February 2019

China looks at the Mediterranean Region
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February was an intense month in the context of relations between China and the countries in the larger Mediterranean region. In particular, while the visits of Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif put Beijing’s traditional diplomatic balance between the two rivals in the Gulf to test, the accusations from the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs regarding the treatment of Muslim citizens in China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region provoked a harsh response from Chinese media and commentators.

Asked about the meaning of the visit to China of the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Gu Zhenglong, an analyst with the Xinhua World Affairs Research Centre, argued that Saudi Arabia wanted to send three messages.[1] First, this trip abroad being the first one of the Crown Prince since the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia hopes to receive Chinese support to ease Western diplomatic pressure. Second, Saudi Arabia wants to appear as a reliable partner of China as Beijing and Washington face each other over trade issues. Third, the visit also shows that Saudi diplomacy is undergoing a process of adjustment and rebalancing in the context of relations between China, the United States, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. Since both China and Saudi Arabia aim at diversifying their foreign policy, the two countries, Gu argued, are willing to expand mutually beneficial cooperation.

Yet, pointed out Liu Zhongmin, pundits around the world should be very cautious in their assessment of Sino-Saudi relations.[2] On the one hand, the visit is far from a sign that China aims at replacing established great powers in the Middle East. If China becomes more influential in the region at the expense of Western powers, that is not because that is the goal of its policy. This statement by Liu seems to implicitly indicate that Western mistakes, not Chinese actions, are the root cause of the current situation. On the other hand, Liu argues that China welcomes the involvement of Saudi Arabia in the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor. That “undoubtedly is a great victory for China, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan.” More general commentaries, such as that published by the Global Times’ editorial team, put the emphasis on the fact that the a more active diplomacy should not be read as a change in terms of substance: China wants to keep friendly relations with everyone in the Middle East.[3]

As for Saudi Arabia’s archenemy, Iran, the China Daily published an English interview with the comments of Niu Song, a Researcher with Shanghai International Studies University, and China Institute of International Studies’ Dong Manyuan about the announcement by the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif of his resignation. Both scholars agree on the fact that this event is the most emblematic symbol of the fierce competition between so-called “hawks” and “doves” that was sparked by the decision of the United States to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Similar concerns were voiced also by former ambassador Hua Liming even before the news of the Minister’s resignation.[4] According to Hua, although the external situation is not positive for Iran, the main problems the country has to solve are domestic in nature: political polarization and economic difficulties.

At the same time, on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean sea, the situation in Syria remains dire. Against this background, Chinese media argue that the United States continues to be sidelined by Russia. The recent meeting sponsored by Russia, Turkey, and Iran in Sochi, the fourth of this kind, to find a solution for the end of the Syrian war was commented upon as “important” by Niu Xinchun, the head of the Middle East Affairs Department of the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations.[5] Yet, he, like other Chinese scholars have already done in the past, affirmed that a true solution to the Syrian issue can only be found by also engaging Western countries, which means great efforts to find unity within the international community. In this situation, China seems not to have given up the idea that the United Nations should be the main platform for achieving such goal. Indeed, it is important to notice that, while Chinese media and commentators are usually supportive of Russia’s diplomatic efforts, Chinese diplomats continue to describe the United Nations as the best vehicle to find a political solution for Syria, and, consistently, have attended only one of the meetings in Sochi (January 2018) and none of those in Astana.

The articles published by Chinese media about the accusations moved by the Turkish government against the treatment of Muslim citizens in China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region were far more passionate. In particular, the tone used in an article published by the Global Times’s editorial team reminds of the days Chinese media were not shy to openly call Turkey a terrorist nation.[6] This time, they accused Turkey of badly imitating Western countries and their approach to human rights. Given the crackdown on the Kurds in the aftermath of the failed coup in 2016, Turkey is described as a hypocritical country. Since the accusation did not come directly from Turkish state leaders, the journalists wrote, China does not have to retaliate against Turkey this time, but a similar accusation will not be tolerated again. In any case, China has temporarily closed its consulate in Izmir and warned its citizens about the potential dangers of travelling to Turkey. According to Liu Jun, an associate researcher at Yunnan University, Turkey believes that China, Russia, the United States and other countries will not abandon it because of its strategic geographical location and, thus, it will  behave recklessly from time to time.[7] Similar comments, but on Turkey’s strategy in Syria, also came from Tang Jianduan of Shanghai International Studies University: Turkey wanted to be a great power without having the strength to do so and now it finds itself in a difficult situation.[8]

