January 7, 2019

December 2018

The Mediterranean Region looks at China
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Slowly, the implications for the region of the increasingly competitive Sino-American relations have become a frequent topic of discussion in some media outlets not only in the Middle East but also North Africa. This is an interesting development given the fact that the regional debate on China had focused virtually exclusively on economic topics until now. According to Maghress’ commentator Abdulhamid Jamaheri, the launch of the “Prosper Africa” initiative in Washington in mid-December is proof that Africa has officially become the new theater for the contest for influence between Washington, Beijing, and, to a minor extent, Moscow.[1] Jamaheri makes the case that the return of a Cold War-like atmosphere has been caused by the United States, rather than China. Indeed, he argues, the United States has ignored Africa for many years while China’s relations with the continent have strengthened significantly. The article concludes with a point that is often ignored in Western media: the governments of the developing countries that find themselves at the center of the Sino-American rivalry are often ill-equipped to turn this situation fully to their advantage and avoid the different risks that come with choosing one of the two competitors over the other. An article published by the French newspaper Jeune Afrique, too, points to the same problem – the fragility of African state – but from a different angle.[2] According to the author, Alain Faujas, the Chinese economic slowdown will soon cause great pain to the many African countries that export natural resources to China. This is an unsurprisingly different point of view from those present in many media outlet of countries in the southern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. For example, Maghress, Djazairess, and Youm7 – three newpapers published in Morocco, Algeria, and Egypt, respectively – reported news about new agreements signed by China and local companies as well as new initiatives aimed at presenting the economic opportunities for Chinese investors in the markets of the region.[3]

While the article published in Maghress does not contain speculations about which of the two countries will surpass the other, a commentary written by Sarah al-Masri for Al Jazeera seems to indicate China as the favorite.[4] The writer notes that China’s engagement with the Middle East has deepened markedly in economic, diplomatic, cultural, and military terms under the leadership of Xi Jinping. China has never been so influential in the region and never have the countries there looked at China so seriously for support. The article also calls for not overstating China’s strength and willingness to become the kind of power that many hope for. Indeed, China has been more proactive in promoting its own model of economic development rather than intervening in a decisive way to solve the many crises in the region. However, it concludes, Beijing will soon have little choice, and adopting a more proactive and assertive approach to Middle Eastern politics will be inevitable.

While waiting for the moment China will eventually begin playing a more active role in regional politics, various countries have already begun to prepare for that eventuality in different ways. For example, a profound reassessment of the implications of engaging with China continues in Israel. Israeli Broadcasting Corporation, also known as KAN, reported an urgent meeting of the State Security Cabinet taking place in late December to discuss the creation of a new mechanism for the screening of foreign investment in sectors of the economy deemed of strategic importance, such as transportation, finance, and energy.[5] The fact that this kind of topic is dealt with by the Cabinet rather than within the Finance Ministry, whose officials are not part of the Cabinet, confirms that this is far from being an economic issue. However, it is not clear whether the case of the Port of Haifa was also touched upon during the meeting. Meanwhile, the Israeli Defense Force is reportedly in the process of phasing out the Mavic Pro drones it currently makes for the majority of the 1,000 drones used by its infantry units for scouting. The Mavic Pro, which is small and weighs only 750 grams and can fly for 25 minutes, is manufactured by the Chinese company DJI. One of the main reasons for the substitution of the Mavic Pro with the Elbit Systems-designed and code-named Tzur is that the Chinese drones due are difficult to encode. This problem often prevents their use in highly classified activities.[6] In contrast to Israel, Turkey is continuing the promotion of ties with China. The Turkish ambassador in Beijing Abdulkadir Emin Onen declared to the Anadolu Agency that officials in his government and the Chinese government held more than 1,000 meetings in 2018.[7] The meetings between a delegation from Turkey’s Presidency of Directorate of Communications and the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, the China Institute of International Studies, and the Shanghai Institute for International Studies held in late December are among the latest examples of the intense exchange of visits at different levels that the ambassador mentioned. According to the Sabah Gazetesi, the main topics discussed in those occasions by Turkish and Chinese officials and scholars were the evolution of Sino-Turkish relations and the prospects for cooperation between the two countries under the China-led Belt and Road initiative.[8]

[1] Abdulhamid Jamaheri, Ifriqia… alsharq al-Awsat alqadim liamerika va alsin va alrussiya  أفريقيا.. الشرق الأوسط القادم لأمريكا والصين وروسيا  [Africa: The new Middle-East for American-Chinese-Russian competition], Maghress, 20 December 2018, https://www.maghress.com/alittihad/2078488.

