December 2019

The Mediterranean Region looks at China
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In December 2019, it was the articles published by media in Italy, Iran, Syria, and Iraq that captured our attention as it was revealed both how important events impacted China’s image in those countries, as well as new details regarding the cooperation between them and China.

We begin our analysis with a series of letters published in the Italian newspaper Il Corriere della Sera, one in late November and four responses to that in December. [1] The authors of those letters are three prominent Italian sinologists, Professor Stefania Stafutti of the University of Torino, where she is also the Director of the Confucius Institute (CI), Professor Maurizio Scarpari of Ca’Foscari University of Venice, and Professor Fiorenzo Lafirenza of the same university in Venice. Stafutti’s letter addresses (ideally) the Chinese President Xi Jinping. She invites him to visit Hong Kong and meet with the students that are protesting in the streets and university campuses. Stafutti’s letter broke the silence of Italian sinologists over the events in Hong Kong and Italy’s relationship with China, which have remained outside the political debate on China for a long time. And Scarpari enters such a debate pulling no punches, describing the CIs as instruments of the Chinese government to “harmonize” the discussion on China in the country where they are located. He mentions the fact that some CI directors in Italy have practiced self-censorship in order to preserve the privileges that the position brings. It is not surprising, therefore, that the retired academician calls for closing the CIs in Italy. According to him, this would finally allow the Italian community of “China watchers” to join the debate on China without fear and concerns. Lafirenza’s letter, too, describes the problems related to academic freedom in Italian universities that he sees as caused by the fear among scholars and students of what might happen if they talk or write about issues that are deemed sensitive by the Chinese government. However, the role of Italian sinologists is not yet clear as, as the response by Stafutti and the Italian Association of Chinese Studies to Scarpari indicate, some fear that the discussion on China among scholars might turn quickly into one about who supports and practices self-censorship and who does not.

Meanwhile, against this background, the Italian Parliamentary Committee for the Intelligence and Security Services and for State Secret Control, which oversees the operations of Italian intelligence agencies, published the final report of its investigation regarding the Italy’s telecommunication infrastructure. [2] The Committee reached the conclusion that letting Chinese companies to join the development of Italy’s 5G network is a national security risk. Moreover, the report also finds that the costs of excluding Chinese companies would surmount to approximately Euro 600 million, lower than many expected. After it already came under fire for the meetings between its founder and the Chinese ambassador in Rome, the new findings of the report added pressure on the Five Star Movement, which is against further tightening the screening mechanism for foreign investments in strategic sectors of the economy, from the representatives of other political parties. [3]

In comparison, cooperation with China is described in a very different way in both Iran and Syria. The official IRNA and Tasnim News Agency published strong commentaries about the great significance of the joint naval exercise that the Iranian Navy carried out with its Chinese and Russian counterparts in late December. [4] Asadollah Badamchian, spokesperson of the Islamic Coalition Party, declared the exercise was a great accomplishment and a heavy blow to American hegemony in the Middle East. According to the Tasnim News Agency, the exercise has a great value because of a number of interrelated reasons. Firstly, it shows Iran’s capability to push back against the United States by strengthening its relations with other great powers. The have “developed a common security language” to preserve security and stability in the region. Second is that, if we consider China and Russia being two great powers and they decided to work with Iran, then, the author of the report argues, it means that the Middle Eastern country, too, is a great power. Third is that this exercise can be the first step toward the development of a new counterterrorism and anti-piracy partnership with China, Russia, as well as other countries. Fourth is that Iran deployed an indigenously designed and build warship, thereby showing its technological capability as being on par with the Russian and Chinese ones. Tasnim News Agency also published another article with a comparison between the Chinese and American strategies in the Middle East. [5] According to it, China should be praised for choosing economic engagement and the non-interference principle over military interventionism and the instrumentalization of human rights to enslave other countries. The Syrian newspaper al-Watan, too, published an article with a similar content, depicting China’s approach to the region as just and fair. [6] Hence, the journalist writes, “The strategic vision of President Bashar al-Assad has been proved correct beyond any doubt when he said, ‘We decided to go East, which means Russia and China, because this approach secures our strategic interests.’”

