February 2022

The Mediterranean Region looks at China
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Middle Eastern media have been paying great attention to the Ukrainian crisis as some countries of the region will be heavily hit by the supply shortage of agricultural goods from Kyiv. China’s moves are naturally among the issues discussed by regional commentators. For example, Lebanese professor of International Relations Leila Nicolas wrote that China is likely to be the biggest winner of the war, regardless of its outcome. [1] In fact, as the United States is expected to be preoccupied with Europe, it will not be able to “fully engage in the containment of China,” thus giving Beijing breath to expand its global influence and consolidate its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Moreover, Russia’s ability to challenge NATO in its neighborhood will contribute to the strengthening of the economic relations between the two Asian powers against Washington.

The main concern expressed by commentators seems, however, to to be maintain balanced relations with all the parties involved, something also suggested by Abd al-Munʿem Saʿid, President of the Research Center for Strategic Studies in Cairo, writing for al-Sharq al-Awsat. [2] He stated that the reality of the Ukrainian crisis “reaffirms the region's need for a regional security system that guarantees the territorial integrity of states […], resolves disputes, and searches extensively for ways of cooperation and economic development,” while continuing to address the issues of terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear ones. It is interesting to note that many Egyptian media outlets considered the visit of President al-Sisi to China in occasion of the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics as a clear statement in favor of this approach. In this context, Egyptian foreign policy is regarded as the model to follow, as Cairo is successfully maintaining “exceptionally stable” relations with the United States and its allies, while enhancing its own political and economic engagement with China. [3]

The countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) also described the presence of their leaders to the Games’ opening ceremony on February 4th as an indication of their desire to promote positive relations with Beijing. The Emirati Policy Center revealed that in this occasion Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince, Sheykh Muhammad bin Zayed al-Nahyan, and the Emir of Qatar, Sheykh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, discussed with Chinese President Xi Jinping accelerating the negotiation on the GCC-China Free Trade Agreement, which had witnessed several setbacks since the negotiations started in 2004. [4] The Emirati think-tank, however, highlighted that the conditions for reaching a consensus seem to have improved because of “China’s tendency to reduce its investments in Africa and focus more on the Middle East and the Gulf region.” Moreover, the authors argue that the parties involved share the common belief that the American commitment to the region is decreasing. Furthermore, the agreement would facilitate the development of the BRI and contribute to the alignment of the GCC’s strategic visions for economic transformation to that of the Initiative. Yet, some challenges remain, especially with regard to the legal provisions and mechanisms to resolve eventual commercial disputes.  

Similarly, Independent Arabic reported that, as stated by the former Saudi ambassador to Washington, the presence of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman indicated Riyadh’s determination to strengthen its ties with Beijing. [5] This is part of a strategy aimed to diversify the Saudi network of alliances and partnerships, though the Saudi-American relation remains “the strongest”, especially for what concerns security. This is also because of China’s support to Iran and the Uyghur issue.  According to Karen Young, a researcher at the Middle East Institute in Washington, the partnership between Riyadh and Beijing has taken a defensive and military character in fields such as nuclear energy and ballistic industry, where Chinese requirements are more flexible than the American ones. The countries of the Maghreb also reiterated this month their will to improve their relations with China, as both Morocco and Algeria promoted initiatives to enhance parliamentary exchanges, and the Tunisian Foreign Minister renewed his call for Chinese companies to invest in the country. [6]

Meanwhile, Iranian commentators in Donya-ye Eqtesad mostly focused on the need to strengthen the knowledge- and technology-transfer element of their country’s relationship with China, which is has not happened so far. [7] This is particularly important for the industrial sector as it has been severely affected by the Iranian government’s ban on imports aimed at boosting domestic production under sanctions. Taking the automotive sector as an example, the author of the article pointed out that, however, this is unlikely to happen. Chinese companies have an almost ubiquitous presence in Iran, especially in the private sector, since the reintroduction of international sanctions pushed away all their foreign competitors. The economic newspaper identified the major cause of this “Chinese monopoly” in the failure of the Iranian government to force Chinese companies to localize their know-how and their workforce. According to the conservative newspaper Keyhan, this situation could be resolved through the proper implementation of the Iran-China 25-year comprehensive cooperation document, whose Annexes 1 and 2 appear to “explicitly emphasize the issue of knowledge transfer and support for technology and innovation ecosystems and the expansion of cooperation with knowledge-based companies.” [8]