[2] Alain Faujas, Matières premières : le ralentissement de la demande chinoise fragilise l’Afrique [Raw materials : the slowdown of the Chinese demand weakens Africa], Jeune Afrique, 28 December 2018, https://www.jeuneafrique.com/696303/economie/matieres-premieres-le-ralentissement-de-la-demande-chinoise-fragilise-lafrique/.

[3] Amin Belumari, Aljazair va alsin 60 aman va thalatha usus, الجزائر الصين.. 60 عاما وثلاثة أسس  [Algeria and China, sixty years and three principles], Djazairess, 21 December 2018, https://www.djazairess.com/echchaab/132673; Ala athar tariq alharir min ajl tausie dairat alshirakat va taziz altaawon bein almuqavilat alsiniya va almaghribiya على آثار "طريق الحرير" من أجل توسيع دائرة الشراكات وتعزيز التعاون بين المقاولات الصينية والمغربية [The second Chinese trade Expo in Morocco to expand the partnership and cooperation on the Silk Road Initiative], Maghress, 9 December 2018, https://www.maghress.com/cawalisse/1026718; Muzakara altafahum bein alintaj alharbi va sharika alsiniya litanfid al mashrouat fi majal altaqa ذكرة تفاهم بين الإنتاج الحربي وشركة صينية لتنفيذ مشروعات فى مجال الطاقة [A memorandum of understanding between the National Organization for Military Production and a Chinese company to implement projects in the field of energy], Youm7, 22 December 2018, https://www.youm7.com/story/2018/12/22/%D9%85%D8%B0%D9%83%D8%B1%D8%A9-%D8%AA%D9%81%D8%A7%D9%87%D9%85-%D8%A8%D9%8A%D9%86-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A5%D9%86%D8%AA%D8%A7%D8%AC-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AD%D8%B1%D8%A8%D9%8A-%D9%88%D8%B4%D8%B1%D9%83%D8%A9-%D8%B5%D9%8A%D9%86%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D9%84%D8%AA%D9%86%D9%81%D9%8A%D8%B0-%D9%85%D8%B4%D8%B1%D9%88%D8%B9%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D9%81%D9%89/4076898.

[4] Sarah Almasri, Alsin fi alsharq al-Awsat an maza yabhath altenin  الصين-في-الشرق-الأوسط-عن-ماذا-يبحث-التنين [China in the Middle-East: What is the dragon searching for?], Al Jazeera, 11 December 2018, https://midan.aljazeera.net/reality/politics/2018/12/11/%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B5%D9%8A%D9%86-%D9%81%D9%8A-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B4%D8%B1%D9%82-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A3%D9%88%D8%B3%D8%B7-%D8%B9%D9%86-%D9%85%D8%A7%D8%B0%D8%A7-%D9%8A%D8%A8%D8%AD%D8%AB-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AA%D9%86%D9%8A%D9%86.

[5] Gili Cohen and Liel Kaiser, Diun charig ba-cabinet al masmaut knisat sil le-Israel דיון חריג בקבינט על משמעות כניסת סין לישראל [An unusual meeting of the Cabinet on the importance of China's presence in Israel], Israeli Broadcasting Corporation, 29 December 2018, https://www.kan.org.il/item/?itemid=43496.

[6] Yuval Azulai, Ha-rachfanim Ha-sinim mistaltim al zahal, aval binataiym rak elbit notent faite הרחפנים הסיניים משתלטים על צה"ל, אבל בינתיים רק אלביט נותנת פייט [Chinese scout drones are taking over the IDF, but Elbit is fighting back], Globes, 11 December 2018, https://www.globes.co.il/news/article.aspx?did=1001264380.

[7] 2018 Çin-Türkiye ilişkilerinde rekorlar yılı oldu [2018 ‘year of records’ in Turkey-China ties: ambassador], Anadolu Agency, 2 December 2018, https://www.aa.com.tr/tr/dunya/2018-cin-turkiye-iliskilerinde-rekorlar-yili-oldu/1353925.

[8] Cumhurbaşkanlığı panelleri Çin’e uzanıyor [Presidential delegation arrives in China], Sabah Gazetesi, 23 December 2018, https://www.sabah.com.tr/dunya/2018/12/23/cumhurbaskanligi-panelleri-cine-uzaniyor.

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