Finally, we close with some news about China’s role in Djibouti’s port facilities. United Arab Emirates’ DP World filed a suit against China Merchants Port at the Hong Kong High Court, accusing it of causing the Djibouti government to revoke the firm's exclusive right to run the country's ports. Gu Weixia, a University of Hong Kong associate law professor, pointed out the fact that this could be an extremely interesting case since China Merchants Port is based in Hong Kong, which is probably the reason why DP World chose the former British colony as a new battlefield in its legal war over the control of the Doraleh Container Terminal after the Djiboutian government cancelled the 30-year concession agreement with the Emirati company. Hence, it is interesting to see that Djibouti’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Mahamoud Ali Youssouf flew to China on February 19 and stayed through to February 21. On this case, Chinese media continue to avoid taking a strong, if any, position.[9]

[1] Huang Peichao, Shātè wángchú fǎng huá yāzhòu yàzhōu zhī lǚ duōyuán wàijiāo wéichí “wéimiào pínghéng” 沙特王储访华压轴亚洲之旅 多元外交维持“微妙平衡” [Saudi Crown Prince visits China at the end of his tour of Asia to diversify Saudi diplomacy and carry out a “soft balancing”], Global Times, 23 February 2019, http://world.huanqiu.com/exclusive/2019-02/14384188.html?agt=61.

[2] Liu Zhongmin, Liúzhōngmín: Xīfāng duì zhōng shā hézuò xiǎng duōle 刘中民:西方对中沙合作想多了 [Liu Zhongmin: The West is thinking too much about Sino-Saudi cooperation], Global Times, 26 February 2019, http://opinion.huanqiu.com/hqpl/2019-02/14397007.html?agt=61.

[3] Shèpíng: Zhōngguó zài zhōngdōng yǐngxiǎng lì méiyǒu dìyuán zhèngzhì zázhí 社评:中国在中东影响力没有地缘政治杂质 [Opinion: China’s influence in the Middle East is not aimed at achieving geopolitical goals], Global Times, 21 February 2019, http://opinion.huanqiu.com/editorial/2019-02/14370684.html?agt=111.

[4] Liao Qin, Yīlǎng miànlín yīdào “kǎn” 伊朗面临一道“坎” [Iran is at a turning point], Xinhua, 12 February 2019, http://www.xinhuanet.com/world/2019-02/12/c_1210057494.htm.

[5] Li Jiabao, Měiguó zài xùlìyǎ bèi biānyuán huàle? 美国在叙利亚被边缘化了?[Has the United States been sidelined in Syria?], People’s Daily, 19 February 2019, http://world.people.com.cn/n1/2019/0219/c1002-30805257.html.

[6] Shèpíng: Tǔ'ěrqí méiyǒu zīgé zhǐzhāi zhōngguó xīnjiāng zhìlǐ 社评:土耳其没有资格指摘中国新疆治理 [Opinion: Turkey has no right to comment upon governance in Xinjiang], Global Times, 11 February 2018, http://opinion.huanqiu.com/editorial/2019-02/14284526.html?agt=15422.

[7] Cao Jie, Qing Mu, and Fan Lingzhi, Niǔqū shìshí mǒhēi zhōngguó tǔ'ěrqí de dǐqì láizì nǎ? 扭曲事实抹黑中国 土耳其的底气来自哪?[Twisting the facts to discredit China, where does Turkey's courage come from?], Global Times, 12 February 2019, http://world.huanqiu.com/exclusive/2019-02/14287861.html?agt=62.

[8] Tang Jianduan, Tǔ'ěrqí cóng zuǒyòuféngyuán dào zuǒzhīyòuchù 土耳其从左右逢源到左支右绌 [Turkey, from hell to heaven], Xinmin Evening News, 18 February 2019, http://newsxmwb.xinmin.cn/world/2019/02/18/31489493.html.

[9] Lu Qiang, Zhōng qǐ bāng jíbùtí jiàn gǎngkǒu, jìng chéng bèigào? 中企帮吉布提建港口,竟成被告? [A Chinese company helped Djibouti to build a port and now is a defendant in a legal case?], Global Times, 12 February 2019, http://world.huanqiu.com/exclusive/2019-02/14287646.html?agt=62.

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