August 2021

The Mediterranean Region looks at China
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This month, our search through the media outlets of the wider Mediterranean region reflects a gloomier image than usual, as the uncertainties caused by US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the enduring rivalry between Beijing and Washington seem to have a deep impact also on the views of the MENA countries on the Chinese presence in the region.

Against this background, Saudi journalist Faheem al Hamid, writing for Okaz,asserts that “China has always maintained political interests in Afghanistan based on the need to keep balanced relations with the Taliban and the Afghan government, in addition to diversify Chinese influence to include other pivotal political and tribal figures and parties.”[1] The visit of Baradar Akhund, the Taliban’s negotiator and deputy leader, to Beijing and his meeting with Wang Yi and other high-ranked Chinese security and political officials should be perceived in this light. Al Hamid also claims that China will fill the void created by the US withdrawal by heavily investing in the reconstruction process in Afghanistan, strengthening its role in the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). On their part, the Taliban, asper the words of their spokesman, Muhammad Naim, assured Beijing that, “No one would be allowed to use Afghan soil to attack China”, thus de facto invalidating Washington’s alleged strategy of using the so-called “Mujahedeen scenario” to reduce Beijing’s influence in the country, as they did to expel Soviet forces from Afghanistan in the 80s.

On the other hand, the US forces withdrawal has raised some insecurities among Washington’s allies in the region. In this context, UAE- based retired professor of the political sciences, Abdul Khaleq Abdulla argues that the vacuum left by the United States will have mainly security and military repercussions on the Gulf States. These countries will have, then, two options:either to strengthen their own independent armies to boost their deterrence against the instabilities threatening the flow of oil, or to increase military cooperation in the region. Abdulla suggests that this international cooperation would require the joint efforts of both European actors, such as Britain and France, and of Eastern ones, especially China, India, and South Korea, which have a stake in Gulf stability because of their reliance on Middle Eastern oil.[2]

Similarly,Lebanese public opinion seems to be worried that the United States might decide to further re-dimension their presence in the region. For example, Tony Issa,writing for the Beirut-based al-Jomhuria, fears that such a move on Washington’s part could change the balance of power in the Middle East in favour of US rivals, namely China and Russia, and, consequently, of regional powers such as Israel, Iran, and Turkey.[3] Moreover,although US officials claim that the decision of leaving Afghanistan was merely a tactical step in a strategy to reduce the cost of US involvement abroad, they managed to do so “under the framework of a direct or indirect understanding with the Taliban themselves”. The journalist, therefore, claims that many countries in the Middle East, especially the weaker ones, such as Lebanon, are concerned that Washington might decide to repeat the “Afghan scenario”, most likely to Iran’s benefit.

For its part, Iran is mainly concerned with the path that its foreign policy will take under the new government led by the hardliner Seyed Ebrahim Raisi.According to Kayhan Barzegar, a political strategist and researcher of international affairs, Raisi will need to pursue a sort of “progressive conservative approach” aimed at achieving national security and regional influence.[4]This approach would be based on cautiously increasing Tehran’s involvement in Afghanistan in order to enhance its bargaining power and trade relations with important neighbors, namely Russia and China. Barzegar affirms that Iran’s role as a major regional player is crucial for Chinese foreign interest, as it could strengthen the logistical framework of the BRI, while contributing to secure China’s western borders.

In this context, it is interesting to note that Iranian sources report that Iran’s full membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) will be ratified after 15 years. Apparently, as announced by Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the Supreme National Security Assembly, “the political obstacles to Iran’s membership in the SCO have been removed,” also because, “the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s influence in important cities such as Herat seem to have made the member states aware of Iran’s role to solve what is happening in the region”.[5]It is not surprising, then, Israeli media link Tel Aviv’s declining trust in its relation with Beijing also to China’s ties with the “Islamist parties” in the region, especially Iran and the Taliban.[6] At the same time, they show frustration at the perceived weakness of the United States, Tel Aviv’s strongest ally, in their dealing with the Taliban and the Iranian file.