Iraq, on its part, is keen to present itself as a viable alternative to Iran for Chinese oil needs and investment projects. According to a semi-official source, the latest Chinese investments in Iraq, such as the development of the Mansuriya gas field and the reconstruction of the Nassiriyah airport, should be read as Beijing’s move to recalibrate its relationship with Tehran, due to the difficulties with importing Iranian oil and Iran’s involvement in many regional issues. [9] The cooperation between Iraq and China has developed along two main axes: the Iraq-China strategic agreement, renamed “oil-for-reconstruction deal” by the press, and the BRI. [10] After a period of uncertainty regarding its implementation, the “oil-for-reconstruction” mechanism seems to be in operation and is seen positively in Iraq as it allows Baghdad to “overcome funding constraints,” to “benefit from the technological expertise of the Chinese,” and to diversify its trade network. On the contrary, Iraq’s integration into the BRI has not been realized yet, as political instability and external pressure, especially from Washington, have created various challenges for the Chinese companies      willing to invest in Iraqi strategic infrastructure, like the al-Faw Grand Port.

Conversely, an ambiguous atmosphere surrounds Chinese-Turkish relations. On the one hand, Ankara is trying to expand its economic influence in Asia through the Organization of Turkic States, stressing the complementarity between China’s BRI and Turkey’s Asia Anew Initiative. [11] On the other, political tensions between the two governments remain, as the Turkish Grand National Assembly is called to approve an extradition agreement, first signed in 2017, which complicates Ankara’s position vis-à-vis the Uyghur issue and its partnerships with Beijing. It is important to keep in mind that the AKP and the MHP, which represent a conservative, Islamic view and a pan-Turkish perspective, respectively, make up the core of the Turkish government. As an article published in the Gazete Oksijen emphasizes, this means that it will be very difficult for them to decide against the Uyghurs, who are now granted long-term residence permits in the country. At the same time, they are aware that China will hardly be pleased if the agreement is not be ratified. [12]

Finally, the European approach to China remains one of opposition. The Spanish newspaper El País, for example, reiterated the need for the European Union to contrast Chinese “expansion” in Africa, in the context of an article on the EU summit with the African Union in Brussels during which an investment package of 150 billion euros was signed as part of the Global Gateway program. [13]

In the meantime, the discontent with Cosco continues in Greece as the Port of Piraeus fell to fifth place in European ports behind the port of Valencia after having registered decreasing container traffic for the second consecutive year. [14] While the International Maritime Union blames this drop on the several strikes that have taken place against the Cosco-Port of Piraeus Authority joint administration, shipping agents suggested that the problem could be related to pricing policy pursued by the Chinese company. Moreover, internal disputes, Cosco’s inability to settle the quarrels with local communities, and the monopoly regime on the container-handling piers have led to severe delays in the investment program. Thus, it is reported that many have started questioning the wisdom for Cosco “to be assigned the management of a fourth container pier in Piraeus, expanding their monopoly position in the port.”

[1] Leila Nicolas, Ukrayna: kayfa satatasarrafu al-Sin fi hal nushub nizaʿ أوكرانيا: كيف ستتصرّف الصين في حال نشوب نزاع؟ [Ukraine: How will China act in case of a conflict?], al-Mayadeen, February 20, 2022, link.

[2] ʿAbd al-Munʿem Saʿid, Al-Sharq al-awsat ma baʿd Ukrania الشرق الأوسط ما بعد أوكرانيا [The Middle East after Ukraine], al-Sharq al-Awsat, February 23, 2022, link.

[3] Hazem Husseyn, Al-Qahira Bikin…diblumasiyat baydaʾ wa-ʿalam bi-la haymana القاهرة بكين.. دبلوماسية بيضاء وعالم بلا هيمنة [Cairo and Beijing…"White diplomacy" and a world without hegemony], al-Youm al-7, February 6, 2022, link.

