February 2021

The Mediterranean Region looks at China
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This month, the research through the media of the broader Mediterranean region brought forth interesting developments in Chinese engagement with the countries of the area. Moreover, several media outlets show a continuing interest in the rivalry between China and the United States, and its possible consequences on the countries and the balance in the Middle East and North Africa.

With the installation of the Biden administration in the United States, the countries of the broader Middle East demonstrate rising concerns over the impact of the competition between China and United States on the region and its consequences over the relationships of the individual countries between both superpowers. In this regard, Saudi positions seem to be twofold. On one hand, Saudi media acknowledge the strategic importance the kingdom could have for the United States’ agenda in the region, especially concerning “competition with China, energy, nuclear armament, and terrorism." [1] On the other hand, although the Biden administration still claims to support “Saudi Arabia’s right to defend its lands,” Riyadh remains concerned about the steps Washington might take both in the Houthi issue and the negotiations over the renewal of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, as reported by the Bahraini newspaper al-Watan[2]

Sudanese media share similar concerns, although the position of the African country seems to be more cautious. Even though the Trump administration reiterated contacts with the transitional Sudanese government established after the coup d’état of 2019, a number of experts and analysts believe that this rapprochement will not affect Sudan’s relations with China, who has heavily invested in the oil and construction sectors of the country. In fact, Youssef Hamad Abdullah, Director of the Khartoum Authority for Press and Publication, said that “the chances of a US-Chinese diplomatic spat over Sudan appear slim. The Trump administration’s policy towards Africa focused on confronting the Russian Federation and China but it did not affect Beijing ‘s support to Khartoum. It is unlikely that the situation will change now.” [3] China is Sudan’s largest trading partner and the major investor in its oil industry through the state-owned company China National Petroleum Corporation.

The increasing presence of Russia in the region and its close relationship with China is another issue that regional observers are increasingly taking into consideration. Analysts with the Emirates Policy Center analyzed the characteristics of this Sino-Russian partnership and its possible consequences for the Middle East and the policies of the new US government. [4] According to their assessment, the two powers’ strategy in the region do not have many similarities: while China’s interests refer mainly to energy supplies, Russia seeks to enhance the relations with its political partners, namely Turkey and Iran, and to undermine NATO influence. However, they do share the same “gradual, low-intensity and long-term” approach and the same general goal, that is to limit US influence in the Middle East without pushing for a complete withdrawal.

Great power competition is becoming an important theme also in Greek media as foreign investments in Greek ports have become connected, at least to some extent, to ongoing tensions between Greece and Turkey. Kathimerini addresses the conflicting claims of American private companies, the Russia-affiliated Belterra and the Greek authorities over the ports of Alexandroupolis, Thessaloniki and Igoumenitsa,[5] in addition to the on-going conflict with the Chinese COSCO in the Piraeus. It is reported that the Greek government “follows a multilevel strategy dictated by the need for strong international alliances due to tensions with Turkey and the wider interest in the South-eastern Mediterranean.” The promotion of the Mutual Defence Cooperation Agreement, with which the United States gained significant control over the ports of Alexandroupolis and Souda, could be read through this lens. It should be noted that the intensification of the discussions with the Russian and Americans sides over access to Hellenic ports comes at a time when the relationship between Greek authorities and COSCO continues to deteriorate. In fact, it is reported that the Piraeus Port Authority and the port workers association continue to question the rightfulness of COSCO’s monopoly over the port’s activities. [6] However, given its role in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and its membership in the 17+1 Initiative (a forum aimed at facilitating partnership among Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkans and China), Athens seems to value its relationship with China and considers the activities of COSCO in the Piraeus as a useful platform to “increase trade but also to accelerate investments that promote the interconnection between different countries, including Northern Macedonia.”  Although Greece’s participation in the 17+1 Initiative has caused concerns in the European Union, it is believed that a “closer cooperation with China on a bilateral and multilateral level does not represent a setback for Western values or a crack in the Greek-American relations.”