President al-Assad’s words were also reported in another article containing his interview with the China’s Phoenix Television. [7] In it, he is mentioned saying that the China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is “a strategic shift in global international relations, as it relies on partnership and common interests instead of attempts to dominate like the West does. China, as a superpower, is trying to enhance its influence in the world by relying on friends and common interests that improve the social, economic and security conditions of all countries in this initiative and promote stability and prosperity in the world.” President al-Assad promised that the Syrian government will provide the security necessary for Chinese companies to come to his country and that new laws and measures are being drafted in order to avoid the financial blockade imposed by the West. He mentioned six projects that his government proposed to China for economic assistance in the BRI framework and that he hopes Beijing will approve. While the Syrian President does his best to sound optimistic about the situation, it is important to keep in mind that the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs on December 26, 2019 has extended to June 30, 2020 the period within which Chinese nationals are advised to be extremely cautious if traveling to Damascus and avoid going to any other part of Syria.

Finally, we conclude this month’s ChinaMed Observer with the news that the “oil-for-reconstruction” agreement signed by the Chinese and the Iraqi government has entered into force. [8] The economic advisor to the Prime Minister of Iraq, Dr. Mazhar Muhammad Salih, told to Al-Jazeera that that happened on October 1, 2019. The agreement will last at least ten years, he said, and will bring about USD 500 million to Iraq to finance the reconstruction of many vital infrastructure that were destroyed during the numerous years of war and occupation. While this might sound promising, Salih also mentioned the necessity for the Iraqi government to devise a clear and effective plan to spend those money in the most efficient way. This, as Iraqi media pointed out in the past, will be the real challenge to prove that cooperating with China can bring benefits to the country.

[1] Stefania Stafutti, L’appello della docente: “Xi Jinping incontri gli studenti di Hong Kong” [The plea of the scholar: “Xi Jinping should meet the students in Hong Kong], Il Corriere della Sera, November 20, 2019, https://www.corriere.it/esteri/19_novembre_20/appello-docente-xi-jinping-incontri-studenti-hong-kong-466f6342-0bad-11ea-a21c-9507e0a03cd5.shtml; Maurizio Scarpari, La Cina e noi: fuori gli Istituti Confucio dalle università italiane [China and us: Outside the Confucius Institutes of Italian universities], Il Corriere della Sera, December 16, 2019, https://www.corriere.it/la-lettura/19_dicembre_16/cina-noi-fuori-istituti-confucio-universita-italiane-461cd4ca-1f61-11ea-92c8-1d56c6e24126.shtml; Fiorenzo Lafirenza, La Cina di oggi non è solo successi, dobbiamo trasmettere senso critico [Today’s China is not only successes, we have to teach a critical approach], Il Corriere della Sera, December 16, 2019, https://www.corriere.it/cultura/19_dicembre_16/polemica-istituti-confucio-replica-lafirenza-scarpari-lettura-cina-7db4560c-1f65-11ea-92c8-1d56c6e24126.shtml; Stefania Stafutti, Gli Istituti Confucio negli atenei sono occasioni di crescita e confronto [The Confucius Institutes in the universities are a platform for discussion and growth], Il Corriere della Sera, December 16, 2019, https://www.corriere.it/cultura/19_dicembre_16/polemica-istituti-confucio-replica-stafutti-scarpari-lettura-cina-2440feea-1f60-11ea-92c8-1d56c6e24126.shtml; Italian Association of Chinese Studies, La nostra scelta: non intervenire in pubblico su temi che toccano la Cina [Our choice: Not to intervene in the public debate on China-related issues], Il Corriere della Sera, December 16, 2019, https://www.corriere.it/cultura/19_dicembre_16/polemica-istituti-confucio-replica-associazione-studi-cinesi-scarpari-lettura-cina-c74a1946-1f6a-11ea-92c8-1d56c6e24126.shtml.

[2] Francesco Bechis, Via la Cina dal 5G. Il verdetto del Copasir [China out from the 5G, the findings of Copasir], Formiche, December 19, 2019, https://formiche.net/2019/12/via-cina-5g-verdetto-copasir/.

