December 2021

The Mediterranean Region looks at China
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During the search through the media outlets of the wider Mediterranean region, we found several interesting news about the developments of China’s relations with European, Middle Eastern and North African countries, the Ethiopian crisis and more general regional and international issues.

On December 1, the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, visited Addis Ababa–thus becoming the first international high rank official to visit Ethiopia since the beginning of the war in Tigray. Rana Usama, writing for Masrawi, argued that Wang Yi’s goal was “to show confidence and support for the government led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed,” and that China “stands firmly against any attempt to interfere in Ethiopia's internal affairs.” [1] The journalist asserted that Beijing’s support for Addis Ababa is based on mutual strategic and diplomatic trust and economic interests, since China is Ethiopia’s largest business partner (as reported, there are currently 500 active Chinese companies in the African country, with investments exceeding 1.5 billion dollars). Moreover, Usama wrote, Beijing seems to be supporting Abiy Ahmed’s government on a military level by providing the Ethiopian army missiles and multiple rocket launchers.

Against this background, Ahmad Askar, a journalist with the Egyptian newspaper al-Ahram pointed out that Wang Yi’s visit is extremely important for the development of Sino-Ethiopian relations, as, on the one hand, the Chinese support for Abiy Ahmed is justified by China’s fear of Ethiopian collapse, which “represents an explicit threat to Chinese interests in the country and the region in general,” especially with regards to the trade routes through the Red Sea and Bab al-Mandab Strait. [2] On the other hand, however, this could make the Tigray Liberation Front less willing to find a compromise, especially because it refuses to recognize China as a possible neutral negotiator.

Similarly, Hamdi Bashir, in a brief for the Emirates Policy Center, elaborated on the implications and prospects of Wang Yi’s visit. [3] Bashir pointed out that this event “reflected Beijing's growing concerns about the deteriorating security situation in the country and its threat to its economic and strategic interests in the Horn of Africa.” Hence, he envisioned three possible scenarios for the near future. First, Beijing may try to maintain its usual pragmatic approach by balancing the need to protect its interests in the region with its diplomatic support to Ethiopia in international fora, while also benefitting from the tense relations between Washington and Addis Ababa. Second, Beijing may continue to push to find a peaceful solution to the crisis, thus presenting itself as an active diplomatic mediator. In this case, China could use its economic influence to convince the two parties to negotiate, also by providing financial incentives. The third scenario involves a possible Chinese direct military intervention, though Bashir himself believes that this would not be in China’s interests because it may lead to a similar response from the United States and increase regional instability.

The Tigray war is, in fact, considered as yet another field for US-China competition, even in the technological sector. Al-Mayadeen’s Ali Sayed claims that “the United States will have difficulty managing its proxy war with China in Ethiopia, as it will be difficult for the latter to abandon its relationship with China.” [4] Since Ethiopia is a country of strategic importance to both the United States and China because of its strategic location and diplomatic importance, he wrote, competition between them will continue. However, it is likely that Ethiopia will increasingly side with China, including the areas of digitalization and 5G, in response to American sanctions and criticism.  

The technological rise of Beijing is also of great concern for Israeli media. The media outlet N12 pointed put that in a decade China “has taken hold in the operation of most 5G communication networks throughout the Middle East.” [5] This means that “China's influence in the region has long been not only economic, but also geopolitical,” according to Executive Director and founder of the Signal Institute for Israel-China Relations, Carice Witte. Witte also asserted that China’s dominant presence in the technological sector, 5G and smart cities in particular, will grant it “a tremendous power in a world that is already digital,” and it will be even more significant over developing countries. Moreover, Dale Aluf, the Director of Research and Strategy at Signal Institute stressed that “Chinese digital technologies used abroad can provide Beijing with vast amounts of data and information, thereby allowing China to understand the economy and geopolitics of these countries better than they understand themselves”. As “Chinese law requires Chinese corporations to give access to the government to the data that they collect,” Tel Aviv considers Beijing’s influence in this sector a possible threat to its national security and a factor that could undermine US-Israeli ties. Nevertheless, the author of the article stressed that the attempts to control and regulate the activities of Chinese companies in the country, through mechanisms that examine aspects of national security in foreign investment, have proven insufficient, as cooperation with Chinese company is still vital for Israel’s economy.

Similarly, a survey conducted by Ipsos and Italian Institute for International Political Studies, and reported by La Repubblica, shows that 34% of Italians consider China to be “the greatest menace to the world.” [6] This percentage was 6% of 2018. The same newspaper indicated that Italian security agencies are also increasingly concerned about the cooperation between Chinese companies, such as ZTE and Huawei, with some Italian universities. This has become particularly evident since the Italian government excluded Chinese companies from the tender for the 5G network of the Viminale Palace. Nicola Casarini, Associate Fellow of the Istituto Affari Internazionali, explains that “sponsorship by Chinese companies, such as Zte and Huawei, to Italian universities raise questions about the implications for Italy's national interest and the security of its Western allies”, as this kind of sponsorships are less regulated than in other European countries. [7]

