February 2019

The Mediterranean Region looks at China
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Although the accusations from Turkey's Foreign Ministry against China regarding the treatment of Muslim citizens in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR) caught much attention in the West, media in North Africa and the Middle East were rather quiet. At the same time, the debate in Italy about how the country should approach closer cooperation with China has begun to heat up.

Anadolu Agency published a long article reporting the words of the spokesperson of the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs Hami Aksoy. According to him, it was concern for the wellbeing of Uighur musician and poet Abdurehim Heyit that prompted the Turkish government to publicly denounce China.[1] The Turkish government has been rather silent since 2009, when then-Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan described the clash between Chinese police and protestors in Urumqi, the capital of the XUAR, as a “genocide”. Turkish media, too, made agreements with their Chinese counterparts to avoid reporting negative news about China in 2017. As many pointed out, the fear of a potential of an electoral defeat at the local elections in March might be one of the key reasons behind the sudden denunciation. Indeed, while the Uighurs enjoy great support among religious and nationalist Turks, Erdogan himself has stated that those elections are “a matter of survival” for the Justice and Development Party.[2] It remains difficult to understand how the move of the Turkish government was perceived in other countries of the region. For example, on the one hand Le Monde in France and L'Orient-Le Jour in Lebanon were very critical toward China, and Djazairess in Algeria reported the words of anonymous sources about the situation in the XUAR.[3] On the other hand, for example, a commentary published by Al Jazeera contained no reference to the issue.[4] Interestingly but not surprisingly, Western journalists, even those writing in non-Western newspapers like L'Orient-Le Jour, avoided mentioning the electoral motives that probably lie behind the harsh statements of the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

In general, it is likely that the relations between China and the Muslim countries in the region will not suffer in any significant way, especially as Chinese economic and diplomatic support has become increasingly important for many of them. Iran is clearly one of these. A high-level delegation composed of the Parliament Speaker, the Minister of Economic Affairs and Finance, the Minister of Petroleum, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, visited Beijing on February 18-20. The coverage of the visit by the Islamic Republic News Agency was, unsurprisingly, very positive.[5] Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani reportedly declared that Iran can and is willing to play an important role in China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The fight against terrorism and the fate of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action were also among the topics of discussion. In a meeting at Beijing’s Diaoyutai State Guesthouse with the Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif described the relationship with China as the most important in the world for his country.[6]

Francophone countries, such as Tunisia and Mali, seem to have a positive attitude toward Beijing as well. For example, the Tunisian Minister of Investment, Development and International Cooperation Zied Laadhari led a large delegation, composed of high-level officials as well as businessmen, in a 3-day visit to Beijing in late February, just six months after Prime Minister Youssef Chahed met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in September 2018.[7] Boutheina Ben Yaghlane, the Director of Tunisia’s Caisse des Dépôts et Consignations, told journalists that the visit was the perfect opportunity to monitor the status of Sino-Tunisian bilateral relations and that the members of the Tunisian delegation were happy to see the Chinese interested in investing in their country. As for Mali, the government in Bamako sent a new ambassador to China, General Didier Dacko.[8] Prior to his ambassadorial appointment, the General commanded troops against insurgents during the civil war in Mali, reached the rank of Chief of Staff of the Malian Army and, most importantly, was the G5 Sahel Joint Force Commander until July 2018. He also met with Rear Admiral Guan Youfei, director of the Office for International Military Cooperation under China's Central Military Commission, in August 2018 in Bamako. It would not be surprising to see closer cooperation over security issues between China and Mali in the future.

Finally, we look at the countries, Israel and Italy, where the debate about how to approach closer economic cooperation with China has recently heated up significantly. As reported in other issues of the ChinaMed Bulletin, the debate in Israel has been going on for a while. In February, it was interesting to see that some began to voice concerns over the over-securitization of Chinese investments in the country. An article published by Sino-Israel Global Network & Academic Leadership, a non-profit organization formed in 2011 and a member of China’s Silk Road Think Tank Association, argued that it was high time that the Israeli government decided to reform the review mechanism for foreign investments.[9] However, the anonymous author also wrote, the “Israeli government must not confuse trade protectionism with legitimate concerns about foreign investment and its security implications” as the risk is that many Israeli businesses that work with Chinese partners or that see China as an important market for their products might be seriously damaged. Yet, other Israeli media keep on reporting that former and current officials in the Israeli national security establishment have long warned the government about the potential risks of letting Chinese capital in.[10] In Italy, declarations of foreign, especially American, scholars and politicians against the Italian government’s decision to consider a Belt and Road Initiative-related Memorandum of Understanding with China have become frequent and many Italian journalists have been questioning how the government plans to harmonize closer relations with China with Italy’s traditional position as a founder of the European Union and NATO.[11] Yet, local media have published where Chinese investments have already arrived or might arrive, reporting that local administrations are extremely eager to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative as they attempt to boost local economic growth.[12]

[1] Çin makamlarını toplama kamplarını kapatmaya davet ediyoruz [Turkey calls on China to close Uighur detention camps], Anadolu Agency, 9 February 2019, https://www.aa.com.tr/tr/gunun-basliklari/cin-makamlarini-toplama-kamplarini-kapatmaya-davet-ediyoruz/1388182.