[3] Francesco Bechis, Cina e 5G, prima la sicurezza nazionale poi la politica. Parla Alfieri (Pd) [China and 5G, national security first and politics second, Alferi (Pd) speaks], Formiche, December 23, 2019, https://formiche.net/2019/12/alfieri-5g/.

[4] Badamchian: payam-e razmayesh-e moshtarek; payan-e dowran-e soltegari-e Amrika ast بادامچیان: پیام رزمایش مشترک؛ پایان دوران سلطه‌گری آمریکا است [Badamchian: the message behind the joint exercise is the end of America’s hegemonic era], IRNA, December 29, 2019, www.irna.ir/news/83612588/; Gozaresh| 10 dalil-e ahmiyat-e bargozari-e razmayesh-e moshtarek-e Iran Cin va Rusiye, گزارش: ۱۰ دلیل اهمیت برگزاری رزمایش مشترک ایران،چین و روسی [Report| 10 reasons why the joint exercises between Iran, China, and Russia are so important], Tasnim News Agency, December 28, 2019, https://tn.ai/2169163.

[5] Gozaresh| cegune Cin az eshtebah-e Amrika dar Xavarmiyane bahre migirad گزارش| چگونه چین از اشتباه آمریکا در خاورمیانه بهره می‌گیرد [Report| How China exploits America’s mistakes in the Middle East], Tasnim News Agency, December 1, 2019, https://tn.ai/2148102.

[6] Ibrahim al-Badawi, Bayna al-fawda al-amrikiyy wa-l-tanmiyat al-siniyya بين الفوضى الأميركية والتنمية الصينية  [Between the American chaos and the Chinese development], al-Watan, December 2, 2019, http://alwatan.sy/archives/222748.

[7] Fi muqabala maʿa qanat “Phoenix” al-siniyya, akkada an al-nizam al-turkiyy musahim bi-shikl mubashir bi-bayʾ al-naft maʿa “al-nusrat”, “daʿesh” wa maʿa al-amrikiyy… al-raʾis al-Assad: badaʾana al-hadith maʿa sharikat siniyya li-talafi al-ʿuqubat wa-hunak hiwar maʿa al-hukumat al-siniyya li-takun Suriya juzʾan min al-tariq al-harir في مقابلة مع قناة «فينيكس» الصينية.. أكد أن النظام التركي مساهم بشكل مباشر ببيع النفط مع «النصرة» و«داعش» ومع الأميركي … الرئيس الأسد: بدأنا الحديث مع شركات صينية لتلافي العقوبات وهناك حوار مع الحكومة الصينية لتكون سورية جزءاً من طريق الحرير [In an interview with the Chinese channel "Phoenix", he stressed that the Turkish regime is directly contributing to oil trade with "Al-Nusra" and "ISIS" and with the American ... President Al-Assad: We started talking with Chinese companies to avoid sanctions and there is dialogue with the Chinese government for Syria to be part of the Silk Road], al-Watan, December 17, 2019, http://alwatan.sy/archives/224759.

[8] Adil Fakhi, Al-iʿmar muqabil al-naft… kayfa wasiʿat al-sharikat al-siniyya huduriha fi-l-ʿIraq, الإعمار مقابل النفط... كيف وسعت الشركات الصينية حضورها بالعراق؟, [Reconstruction for oil… How could Chinese companies expand their presence in Iraq?], Al-Jazeera, December 31, 2019, https://www.aljazeera.net/news/ebusiness/2019/12/31/%d8%a7%d9%84%d8%b4%d8%b1%d9%83%d8%a7%d8%aa-%d8%a7%d9%84%d8%b5%d9%8a%d9%86%d9%8a%d8%a9-%d8%aa%d8%af%d8%ae%d9%84-%d8%a7%d9%84%d8%b9%d8%b1%d8%a7%d9%82-%d8%b1%d8%ba%d9%85-%d8%b8%d8%b1%d9%88%d9%81%d9%87-%d8%a7%d9%84%d9%85%d8%b6%d8%b7%d8%b1%d8%a8%d8%a9.

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