December 2021

China looks at the Mediterranean Region
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Surprisingly, Chinese commentators in December were somewhat relatively positive about the situation in the wider Mediterranean region. In general, they seem to see the region, especially its North African and Middle Eastern components, slowly moving toward the formation of a new order that will be less dependent on the United States. Yet, of course, there are still many issues that must be solved.

One of the most important signs of this transformation must be found in Turkish foreign policy. Not a long time ago, Chinese observers would often point out how Erdogan has transformed Turkey’s foreign policy in a radical manner, pursuing great power dreams. They saw it as growing out of Erdogan’s ambition and necessity to distract public opinion at home without, however, having the capabilities to sustain that course of action, especially in the context of tensions between Russia and the United States–a classic diversionary tactic that fuels instability abroad. Now, Chinese commentators believe that Turkey is finally moderating its foreign policy. Liu Zhongmin, a senior scholar at Shanghai International Studies University (SISU), published a long analysis of the warming up of the relations between Turkey and many countries in the Gulf and the Levant. In particular, he highlights the importance of the stronger relations with the United Arab Emirates (UAE). This is made possible by the declining confrontation between supporters and opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as Turkey’s need to find ways to sustain its economy and break from the diplomatic isolation caused by its past foreign policy. The poor status of the Turkish economy was also at the center of the two interviews made by Fudan University’s Zou Zhiqiang for China Business Network in which he pulls no punches, pointing out that Erdogan’s economic policy clearly failed. [1] That said, Liu calls for a cautious approach to this new development as Turkey and other regional powers do not agree on many issues, and are far from having given up their regional ambitions. Similarly, Liu Jiang and Li Bingzhong, two experts of Turkish politics at Shaanxi Normal University, welcome this turn in Turkish diplomacy as a new phase in the development of a foreign policy that is independent of the West and, at the same time, less inclined to cause regional instability. [2] However, they also point out that Erdogan’s own personality and political needs will continue to be a factor of uncertainty.

Li Weijian made similar comments with regard to the sign of distention between the countries of the Gulf and Iran. [3] However, he emphasized the American factor in this development. The passive and uncertain Middle East policy of the Biden Administration, in strong contradiction with that of his predecessor, is forcing Saudi Arabi and other countries to change their approach to Iran, as well exemplified by the congratulations sent by the UAE to Ebrahim Raisi on his victory in Iran's presidential election. Nonetheless, Li, like the other scholars mentioned above, is aware that there are still many problems that must be overcome.

One type of problems is composed of regional crises, such as those in Libya and Sudan, that Chinese analysts see as far from being over. [4] Another type of problem is caused by the uncertainty created by the United States’ future moves. At the same time, some countries in the region are reluctant to give up their special relations with the United States. For example, Li argues that Israel is trying to keep the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council from warming their relations with Iran, though he does not believe that it will succeed. [5] Similarly, Liu Zhongmin wrote in an article in The Paper that the transition to a new regional order will be slow as both the United States and Saudi Arabia have important stakes in the old one. [6] Unsurprisingly, Liu also argues that the Saudi-American alliance demonstrates the hypocrisy of the American discourse about democracy: it can clearly have good relations with non-democratic countries when its national interest requires that. Liu made this point also in an interview on the Senate bipartisan vote of confidence to the Biden administration's proposed weapons sale to Saudi Arabia in early December 2021. [7]

As to Iran, the tone and content of the statements and articles written by Chinese commentators has not changed from the past: it is the United States that must make the first move in order to make up for the damage made by Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. [8] Although unnamed analysts mentioned by Xinhua said that progresses were made during the 7th round of nuclear talks in Vienna thanks to the mediation efforts made by Chinese and Russian diplomats, SISU’s Fan Hongda and Tsinghua University’s Liu are explicit in saying that the negotiations cannot conclude positively unless the United States changes its attitude. [9] Ding Long, another scholar based at SISU, even accused the United States of piracy for seizing Iranian oil and selling it, along with the Syrian one, for profit. [10]

We conclude this issue of the ChinaMed Observer with some comments about an interview of Zhou Bo, the former director of the Security Cooperation Center of the International Cooperation Office at the Chinese Ministry of Defense, about Chinese naval affairs that was published by the popular website, Guancha Syndicate. [11] The first part of the interview focuses on the Chinese antipiracy missions in the Gulf of Aden, to which Zhou contributed personally by helping to coordinate with foreign navies. Zhou highlights how participating in those missions has become a must-have in the CV of Chinese sailors that hope to have a bright career. He also mentions the cooperative relations that exist in that context between China, India, and the United States, despite the tensions in the relations between those countries in Asia. The interviewer also asked Zhou what he thinks about the fact that pirate attacks have significantly decreased since 2013-2014. Since the United Nations mandate of the mission is set to expire in March, this is an important question. Zhou, who in the same interview states that Chinese aircraft carriers will soon be in the Indian Ocean, replied that the fact that there are no pirates today does not mean that they will not be there tomorrow.