However,American pressure continue to dominate the developments of Sino-Israeli relations. In the context of the visit of the new Israeli Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, to the White House, the newspaper Maariv held an interview with Carice Witte and Tommy Steiner, respectively the CEO and the Director of the Signal institute for Israel-China Relations, about the future of Chinese investments in the country. According to Witte and Steiner, Bennett can not refuse “a clear American demand to minimize Israel's relations with China.”[7] In fact, as they clarify, although “trade relations between the two countries have grown significantly from USD 50 million in 1992 to about USD 11 billion today,” mainly in the field of civil technology, “the current trend indicates a decrease in Chinese investment in Israeli companies. The Chinese are less willing to "make an effort" in activities in Israel, unless they promote areas of Chinese interest, such as health, microchips, etc.” Israel’s discontent with China can also be read in Israeli views on Beijing’s position regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In an article published by several Hebrew and Arabic websites, Galia Lavi, a researcher with the Institute for National Security Studies, accuses China of exploiting the international fervor over the conflict, especially after Operation Guardian of the Walls last May, as a political weapon against the United States, while “distancing itself from criticism on the subject of its dealings with the Uyghur minority.”[8] Therefore,China would be more interested in establishing a “symbolic awareness” of the issue, rather than “a practical and effective solution”. Under this light, Lavi does not expect that China’s engagement in the regional issues, such as the reconstruction of Syria and new investments in the Gaza Strip, will have produce anything concrete.

Asfor what concerns the Syrian file, the Emirates Policy Center (EPC) addressed ina note the Chinese position on the matter and its interests in increasing its engagement with Damascus.[9] During his recent visit to Syria, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi announced anew “Chinese Initiative” to solve the Syrian crisis, which involves respect for Syrian sovereignty, focus on the urgency of reconstruction, and firm support for the fight against terrorism. According to the EPC note, this initiative would contravene UN Resolution 2254, which was unanimously adopted by the UNSecurity Council in 2015. Together with Syrian keenness on developing relations with Beijing, this would suggest that China intends to further increase its involvement in the future for a number of reasons, such as “to utilize its geographic position and to further the BRI and link Iraq to Syria,” which will give Beijing access to the East Mediterranean, “to signal to the United States that it is able to fill the void they left in Afghanistan,” and “to prevent aUS-Russian understanding that would harm Chinese interests.” The EPC note also hints at the fact that Damascus might be willing to enhance its cooperation with China in order to strike a balance with the heavy Russian, and in part Iranian,influence on the country. However, sources close to the Syrian government that were mentioned in the EPC report “complained that Chinese investments are weak,as they executed only two projects between 2009-2019.” It is important to point out that Moscow and Tehran control almost the entirety of the Syrian coast and the profitable assets of the Syrian economy. Hence, it seems unlikely that they would accept a wider Chinese role in the country. Moreover, continues the author of the EPC report, investing in Syria might be too risky for China, “given the continuous devaluing of the currency, corruption, insecurity and a business environment controlled by warlords and local eminent figures.” The possibility of a reinforced Chinese engagement in Syria soon seems, in fact, dim.

Chinese economic engagement seems to be declining also in Turkey. The CumhuriyetGazetesi reported that Chinese banks stopped financing important projects,such as Kanal Istanbul, a new airport in Istanbul, and a third bridge to link Asia and Europe, after rumors were published about an unspoken agreement between the Turkish President Erdogan and Joe Biden regarding energy cooperation, especially in the LNG sector, between the two countries.[10]

Per usual, we conclude this issue of the ChinaMed Observer reporting the latest developments on the controversy between the Piraeus Port Authority (PPA) and Cosco. Kathimerini confirmed that the Hellenic Court of Audits approved the new agreement between the Greek State and Cosco for the transfer of the remaining 16% of the PPA to the Chinese state-owned company and the five-year extension for the completion of the mandatory investments. The new agreement also provides for the deposit of letters of guarantee for 33% of the amount of outstanding investments, which will be forfeited to Athens if the projects are not completed within the stipulated period, and it grants the Greek government veto power over key strategic decisions, although it will only have one representative in the PPA board.[11] However, the local governments of the Piraeus area continue to demand “the cancellation and suspension of the ministerial decisions that gave environmental approval to the Cosco projects in the port of Piraeus.”[12] The new appeal, signed by 24 executives of the local government of Piraeus, accusesCosco of “refusing to submit for approval the necessary environmental and management studies” and, thus, of implementing projects with a high impact on the environment “without the necessary permits of the Greek state,” in one of the most polluted areas of Attica.

