December 2019

China looks at the Mediterranean Region
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According to Xu Qingguo, a researcher at the Institute of West Asian and African Studies (IWAAS) of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, three issues were the most prominent in the Middle East: the significant strengthening of Russia’s position in the region at the expense of the United States, Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy on Iran and Iran’s “maximum resistance,” and Turkey’s intervention in Syria—which contributed to undermining the trust of Western countries in Ankara. The biggest failure of 2019, however, is the “Deal of the Century” put forward by the United States. [1] Meanwhile, Chinese experts of European affairs identified the role of the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean as the main link between instability in the Middle East and North Africa and the growing political fragmentation and populism in Europe. [2] In general, Chinese commentators are not prone to look at 2020 with optimism.

Against this background, Chinese media published a number of interesting commentaries that help us to understand China’s point of view on its role in the Middle East through its relationship with Russia and Iran. To begin with, the Global Times published two articles – one editorial and one article with comments by ambassador Hua Liming – clearly downplaying the meaning of the joint four-day naval exercise carried out by the Chinese, Russian, and Iranian navies in the Gulf of Oman and the Indian Ocean that began on December 27, 2019. [3] Both articles argue that the exercise is not directed at any third party, i.e. the United States or Saudi Arabia. Yet, while the articles that contain the comments of ambassador Hua Liming frame the exercise as a way to protect strategic waterways—which is the talking point of the spokesperson of the Chinese armed forces—the editorial makes a more interesting point: one that is often discounted as propaganda. The author(s) write that “No country should ask China to have an exclusive relationship; China does not encourage anyone to use its relationship with China against another country.” While the general argument of the article is critical of Western analysts and their overstating the importance and strategic value of the exercise, this brief part can easily be seen as a message also for China’s closest regional partners, like Iran, as the diplomatic costs of taking side are extremely high.

The naval exercise was not the only high-profile event where China was involved in November. On December 20, 2019, China and Russia vetoed a draft resolution proposed by Belgium, Kuwait and Germany that would have allowed cross-border humanitarian deliveries for an additional 12 months from two points in Turkey and one in Iraq. That same day, the United Nations Security Council also voted on the rival Russian draft resolution that would have approved two Turkish crossing points for six months, but it failed with only five votes in favor, six against and four abstentions. China’s point of view has been summarized by Wang Jin, a scholar and frequent commentator on Middle Eastern issues at China’s Northwestern University. [4] According to him, the veto by China and Russia was motivated by three issues. First, the resolution left too much space of maneuvering to Western non-governmental organizations—which are regarded supporting the groups that oppose the Syrian government—thereby undermining the political process to find a solution for the civil war. Second, some countries, such as Turkey and Jordan, where the entry points for humanitarian aid are located oppose the Syrian government. The resolution, therefore, would give them the possibility to both channel aid to opposition groups as well as control the flow of aid in ways that undermine the Syrian government. Third, given the two other reasons, the draft resolution did not respect Syria’s sovereignty. Considering Russia, this latest veto is seen by Chinese commentators as necessary for Moscow to protect its great achievements in Syria. According to Yu Jianhua, the Deputy Director of the Institute of International Studies of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, Russia’s intervention in the Middle Eastern country served it well by providing Moscow with a lever vis-à-vis the West, creating an opportunity for expanding Russian influence in the entire region to the detriment of the United States, as well as giving some oxygen to Russian businesses. [5] He mentions that Russia invested USD 20 billion in Syria.