Moreover, Italian, French and Spanish media focused on the role that the European Union should play to counter Chinese influence. In an interview with Il Corriere del Veneto, Pejman Abdolmohammadi, a professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Trento, stated that the European Union, and Italy in particular, are fundamental to maintain the balance of the wider Mediterranean region against the raising influence of the “Beijing-Moscow axis” in the context of rising Sino-American competition. [8] Similarly, the Spanish La Razòn highlighted the need to expand the European Union’s relations with the countries of Latin America, [9] and, per usual, French media put forward a similar argument with regard to the African continent. Le Monde’s journalist Marie de Vergès pointed out that the unveiling of the Global Gateway, a new 300-billion euros strategy to compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the European Union is trying to improve its image in Africa by “emulating China” while claiming that Beijing is slowing stepping back from the continent. [10]

However, the media outlets in North Africa that we have reviewed depict a different situation. Indeed, after the conclusion of the Forum for China-Africa Cooperation in Dakar, both Morocco and Algeria have expressed trust in, and hope for stronger cooperation with China. [11]

The same is true for countries like Iran, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. While the outcome of the nuclear talks in Vienna is still uncertain, Iranian media highlighted China’s support, as well as the fact that American sanctions against Iran also hurt Beijing’s interests. [12] Moreover, the possible presence of Chinese private and state-owned companies in the development of Iran’s National Housing Program, a crucial project in the country’s domestic affairs, continues being discussed as well. [13] Although there is nothing certain, what Iranian commentators seem to suggest is a mechanism similar to the Iraq-China oil deal, through which Chinese companies would provide financial and material support to the program in exchange of refined oil.

Meanwhile, cooperation in the energy sector continues to be a major drive for relations between China and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. In this regard, we signal a new long-term agreement between the Qatari Ras Laffan LNG Company and the Chinese Guangdong Energy Natural Gas Group to supply one million tons of LNG per year to China for a period of ten years, starting in 2024. [14] Another interesting development revolves around Saudi Arabia’s cooperation with China on the production of ballistic missiles. As reported by Okaz, this cooperation should not come as a surprise because, despite numerous demands, the countries of the GCC have been systemically excluded from the nuclear talks and, in such sensitive times, national defense is a priority for any country. [15] The newspaper also claimed that the GCC countries remain allied with the United States. Turning to China only serves the purpose of diplomatic diversification, and does not undermine the region’s strong ties with the Western bloc.

In any case, our analysis also suggests that Chinese presence in the area is not always perceived positively in some countries in the Middle East and North Africa. In fact, frictions between Chinese companies and local residents are growing out in Iraq, where the Chinese company ZPEC, operating in an oil field in Dhi Qar Governorate (Nasiriyah), was attacked by unknown gunmen. According to an article published by the Iraqi newspaper al-Sabah, the attack and the tensions between ZPEC and the local population are likely to be connected. [16] Karim al-Jandil, media director of the Dhi Qar Oil Company – the company that owns the oilfields in which ZEPC is operating, pointed that the Chinese company had already been subject to other attacks in the past, and, in fact, the last weeks of December witnessed several protests and demonstration against both ZPEC and the regional government. According to the newspaper, the local population does “not gain any benefit from the existence of the Chinese oil companies.” Not only unemployment among the youth remains widespread, but health services and infrastructure, especially in the rural areas where the Chinese company is headquartered, have worsened.

Beyond the Middle East and North Africa, relations continue to be tense for what concerns Cosco and the Port of Piraeus (PPA). While Cosco is trying to upgrade the port with new equipment and to build new container-handling piers in response to the ongoing global shipping crisis, [17]  the three municipalities of Piraeus, Drapetsonas-Keratsini, and Perama, and the Attica Regional Council continue to stress the environmental impact of the port activities and push for the suspension of all projects until Cosco-PPA submit to the conditions of the Strategic Environmental Impact Assessment. [18] Yet, on the other side of the Aegean Sea, Turkey is benefitting from the shipping crisis and the trade war between Washington and Beijing. In fact, former Executive Board Member of the Turkish-American Business Council Davut Ökütçü stressed that, with the reshaping of international supply chains and the tangible contraction of US imports from China, Turkey has a golden opportunity to present itself as an alternative supplier, while also improving its ties with the American economy.  [19] At the same time, Anadolu Ajansı reports that China is also trying to exploit Ankara’s geostrategic position by relocating some of its manufacturing to Turkey to move closer to Europe. [20]

[1] Rana Usama, رنا أسامة , 3 asbab… limadha tadʿamu al-Sin Abi Ahmed raghm intihakatihi fi Ithiyubiya? 3 أسباب.. لماذا تدعم الصين آبي أحمد رغم انتهاكاته في إثيوبيا؟ [Three reasons…Why does China support Abiy Ahmed despite his violations in Ethiopia?], Masrawy, December 1, 2021, link.

[2] Ahmed Askar, hal tatadakkhal al-sin fi al-harb al’ithyubiya? هل تتدخل الصين في الحرب الإثيوبية؟ [Does China interfere in the Ethiopian war?], Al-Ahram, December 9, 2021, link.

