December 2020

China looks at the Mediterranean Region
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During an interview on January 2, 2021, the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, declared that “Over the past year, while firmly upholding the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), we have joined the international community in opposing moves inconsistent with Security Council resolutions. We have put forward a constructive proposal of building a new platform for multilateral dialogue for the Gulf region. We have given steadfast support to Palestine's just cause and firmly upheld the right direction of the ‘two-state solution’.” Yet, as we look at the commentaries written by Chinese commentators during the last month of 2020, it is evident that the situation that China is facing in the Middle East and the wider Mediterranean region continues to be extremely volatile.

Liu Cheng, a research assistant at the Institute of Developing Countries of the China Institute of International Studies (CIIS) wrote a long summary of the main trends in the Middle East. [1] Liu emphasizes many of the themes that we have already touched upon in past issues of the ChinaMed Observer, such as Turkish diplomatic and military activism, the marginalization of the Palestinian issue in regional politics, and the deep change brought about by the Trump administration in Israel’s relations with many Arab countries. However, the research also mentions something that we see rarely in Chinese commentaries: skepticism regarding Russia. According to Liu, Russia is overextended as result of its involvement in the Nagorno-Karabakh war as well as other unspecified “security challenges” in its neighborhood. This situation has been worsened by the raging Coronavirus pandemic and the low oil prices. This is why, Liu writes, it is difficult for Moscow to sustain its presence in the Middle East. Such an assessment of Russia’s situation is, however, not unanimous. Fang Xiaozhi, the Deputy Director of the Center for World Military Studies of National University of Defense Technology’ School of International Relations, wrote for Globe a short analysis of the recent agreement between Russia and Sudan that will allow the Russian military to station four ships and up to 300 personnel at Port Sudan on the Red Sea for 25 years. [2] According to Fang, this is an important step for Russia as its navy is on its path to restore some of the influence lost with the implosion of the Soviet Union. Russia, Fang argues, is opening a new front in its struggle against the United States and NATO because it hopes to ease the pressure over Ukraine and Syria. Whether or not this attempt will succeed depends on what President-elect Joe Biden will decide to do. Fang predicts the intensification of the competition between Russia and the United States as it will expand into the Indian Ocean.

Biden’s future policy is also the topic of an article written by Ding Long for the Global Times. [3] Ding, who is the Director of Gulf Research Center of the University of International Business and Economics’ National Institute for Foreign Studies, argues that the Biden administration will not prioritize the Middle East for three reasons. First, Biden signaled his intention to bring the United States back into the JCPOA but, beyond that, he will probably focus on other international issues. The problems of the region are too difficult to solve and would consume too much energy of the new President. Second, the mechanism behind the normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab countries is in full swing and it will create increasingly bigger obstacles for the United States to improve the relations with Iran even after Donald Trump has left the White House. As pointed out by Wang Jin in the case of American recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara in exchange of Morocco’s normalization of the ties with Israel, [4] it will also create obstacles for the resolution of other problems in the region. Third, those in Washington and, especially, Tehran in favor of easing the tensions are much fewer than before. American withdrawal from the JCPOA and the reinstatement of sanctions have severely undermined the position of Iranian “doves” and, regardless of what Biden wants, it will be difficult to find an agreement with Iran. Fourth, the Trump administration and/or Israel might try to worsen the situation further, as demonstrated by the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.

This is a somehow different opinion from that expressed by Fudan University’s Sun Degang. According to him, Biden will try to revive the two-state solution for Palestine. [5] He will also try to re-establish American influence in the region by balancing against “extra-regional” powers and engaging to some extent in the resolution of conflicts like that in Yemen. Sun does not specify whether China is one of the targets of American balancing in the region, which is something that other Chinese scholars believe.

Against this background, how should China approach the region? Hua Liming, China’s former ambassador to Iran and currently a researcher at CIIS, told to the Observer that, given the importance of this part of the world for maritime logistics and oil production, China only wants peace–no war and no instability. [6] To achieve that goal, China will maintain friendly relations with all the countries there. Another interesting statement about China’s approach can be found in an article written by Li Zheng and Han Yafeng, two researchers of the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations. [7] Li and Han harshly criticize American actions in the Middle East as failed and, in light of the Black Live Matters protest, American hypocritical attempts to promote democracy in the region. The Americans, they argue, do not understand the origin of instability and, instead, are driven by the desire to interfere in other countries’ political life, as they are accused to do in Hong Kong with the same tactics that were used to ignite the so-called Arab Spring. Hence, they conclude their article with a statement that likely reflects their understanding of what is the solution to instability: a “strong leadership core and governing force” are necessary to fully organize and mobilize societal groups to bring about development, reforms, and innovation.

Can other actors in the region deal better with instability? It depends. Recent attempts of the European Union to develop new approaches to immigration and terrorism, according to Cao Hui, might not be effective but they are already creating serious tensions with Turkey. [8] Whether or not the Europeans will succeed is not only a matter of reducing the risk of terrorist attacks, but also to disarm one of the most important political tools used by right-wing political parties.

[1] Liu Chang, “Lěng hépíng” kǒng chéng zhōngdōng júshì xīn chángtài “冷和平”恐成中东局势新常态 [The “cold peace” could become the new normal in the Middle East], Globe, December 16, 2020, link.

[2] Fang Xiaozhi, Bùdiǎn sūdān: É yù “chóng fǎn yìndùyáng” 布点苏丹:俄欲“重返印度洋” [Expanding in Sudan: Russia wants to return to the Indian Ocean], Globe, December 15, 2020, link.

[3] Ding Long, Dīng lóng: Bài dēng zài jùbiàn de zhōngdōng nàn yǒu dà zuòwéi 丁隆:拜登在巨变的中东难有大作为 [Ding Long: Biden will not be able to do much in a changing Middle East], Global Times, December 21, 2020, link.

[4] Wang Jin, Lìshǐ túpò yǔ qiánzài wéijī: Yǐsèliè móluògē néng fǒu “zhèngcháng huà”? 历史突破与潜在危机:以色列摩洛哥能否“正常化”? [Historical breakthrough and latent crisis: Can the relations between Israel and Morocco “normalize”?], The Paper, December 11, 2020, link.

[5] Qian Xiaoyan, Yīlǎng jiànglǐng zài zāo ànshā, bài dēng zhízhèng hòu de zhōngdōng júshì jiāng zǒuxiàng héfāng? 伊朗将领再遭暗杀,拜登执政后的中东局势将走向何方?[Another Iranian general has been assassinated, what will the situation in the Middle East be after Biden takes office?], China Business Network, December 1, 2020, link.

[6] Bai Ziwen, Huá límíng: Zàidù cìshā yīlǎng kēxuéjiā shì xiǎng cìjī yīlǎng, tiǎo qǐ zhōngdōng zhànzhēng 华黎明:再度刺杀伊朗科学家是想刺激伊朗,挑起中东战争 [Hua Liming: The assassination of another scientist is a provocation to Iran to cause war in the Middle East], Observer, December 8, 2020, link.

[7] Li Zheng and Han Yafeng, “Ālābó zhī chūn” hòu de shí nián hándōng  “阿拉伯之春”后的十年寒冬 [Ten years of winter after the “Arab Spring”], Guangming Daily, December 18, 2020, link.

[8] Cao Hui, Ōuméng dǎjí zōngjiào jíduān zhǔyì àn xià “jiāqiáng jiàn” 欧盟打击宗教极端主义按下“加强键” [The European Union to strengthen the measures against religious extremism], Globe, December 4, 2020, 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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