Yet, while the situation seems rosy, others also see potential troubles at the horizon for Russia. One of the causes, writes China Institute of International Studies (CIIS)’s Li Yingying, is the difference between Russia’s and Iran’s goals and points of view over the future of Syria. [6] According to her, Russia and Iran do not agree on the future configuration of the Syrian state as both nations support different actors in the Syrian government and armed forces. The two countries have also different opinion about Syria’s role in the region. Russia aims at strengthening its influence, especially vis-à-vis the United States; Iran wants to bring Syria firmly under its umbrella against Sunni countries. Finally, Li points to the speed of the negotiations between Russia and Syria and Iran and Syria for the contract related to the Syrian reconstruction as symptoms of the fact that Moscow and Tehran are not willing to share with each other the economic return upon the massive diplomatic and military investments that they made, especially as both face flagging economies at home. The fact that Chinese media publish articles on the problems between Russia and Iran is further indicative of the fact that China is not eager to present a narrative where China, Russia, and Iran are more than partners over specific issues, and that it has also limited expectations about the resilience or the depth of the relations between the two other countries. Problems between Russia and one of the other countries involved in Syria emerge also in the analysis of the situation in Libya. According to Li Ruyi, a journalist with the Beijing Daily, the fact that Russia and Turkey support different factions – Turkey supports the UN-recognized Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj; Russia provides help to the warlord Khalifa Haftar – is one of the main causes behind the continuing chaos in the North African country. [7] Liu Baolai, former Chinese ambassador in Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, stated that the involvement of many countries in support of either al-Sarraj or Haftar has to cease in order to find a way out of the crisis. [8] China is close to al-Sarraj’s government but, like in Syria, its diplomats call for a political solution to the war mediated by the United Nations, rather than taking a clear stance.

Turkey’s decision to intervene militarily in Libya caught the attention of Chinese commentators. According to Dong Manyuan, the Deputy Director of CIIS and an advisor to the State Council, Turkey aims to achieve two goals. [9] First is to escalate the geopolitical competition against Saudi Arabia, which is backing Haftar in Libya. Second is consolidating the gains made through the maritime boundaries deal signed with al-Sarraj’s government in late November. While it is too early to say what will be the impact on the situation in Libya, another Chinese expert, Shanghai International Studies University’s Zou Zhiqiang, wrote that the strengthening of Turkish presence in Libya contributes to a significant extent to destabilize the Eastern Mediterranean as Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, and Israel have all been angered by the Turkish-Libyan agreement. [10]

We conclude this issue of the ChinaMed Observer looking at a very interesting article written by Tang Zhichao, the Director of the Middle East Studies Division of IWAAS, on Japan’s decision to send naval assets and aircraft (a helicopter-equipped destroyer and two P-3C patrol planes) to the Middle East. [11] Tang argues that Japan aims to achieve four goals. First is protecting the flow of oil from the region to Asia. Second is to continue “exploiting” the Middle East to normalize the deployment of Japanese forces abroad. Third is countering China’s growing influence in the region and, together with the United States, the Indian Ocean. Fourth is to change Japan’s image of “economic giant and political dwarf.” Like other authors that we have mentioned in past issues of the ChinaMed Observer, Tang, too, tends to downplay Japan’s effectiveness as an actor in the region. Yet, the fact that Japan is acting against China and that, as he concludes in the article, China should pay close attention to Japan’s moves in the region is a new element in the Chinese debate on the Middle East and the wider Mediterranean region that is well-worth paying attention to in the future.

[1] Xu Qingguo, 2019 Nián de zhōngdōng: Dàguó jìngzhēng jiājù hǎiwān jié hòu yúshēng 2019年的中东:大国竞争加剧 海湾劫后余生 [The Middle East in 2019: The competition among great powers intensifies— the situation in the Gulf is tense but has not yet exploded], China.org, December 22, 2019, http://opinion.china.com.cn/opinion_71_216071.html.

[2] Hu Zhenqing, Zhōngdōng duōguó zhèngjú dòngdàng, zhuānjiā: Kǒng chūxiàn xīn nànmín cháo, ōuméng huò shōu jǐn zhèngcè 中东多国政局动荡,专家:恐出现新难民潮,欧盟或收紧政策 [Instability in many Middle Eastern countries, experts say: There is the possibility of a new wave of migrants, the EU might tighten its policy], The Paper, December 6, 2019, https://www.thepaper.cn/newsDetail_forward_5164295.