[3] Hamdi Bashir, Ziyarat wazir al-kharijiyat al-Sin ila Ithiyubiya: al-dalalat wal-tawaqquʿat زيارة وزير الخارجية الصيني إلى إثيوبيا: الدلالات والتوقُّعات [Chinese Foreign Minister’s visit to Ethiopia: implications and prospects], EPC, December 13, 2021, link.

[4] Ali Sayed, ’ithyubia wa al-kibash al-sini – al-’amiriki الأميركي إثيوبيا والكباش الصيني - [Ethiopia and the Sino-American clash], Al-Mayadeen, December 9, 2021, link.

[5] Nir Dvori, Lo rak hayium ha-irani: hamaatzama hatechnologit shetzricha lehatrid et Israel לא רק האיום האירני: המעצמה הטכנולוגית שצריכה להטריד את מערכת הביטחון בישראל [Not just the Iranian threat: the technological power that should concern Israel's security force], N12, December 08, 2021, link.

[6] Roberto Brunelli, Ora Pechino fa paura. Per gli italiani è la minaccia globale [Now Beijing is frightening. For Italians, it is a global threat], La Repubblica, December 16, 2021, link.

[7] Giuliano Foschini and Giovanna Vitale, La Cina all’assalto degli atenei italiani. I Servizi in allarme [China's assault on Italian universities. The security services sound the alarm], La repubblica, Decembre 19, 2021, link.

[8] Margherita Montanari, Il Mediterraneo e il ruolo dell’Unione Europea: “Contenere l’espansione cinese” [The Mediterranean and the role of the European Union: “To contain the Chinese expansion”], Il Corriere del Veneto, December 2, 2021, link.

[9] Antonio Añover, Jolita Butkeviciene: “La influencia de China en América Latina es de vital importancia para la Unión Europea” [Jolita Butkeviciene: “China’s influence in Latin America is of vital importance for the European Union”], La Razòn, December 17, 2021, link.

[10] Marie de Vergès, Au moment où la Chine appuie sur la pédale de frein en Afrique, l’Europe multiplie les investissements [At a time when China pulls the brake in Africa, Europe multiplies its investments], Le Monde, December16, 2021, link.

[11] Mustafa Damush, Al-sin wa al-jaza’ir.. shiraka ’istiratijia الصين والجزائر.. شراكة إستراتيجية [China and Algeria... a strategic partnership], Africa News, December 5, 2021, link; al-maghrib-al-sin...shiraka istiratijia tata‘azzaz bi madamin jadida المغرب-الصين .. شراكة استراتيجية تتعزز بمضامين جديدة [Morocco and China...a strategic partnership enhanced by new content], Medi1 News, December 23, 2021, link.

[12] Fateme Fahimi, Ramzgoshayi az mawazeʿ-e Cin dar hemayat-e az siyasat-e jadid-e iran رمزگشایی از مواضع چین در حمایت از سیاست جدید ایران [Deciphering China’s position in support of Iran’s new policy], IRNA, December 11, 2021, link.

[13] Naqsh-e Cin dar pruzhe-ye melli-e maskan نقش چین در پروژه ملی مسکن [China’s role in the national housing project], Sharq, December 5, 2021, link.

[14] Tawrid al-ghaz al-qatari ila al-Sin توريد الغاز القطري إلى الصين [Supplying Qatari gas to China], al-Watan, December 7, 2021, link.

[15] Sawarikh al-saʿudiya wa-“fobia” al-Sin الصواريخ السعودية و«فوبيا» الصين [Saudi missiles and Sinophobia], Okaz, December 28, 2021, link.

[16] Najla al-Khalidi, ZPEC al-siniya al-naftiya tataʿarradu li-hujum fi Dhi Qar «زيبك} الصينية النفطية تتعرض لهجوم في ذي قار [The Chinese oil company ZPEC is under attack in Dhi Qar], al-Sabah, December 29, 2021, link.

[17] Giorgos Georgiou, Xanei-edafos-o-peiraias-sti-diakinisi-containers Χάνει έδαφος ο Πειραιάς στη διακίνηση containers [Piraeus is losing ground in the mnagement of containers], naftemporiki.gr, December 29, 2021, link.

[18] Christina Papastathopoulou, I-olp-cosco-anenohliti-rypainei-thalassio-periballon-ston-peiraia Η ΟΛΠ-COSCO ανενόχλητη ρυπαίνει το θαλάσσιο περιβάλλον στον Πειραιά [PPA-Cosco pollutes the marine environment in Piraeus undisturbed], efsyn.gr, December 7, 2021, link.

[19] ABD-Çin rekabeti Türkiye'ye yaradı! Talep patladı [The US-China rivalry has worked for Turkey! The demand boomed!], Akşam Gazetesi, December 15, 2021, link.

[20] Çinli promosyon üreticileri Türkiye'de yatırım arayışında [Chinese producers seek investment in Turkey], Anadolu Ajansı, January 1, 2022, 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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