On the contrary, according to former ambassador Ferdinando Nelli Feroci, the new Italian government, led by the former European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi, is expected to strengthen the country’s relations with the United States, therefore cutting back from both China and Russia. [8]

Meanwhile, Iranian media continue to publish numerous assessments of the BRI and Iran’s role in it. In an extensive interview with the economic newspaper Donya-ye Eqtesad, Arash Raʾisinejad, professor of international relations at the University of Tehran, reiterates the importance of joining the BRI for Iranian national interests, and urges Tehran to put in place a so-called “road diplomacy.” [9] This concept refers to the role of diplomatic actions in the construction of regional and international highway networks. Raʾisinejad claims that, by gaining access to the BRI, Iran could “change the balance of power in West Asia.” According to him, Tehran might be able to expand its influence beyond its borders, as the routes connecting China to the Mediterranean Sea (North and South Persian Gulf- Mediterranean Gulf) transit through Iran’s political, economic and ideological allies, Syria, Iraq, and, to a lesser extent, Lebanon, thus adding economic and commercial value to the so-called Shiite Crescent. This would also make Iran a hub for China to access both the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, while securing the energy flow the Strait of Hormuz. However, China still shows skepticism towards Iran’s capability and will to join the project because of the American sanctions, its economic problems, and volatile domestic politics. Raʾisinejad believes that the implementation of the famed Iran-China 25-year cooperation agreement could help ease this skepticism, as it shows that Iran can take decisive steps for a comprehensive cooperation, even under sanctions, and it could increase Iran’s negotiating power in the region and with the European Union.

Interestingly, Raʾisinejad also addresses the position and views on the BRI of some of Iran’s neighbouring countries. He states, for example, that the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have been keen to join the BRI, in order to increase their cooperation with China in infrastructure development, energy, as well as to avoid being overdependent on the United States. Oman’s efforts in joining the projects seem exemplary, as the developments of the ports of Salalah and Duqm will lead Oman’s industrial growth and make the country a serious competitor for other major GCC ports, such as the Emirati Jebel Ali. Similarly, Kuwait has been taking advantage of Chinese interest for the region, as the two countries agreed on a project to renovate Kuwait’s northern islands and develop the port of Mubarak. [10]

For what concerns Turkey, the Iranian professor points out that China has always played an important role in the economic development of that country, but the developments of the New Silk Road will give Ankara a great opportunity to extend its influence on the Turkic republics of Central Asia. Against this background, it should be mentioned that, even though Sino-Turkish cooperation has been increasing, focusing also on technological transfer, [11] the Uyghur issue continues to be a sensitive one for Turkish public opinion.  According to the Sozcu Gazetesi, the Turkish government faces a difficult choice between supporting the Uyghurs and the need for further economic cooperation with China. [12]

Unsurprisingly, Raʾisinejad also discusses Israel’s position on the BRI. According to him, China’s interests in Israel stem from its location on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, its close relationship with the United States, and its military and agricultural technology. He also stresses that the Chinese investments in the ports of Haifa, Ashdod and Eilat undermine Iran’s influence in the Levant, especially in Syria and Iraq. This problem is made worse by the normalization of the relations between Israel and the Arab sheikhdoms of the Gulf. Nonetheless, the professor points put that the deepening of relations between Beijing and Tel Aviv is strongly opposed by the United States.

Finally, it important to mention the discussion in Iranian media over the possible revival of the JCPOA after the recent meeting between the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI). Against this background, there seems to be two diverging opinions about the role that China and Russia may play in the negotiations. On one hand, Professor Seyed Jalal Dehqani Firoozabadi, in an interview with IRNA, asserts that an impartial Sino-Russian mediation is necessary for Iran to gain a negotiating lever, in order to force its Western counterparts to fulfill their obligations as stated in the JCPOA. [13] On the other hand, some experts are pessimistic about the performance of the two countries. In fact, Seyed Hoseyn Malaʾek affirms that China and Russia will only pursue their own national interests, that, at the present time, are to establish “a so-called constructive engagement with the United States in the Middle East, at the lowest possible cost”, meaning at the expense of Iran. What is interesting to note is that Malaʾek also believes that Western powers are using the deadline imposed by the IAEA (March 26) to delay the negotiations “to assess what the political situation in Iran will be in the run-up to the Iranian presidential election.” [14] Indeed, the results of the upcoming presidential election in June 2021 might have a serious impact on regional developments.

To conclude this number of the ChinaMed Observer, we report two further developments in Chinese economic engagement in the broader Mediterranean region. First, Sky News Arabia reports on the ongoing discussions between Chinese businessmen and the Moroccan city of Dakhla, situated in the Western Sahara. Dakhla, according to the article may be a perfect location for Chinese investments in renewable energy sources, as wind and solar energy. Chinese investments in Morocco have significantly increased in recent years: for example, 10 billion dollars have been invested in the “Mohamed VI Tangiers Tech City” project, in the north of the country, and it is estimated that it will provide 100 thousand job opportunities and attract numerous Chinese companies. [15]

Finally, the Iraqi Minister of Oil, Ihsan ʿAbd al-Jabbar, announced that Iraq has frozen the pre-paid agreement recently stipulated with the Chinese ZhenHua Oil. [16] However, the Iraqi National Oil Marketing Company (SOMO) has entered in negotiations with a number of private and state-owned Chinese companies to build oil storage facilities in China. The construction of these warehouses will help Iraq store and protect its surplus oil production from price fluctuations and tensions in the Gulf, as well as help the country to bypass OPEC directives on oil sales quota.