[3] Shèpíng: Shéi dōu bù gāi fùmiàn jiědú yī é zhōng hǎishàng jūn yǎn 社评:谁都不该负面解读伊俄中海上军演 [Comment: No one should have a negative outlook on the joint Chinese, Russian, and Iranian naval exercise], Global Times, December 26, 2019, https://opinion.huanqiu.com/article/9CaKrnKoyJg; Huang Peizhao, Guo Yuandan, Liu Yang, Ren Zhong, and Liu Yupeng, Zhōngfāng quèrèn zhōng é yī jūn yǎn jīnrì kāiqǐ, zhuānjiā:“Xiù jīròu” shuōfǎ míngxiǎn shì xiǎng duōle 中方确认中俄伊军演今日开启,专家:“秀肌肉”说法明显是想多了 [China confirms that the naval exercise with Russia and Iran begins today: experts saying that this “show of muscles” is too much], Global Times, December 27, 2019, https://world.huanqiu.com/article/9CaKrnKoyQD.

[4] Wang Jin, É zhōng wèihé fǒujué liánhéguó shè xù yì'àn 俄中为何否决联合国涉叙议案 [Why China and Russia vetoed the resolution on Syria at the United Nations], Guangming Daily, December 26, 2019, https://news.gmw.cn/2019-12/26/content_33430612.htm.

[5] Yu Jianhua, Èluósī zhōngdōng zhànlüè “sìliǎngbōqiānjīn”: Bùjǐn huàjiě xù wéijī, hái bǎ guóqí chā dào měijūn fèiqì jīdì shàng 俄罗斯中东战略“四两拨千斤”:不仅化解叙危机,还把国旗插到美军废弃基地上 [Russia’s strategy in the Middle East of punching above its weight: Not only resolves the Syrian crisis, but also put its flag in the American abandoned military bases], Wen Wei Po, December 31, 2019, http://www.whb.cn/zhuzhan/huanqiu/20191231/311532.html.

[6] Li Yingying, Èluósī yīlǎng zài xù fēnqí rìjiàn tūxiǎn, dìqū júshì tiān xīn biànshù 俄罗斯伊朗在叙分歧日渐凸显,地区局势添新变数 [Russia and Iran's differences in Syria have become increasingly prominent, adding new variables to the regional situation], China.org, December 3, 2019, http://opinion.china.com.cn/opinion_39_215639.html.

[7] Li Ruyi, Lìbǐyǎ júshì xiànrù dòngdàng, bùdàn méiyǒu yíng lái “chūntiān”, fǎn'ér chéngle dàguó bóyì hé lìyì jiāohuàn de chóumǎ 利比亚局势陷入动荡,不但没有迎来“春天” ,反而成了大国博弈和利益交换的筹码 [Libya is in turmoil and it has become a bargaining chip among great powers], Beijing Daily, December 23, 2019, http://www.bjd.com.cn/a/201912/23/WS5e009734e4b0f4ff838017c7.html.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Dong Manyuan, Dǒng màn yuǎn: Chūbīng lìbǐyǎ? Tǔ'ěrqí yìyù hé wèi 董漫远:出兵利比亚?土耳其意欲何为 [Dong Manyuan: Deploy troops to Libya, what is Turkey up to?], Global Times, December 28, 2019, https://opinion.huanqiu.com/article/9CaKrnKoA05.

[10] Hu Zhenqing, Tǔ'ěrqí huò jiāngjūn yuán lìbǐyǎ, dōng dìzhōnghǎi huà jiè zhēngyì yǐ chéng dìqū rèdiǎn 土耳其或将军援利比亚,东地中海划界争议已成地区热点 [Turkish military aid to Libya: the Eastern Mediterranean sea boundaries have already become a regional hotspot], The Paper, December 16, 2019, https://www.thepaper.cn/newsDetail_forward_5252577.

[11] Tang Zhichao, Tángzhìchāo: Rìběn gāodiào jièrù zhōngdōng wèi nǎ bān 唐志超:日本高调介入中东为哪般 [Tang Zhichao: What is the reason for Japan's high-profile intervention in the Middle East?], Global Times, December 20, 2019, https://m.huanqiu.com/article/9CaKrnKoqRn.

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