[1] Qiao Xiaoyan, “Āi ěr duō ān jīngjì xué”: Tǔ'ěrqí lǐlā guòshānchē hángqíng bèihòu de luójí “埃尔多安经济学”:土耳其里拉过山车行情背后的逻辑 [“Erdogan economics”: The logic behind the rollercoaster of the Lira], China Business Network, December 22, 2021, link; Qian Xiaoyan, Tǔ'ěrqí lǐlā niánnèi biǎnzhí chāo 50%, xīyǐn wàiguó gòufáng zhě fēng yǒng ér zhì 土耳其里拉年内贬值超50%,吸引外国购房者蜂拥而至 [The Turkish lira has depreciated by more than 50% during the year, thereby attracting foreign buyers], China Business Network, December 16, 2021, link.

[2] Liu Jiang and Li Bingzhong, Āi ěr duō ān wàijiāo bàofù hé “bāofú” 埃尔多安外交抱负和“包袱” [Erdogan’s diplomatic ambition and “burden”], Globe, December 9, 2021, link.

[3] Li Weijian, Hǎiwān guójiā yǔ yīlǎng de xīn dòngxiàng yìwèizhe shénme? 海湾国家与伊朗的新动向意味着什么? [What do the new movements of the GCC countries toward Iran mean?], Xinmin Evening News, December 16, 2021, link; Li Weijian, Xīnmín huánqiú niánzhōng tèjí (7)|zhōngdōng: Bǎituō duì měi yīlài dìqū júshì qū huǎn 新民环球年终特辑(7)|中东:摆脱对美依赖 地区局势趋缓 [Xinmin’s end of the year global special (7) Middle East: The regional situation is relaxing without the necessity to depend on the United States], Xinmin Evening News, December 30, 2021, link.

[4] Pan Xiaojing, Lìbǐyǎ dàxuǎn tuīchí hépíng qiánjǐng nán qī 利比亚大选推迟 和平前景难期 [The Libyan elections are postponed and it is difficult to see peace at the horizon], People’s Daily, Deember 23, 2021, link; Li Qiru and Zhou Ming, Sūdān wénwǔ shéi zhǔ chénfú? 苏丹文武谁主沉浮? [Who is going to win between the civilians and military in Sudan?], Globe, December 23, 2021, link.

[5] Li Weijian, Yī chǎng “lìshǐ xìng huìwù” zhéshè zhòng dōng biànjú 一场“历史性会晤”折射中东变局 [A “historic meeting” reflects the changes in the Middle East], Liberation Daily, December 15, 2021, link.

[6] Liu Zhongmin, “Mínzhǔ” dì měiguó yǔ jūnzhǔ zhì de shātè wèihé néng zuò jǐ shí nián méngyǒu “民主”的美国与君主制的沙特为何能做几十年盟友 [How have the “democratic” United States and the monarchic Saudi Arabia remained allies for decades], The Paper, December 13, 2021, link.

[7] Wang Lu, Měi cānyìyuàn tōngguò duì shātè jūn shòu jìhuà, chéngnuò bù tǐng shā de bài dēng zāo “dǎ liǎn”? 美参议院通过对沙特军售计划,承诺不挺沙的拜登遭“打脸”? [The US Senate approves the plan to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia, has Biden slapped his face after promising not to support the Saudis?], The Paper, December 9, 2021, link.

[8] Wang Shoubao, Yī hé tánpàn: Xīn fēnqí zhōng àn xià “zàntíng jiàn” 伊核谈判:新分歧中按下“暂停键” [Iranian nuclear talks: Pressing the “pause” button amid new differences between the parties], Xinhua, December 4, 2021, link.

[9] Wang Shoubao, Dì qī lún yī hé tánpàn jiéshù gè fāng fǎnyìng bù yī 第七轮伊核谈判结束 各方反应不一 [The seventh round of Iran nuclear talks ends with mixed reactions], Xinhua, December 18, 2021, link.

[10] Li Zhiwei, Měiguó biànmài yīlǎng shíyóu móulì, bàolù shìqiánglíngruò de bàquán xīntài 美国变卖伊朗石油牟利,暴露恃强凌弱的霸权心态 [The United States sells Iranian oil for profit, exposing its bullying hegemonic mentality], People’s Daily, December 14, 2021, link.

[11] Zhōubō: Yǎdīng wān hùháng 13 nián, zhōngguó hǎijūn bùzhǐ dǎjíle hǎidào… 周波:亚丁湾护航13年,中国海军不只打击了海盗… [Zhou Bo: China has not only fought the pirates over the past 13 years in the Gulf of Aden…], Guancha Syndicate, December 26, 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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