[4] Mufawadat ittifaqiyat al-tijjarat al-hurra bayna al-Sin wa-duwal al-khaleej al-ʿarabiya: al-tahdiyat wa-l-furas مفاوضات اتفاقية التجارة الحرة بين الصين ودول الخليج العربية: التحديات والفُرَص [China-Gulf Free Trade Agreement: Challenges and opportunities], EPC, February 25, 2022, link.

[5] ʿIsa Nahari, Al-saʿudiya taʿid taʿrif ʿalaqatiha maʿa al-gharb bi-l-infitah ʿala al-Sin السعودية تعيد تعريف علاقتها مع الغرب بالانفتاح على الصين [Saudi Arabia is redefining its relations with the West by opening to China], Independent Arabic, February 5, 2022, link.

[6] al-‘alaqat bayn al-baladayn wa qadia al-sahra’ mihwar mubahathat mayara wa safir al-sin bi al-maghrib العلاقات بين البلدين وقضية الصحراء محور مباحثات ميارة وسفير الصين بالمغرب [Relations between the two countries and the Sahara issue are the focus of Mayara's talks with the Chinese ambassador to Morocco], Alayam 24, February 3, 2022, link; Installation du groupe parlementaire d’amitié Algérie-Chine [The establishment of the Algeria-China friendship parliamentary group], Le Soir d’Algérie, February 22, 2022, link; Wazir al-kharijia al-tunisi yad‘u al-sin li al-istithmar fi biladihi li khalq furas ‘amal jadida وزير الخارجية التونسى يدعو الصين للاستثمار فى بلاده لخلق فرص عمل جديدة [Tunisian Foreign Minister calls on China to invest in his country to create new job opportunities], Youm7, February 23, 2022, link.

[7] ʿAvarez-e jadid-e manʿ-e varedat-e khwodrow عوارض جدید منع واردات خودرو [The new complications of the ban on car imports], Donya-ye Eqtesad, February 8, 2022, link.

[8] Mehdi Jaʿfari, Jaygah-e eqtesad-e danesh-bonyad va tashil-e enteqal-e fanavari dar qaradad-e 25-sale-ye Iran va Cin جایگاه اقتصاد دانش بنیان و تسهیل انتقال فناوری در قرارداد ۲۵ ساله ایران و چین [The role of the knowledge-based economy and technology transfer in the Iran-China 25-year agreement], Keyhan, February 22, 2022, link.

[9] Ahmad Mustafa, Hal tasʿi al-Sin waraʾ naft al-ʿiraq li-taqlil iʿtimadiha ʿala Iran? هل تسعى الصين وراء نفط العراق لتقليل اعتمادها على إيران؟ [Is China seeking Iraq’s oil to reduce its dependence on Iran?], Independent Arabic, February 4, 2022, link.

[10] ʿAdil al-Jaburi, Al-ʿIraq fi al-masal al-mutaʿaththir li-tariq al-harir…Tasadum al-iqtisad maʿa al-siyasa العراق في المسار المتعثّر لطريق الحرير.. تصادم الاقتصاد مع السياسة [Iraq on the faltering path to the Silk Road…The collision of economy with politics], al-Mayadeen, February 17, 2022, link.

[11] Pekin Büyükelçisi Önen: Türk Devletleri Teşkilatı Kuşak ve Yol’u geliştirebilir [Turkish Ambassador Önen: The Organization of Turkic States can develop the Belt and Road], Aydınlık Gazatesi, February 10, 2022, link.

[12] Türkiye’nin Çin açmazı [Turkey's Chinese dilemma], Gazete Oksijen, February 2, 2022, link.

[13] Guillermo Abril, La UE refunda su relación con Áfricapara contrarrestarel avance de China [The EU consolidates its relationship with Africa to counter China's advance], El País, February 18, 2022, link.

[14] Giati exei mpei se ptotiki poreia to limani tou peirea Γιατί έχει μπει σε πτωτική πορεία η κίνηση στο λιμάνι του Πειραιά [Why has the traffic in the Port of Piraeus started to decline?], Business Daily, February 22, 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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