[1] ʿAbd al-Rahman al-Rashed, Bidenwa-l-Saʿudiyya بايدن والسعودية [Biden and Saudi Arabia], al-Sharq al-Awsat, February 7, 2021, link.

[2] Saʿd Rashed, Al-ʿujuz Biden bi-muwajahattumuh Muhammad bin Salman العجوز"بايدن" بمواجهة طموح محمد بن سلمان [The old Biden faces theambitions of Muhammad bin Salman], al-Watan, February 15, 2021, link.

[3] Al-Sin wa al-Wilaya al-Mutahida.. hal tatanaza‘an al-Sudan? الصين والولايات المتحدة.. هل تتنازعانالسودان؟ [China and the United States...Are they inconflict with Sudan?], Arabi21, February 1, 2021, link.

[4] Al-taqarub al-siniyy-al-russiyy wa-taʾthiruhu ʿala al-tawazinatfi-l-Sharq al-Awsat التقاربالصيني-الروسي وتأثيره على التوازنات في الشرق الأوسط [Sino-Russian rapprochement and its impacton the balance of power in the Middle East], Emirates Policy Center, February 8, 2021, link.

[5] Ilias Mpellos, Geopolitika paichnidia me ellinikalimania Γεωπολιτικά παιχνίδια με τα ελληνικά λιμάνια [Geopolitical games with Greek ports], kathimerini.gr, February 8,2021, link.

[6] Christina Papastathopoulou, Polemos stolimani tou Pirea Πόλεμος στο λιμάνι του Πειραιά [War in the port of Piraeus], Efsyn, February 20, 2021, link.

[7] Giorgos N. Tzogopoulos, Γιώργος Ν. Τζογόπουλος, I protovoulis 17+1kai I Ellada, Η Πρωτοβουλία 17+1 και η Ελλάδα, [The 17 + 1 Initiative andGreece], libre.gr, February 8, 2021, link.

[8] Ferninando Nelli Feroci, Dall’Europa al G20: il banco di prova internazionale del governo Draghi [From Europe to G20: the international testbed of Draghi government], Affarinternazionali, February 14, 2021, link.

[9] ʿAli Hassani, Naqshe-ye Cin bara-ye jahan-e ayande نقشه چین برای جهان آینده [China’s map for thefuture world], Donya-ye Eqtesad, February 15, 2021, link.

[10] Wasmiya al-Muslim, Darurat tafʿil mashruʿ al-jazaral-shumaliya ضرورة تفعيل مشروع الجزر الشمالية [It is needed to activate the northern islands projects], al-Anba, February 12, 2021, link.

[11] Türkiye'nin potansiyeli Çinli firmaları cezbediyor! [Chinesecompanies are attracted by the potential of Turkey!], Milliyet Gazetesi, February 11, 2021, link.

[12] Türkiye’nin eli kolu bağlı, [Turkey's hands and arms bounded], Sozcu Gazetesi, February 24, 2021, link.

[13] Zaman-e miyanjigari-e barjami-e Cin va Rusiye ast زمان میانجیگری برجامی چین و روسیه است [It is time for China and Russia to mediate for the JCPOA], IRNA, February 7, 2021, link.

[14] Seyyed Hoseyn Malaʾek, Pekan va Mosku; ba barjam ya bar barjam پکن و مسکو؛ با برجام یا بر برجام [Beijing and Moscow: with or against JCPOA?], Etemad, February 23, 2021, link.

[15] ʿAbd al-Fattah Naʿum, ba‘ d shamal al-maghrib.. hal tatajihal-’istithmarat al-sinyya nahw al-sahra’? بعد شمال المغرب.. هل تتجه الاستثماراتالصينية نحو الصحراء؟ [Afternorthern Morocco, will Chinese investments go to the Sahara?], Sky News Arabia, February 28, 2021, link.

[16] Huda al-ʿAzawy, Wazir al-naft: misaʿ li-banaʾ mustawdaʿat khazaniyya fi-l-Sinwa-Bakistan وزيرالنفط: مساع لبناء مستودعات خزنيَّة في الصين وباكستان [Minister of Oil: efforts to build warehouses in China and Pakistan], al-Sabah, February 23, 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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