study Center of Shanghai University, wrote that Turkey is in a difficult position. [8] Since it is not party of the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Ankara has no legal means to change the current situation. Accordingly, it is trying to force Greece to the negotiation table, hoping to pressure Athens into making concessions. Greece is weaker in military terms but can rely on its membership in the European Union (EU) and NATO. Yet, Zou Zhiqiang, a scholar at SISU, argues that Greece’s European partners still prefer mediation over sanctions against Turkey and their ambiguity will prevent the EU from actually playing a constructive role in the dispute. [9] It will be up to countries like Italy, France, and Germany to mediate between Athens and Ankara, declared Li Zixin, a research assistant at the China Institute of International Studies. [10]

Finally, Chinese experts used positive words to describe the relations between China and Italy–one of the countries visited by Wang Yi during his European tour that also brought him to France, Germany, Norway, and the Netherlands. For example, Sun Keqin, a researcher at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, stated some media criticized China but the foundations of the Sino-Italian relations are good. Italy will pursue its own interests, instead of following the American instructions. [11] While admitting that there has been some friction over Hong Kong, Chinese commentators make significant efforts in emphasizing how Europe does not want to pick sides between China and the United States. [12]

[1] Wu Sike, Jǐngtì měiguó niēzào líbānèn bàozhà “xíjí yīnmóu lùn” 警惕美国捏造黎巴嫩爆炸“袭击阴谋论” [Be wary of the US-fabricated "attack conspiracy theory" in Lebanon], China.com, August 6, 2020, link.

[2] Qian Xiaoyan, Líbānèn de wéijī bùjǐn xiànyú dà bàozhà? Mǎkè lóng wèihé jí fù líbānèn?  黎巴嫩的危机不仅限于大爆炸?马克龙为何急赴黎巴嫩? [Is Lebanon’s crisis limited to the explosion? Why did Macron go there?], China Business Network, August 6, 2020, link.

[3] “Ā yǐ wèntí xīn dòngxiàng jí qí yǐngxiǎng” xuéshù yántǎo huì jǔxíng  “阿以问题新动向及其影响”学术研讨会举行 [The “New direction and influence of the Arab-Israeli problem” academic conference], People’s Daily, August 20, 2020, link.

[4] Ding Long, Dīng lóng: Ā yǐ jiànjiāo,“xīn zhōngdōng” de fēngxiàngbiāo 丁隆:阿以建交,“新中东”的风向标 [Ding Long: The UAE and Israel establish relations, indicating the direction of the “new Middle East”], Global Times, August 15, 2020, link.

[5] Niu Song, Huánqiú lùntán丨gǔn ā yǐ guānxì zhèngcháng huà shéi jiā huānxǐ shéi jiā yōu 环球论坛丨阿以关系正常化 谁家欢喜谁家忧 [Global Forum丨Who is happy and who is not regarding the normalization of the relations between the UAE and Israel], Xinmin Evening News, August 20, 2020, link.

[6] Niu Song, Ā yǐ “wòshǒu” nán qǐ zhōngdōng hépíng zhī mén 阿以“握手”难启中东和平之门 [The UAE and Israel “shaking hands” will hardly open the door to peace in the Middle East], Beijing Daily, August 21, 2020, link.

[7] Huá límíng tán ā yǐ qiānshǔ xiéyì: Hépíng háishì xīn huǒyào tǒng? 华黎明谈阿以签署协议:和平还是新火药桶? [Hua Liming discusses the agreement between the UAE and Israel: Peace or a new powder keg?], Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China, August 19, 2020, link.  

[8] Yang Chen, Tǔ xī duìlěi: Kāiqǐ dìzhōnghǎi xīn zhèngzhì bóyì 土希对垒:开启地中海新政治博弈 [The confrontation between Greece and Turkey: the beginning of the political struggle in the Mediterranean], Xinmin Evening News, September 3, 2020, link.

[9] Kang Kai, Tǔ xī néngyuán kāicǎi zhēngduān zàidù shēngjí, júshì jiàngwēn qúdào yǒu nǎxiē? 土希能源开采争端再度升级,局势降温渠道有哪些? [The Turkey-Greece energy dispute has once again escalated. How to cool down the situation?], China Business Network, August 31, 2020, link.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ye Qi, Qing Mu, Li Xue, and Wei Hui, Wài méi guānzhù wáng yì ōuzhōu wǔ guó xíng, zhuānjiā: Yǔ měiguó bùtóng, zhōngguó shì jìxù tuījìn zhōng'ōu wùshí hézuò 外媒关注王毅欧洲五国行,专家:与美国不同,中国是继续推进中欧务实合作 [Foreign media pays attention to Wang Yi’s trip to five European countries. Experts say: It is not like the United States, China continues to carry out concrete cooperation with Europe], Global Times, August 27, 2020, link.

[12] Zhang Hong, Zhōng'ōu jījí hùdòng shìfàng qīngxī xìnhào 中欧积极互动释放清晰信号 [Sino-European interactions emit clear signals], People’s Daily, September 1, 2020, link.

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