[1] Faheem al Hamid, “Al-hizam wa-l-tariq” … al-qiwat al-siniyyat al-muʾaththira…Bikin wa-milʾ al-firagh fi “Afghanistan taliban” «الحزام والطريق».. القوة الصينية المؤثرة.. بكين وملء الفراغ في«أفغانستان طالبان» [The Belt and Road… the influential Chinese power… Beijing and filling the void in the “Taliban’s Afghanistan”], Okaz, August 3, 2021, link.

[2] Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, Lessons from Afghanistan for the Gulf, The National, August 17, 2021, link.

[3] Tony ʿIssa, Hal yatrakuna al-amrikiyyun kama taraku Afghanistan? هل يتركنا الأميركيون كما تركوا أفغانستان؟ [Will the Americans leave uslike they left Afghanistan?], al-Jomhuria, August 18, 2021, https://www.aljoumhouria.com/news/609849

[4] Ahmad Gholami, Raʾisi; ʿobur az mohafeze-kar-e sonnati? رئیسی؛ عبور از محافظه کاری سنتی؟ [Raisi; moving from traditional conservatism?], Sharq, August 4, 2021, link.

[5] ʿOzviyat-e Iran dar Peyman-e Shanghay nehayi mishavad عضویت ایران درپیمان شانگهای نهایی می شود [Iran’s membership in the Shanghai Organization is being finalized], Etemad, August 14, 2021, link.

[6] Ariel Kahana, Bemisgertet hamavak be-sin: lidrush kav nucsh yuter mol iran במסגרת המאבק בסין: לדרושקו נוקשה מול איראן [Aspart of the struggle in China: to demand a rigid line with Iran], Israel Hayum, August 25, 2021, link.

[7] Ana Berski, Haaracha: Baide yidrosh mi- Bennett letzamtem et hameoravut ha-Sinit beisrael הערכה: ביידן ידרוש מבנט לצמצם את המעורבות הסינית בישראל [Assessment: Biden will demand from Bennett to reduce Chinese involvement in Israel], Maariv, August 27, 2021, link.

[8] Ghalia Lafi, Sahifat ʿibriyya: limadha tasirrual-Sin ʿala idraj al-nizaʿ al-israʾili al-filastini fi judul al-iʿmal? صحيفة عبرية: لماذا تصر الصين على إدراج النزاعالإسرائيلي الفلسطيني في جدول الأعمال؟ [Hebrew newspaper: why does China insist on putting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the agenda?], al-Quds al-Arabi, August 19, 2021, link.

[9] Al-taharruk al-sini tijjah Surya: ahdafuhuwa-afaquhu التحرُّك الصيني تجاه سورية: أهدافهوآفاقه [The Chinese movement toward Syria: goals and prospects], Emirates Policy Center, August 16, 2021, link.

[10] Çin’in iştahı kalmadı, [China has no appetite for Turkey anymore], Cumhuriyet Gazetesi, August 27, 2021, link.

[11] Ilian Mpellos, To elegktiko Sinedrio enekrine tisimfonia Cosco – Dimosiou Το Ελεγκτικό Συνέδριο ενέκρινε τη συμφωνία Cosco – Δημοσίου [The Hellenic Court of Auditapproved the Cosco-State agreement], Kathimerini.gr, August 20, 2021, link.

[12] Christina Papastathopoulou, Pampeiraiko metopo kata tis Cosco Παμπειραϊκό μέτωπο κατά της Cosco [Pan-Piraeus front against Cosco], efsyn.gr, August 19, 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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