[2] Son dakika...Başkan Erdoğan: "Bu seçimler bir beka seçimine dönüşmüştür" [Last minute…President Erdogan: "These elections have become a matter of survival"], Sabah, 28 January 2019, https://www.sabah.com.tr/gundem/2019/01/27/son-dakika-haberi-baskan-erdogandan-antalyada-cok-onemli-aciklamalar.

[3] Sébastien Le Belzic , Chinafrique : « Le risque d’opérations ciblées de groupes islamistes locaux menace l’Afrique » [The risk of targeted operations of local Islamist groups threatens Africa], Le Monde, 19 Febraury 2019, https://www.lemonde.fr/afrique/article/2019/02/19/chinafrique-le-risque-d-operations-ciblees-de-groupes-islamistes-locaux-menace-l-afrique_5425331_3212.html?xtmc=chine&xtcr=90; Aluighur muslimun taht maghsalat alislamuphobia  الإيغور مسلمون تحت مقصلة الإسلاموفوبيا [Uighurs Muslims under the guise of Islamophobia], Djazairess, 9 February 2019, https://www.djazairess.com/akhbarelyoum/266263; Clément Hospital, Le silence des pays musulmans face au sort des Ouïghours en Chine [The silence of Muslim countries about the fate of Uighurs in China], L'Orient-Le Jour, 21 February 2019, https://www.lorientlejour.com/article/1158280/le-silence-des-pays-musulmans-face-au-sort-des-ouighours-en-chine.html.

[4] Salah Shatata, Alsin limada yaseaa altennin liltawasoue nahwa algharb  الصين-لماذا-يسعى-التنين-للتوسع-نحو-الغرب [Why the Dragon Decided to Expand Westward?], Al Jazeera, 16 February 2019, https://blogs.aljazeera.net/blogs/2019/2/16/%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B5%D9%8A%D9%86-%D9%84%D9%85%D8%A7%D8%B0%D8%A7-%D9%8A%D8%B3%D8%B9%D9%89-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AA%D9%86%D9%8A%D9%86-%D9%84%D9%84%D8%AA%D9%88%D8%B3%D8%B9-%D9%86%D8%AD%D9%88-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%BA%D8%B1%D8%A8.    

[5] Chin o Iran, shorakaye rahburdi dar hameye duranha  چین و ایران، شرکای راهبردی در همه دوران ها [China and Iran, strategic partners at all times], Islamic Republic News Agency, 21 February 2019, http://www.irna.ir/fa/News/83216844.

[6] Zarif: Iran mohemtarin rabeteye rahburdiye jahan r aba chin darad ظریف: ایران مهمترین رابطه راهبردی جهان را با چین دارد [Zarif: The Relationship with China is the most Strategic one for Iran Worldwide], Persia Digest , 20 February 2019, https://fa.persiadigest.com/Zarif-Iran-has-most-important-strategic-ties-with-China.

[7] Dr Boutheina Ben Yaghlane: Vif intérêt chinois pour l’investissement en Tunisie [Dr. Boutheina Ben Yaghlane: Strong Chinese interest in investing in Tunisia], Leaders, 1 March 2019, https://www.leaders.com.tn/article/26597-dr-boutheina-ben-yaghlane-vif-interet-chinois-pour-l-investissement-en-tunisie.

[8] MALI : IBK nomme le Général Didier Dacko ambassadur du Mali en China [Mali: IBK selects General Didier Dacko as Malian ambassador to China], Bamada, 21 February 2019, http://bamada.net/mali-ibk-nomme-le-general-didier-dacko-ambassadeur-du-mali-en-chine.

[9] Ha-diun Ha-Israeli Sini הדיון הישראלי-סיני [A Sino-Israeli debate], SIGNAL, 20 February 2019, http://en.sino-israel.org/publications/signal-perspectives/the-israel-china-debate/.

[10] Yossi Melman, לאחר שנים של גרירת רגליים מצד הממשלה: המל"ל נוגעת בסוגיית ההשקעות הזרות Leachar shanim shell grirat reglayim mitzad ha-memshalla: Ha-malal nogat be-shugiat ha-haskaot hazrot [After years of government reshuffling, the NSC touches upon the issue of foreign investment], Maariv, 23 February 2019, https://www.maariv.co.il/landedpages/printarticle.aspx?id=686249.

[11] For example: Riccardo Barlaam, Huawei, la guerra fredda sulle reti 5G tra Cina e Usa si sposta in Europa [Huawei, the Cold War between China and the United States over 5G infrastructure arrives in Europe], Il Sole24 Ore, 14 February 2019, https://www.ilsole24ore.com/art/mondo/2019-02-14/huawei-guerra-fredda-reti-5g-cina-e-usa-si-sposta-europa-064153.shtml?uuid=ABRGb3TB&refresh_ce=1.

[12] Walter Tomada, Vendiamoci ai cinesi: il miracolo giallo convince tutti [Let’s sell ourselves to the Chinese: The “Yellow miracle” convinces everyone], il Friuli, 10 February 2019, http://www.ilfriuli.it/articolo/economia/vendiamoci-ai-cinesi-points--il-miracolo-giallo-convince-tutti/4/192787.

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