The first military strike ordered by President Biden against Iran-backed militias in Syria that took place on February 25 caught the attention of Chinese commentators that are clearly looking for cues on the future of American policy toward the Middle East and North Africa. Besides this, the situation in Libya, Israel’s relations with Arab countries, as well as the chances to revive the Iranian nuclear deal found their place in Chinese media. We also found some interesting comments regarding China’s possible approach to the Middle East against the background of growing Sino-American tensions.
During the night of February 25, two F-15E Strike Eagles dropped seven, precision-guided munitions on Iran-backed militias in Syria. “The strike was authorized in response to recent attacks against American and coalition personnel in Iraq and to ongoing threats to those personnel. We recognize the significance of this operation as the first of its kind under the new administration,” Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby said. According to Fudan University’s Sun Degang, the attack shows that Biden has not completely abandoned the approach to the region of his predecessor.  However, Sun points out, Biden is also trying to pursue a “value diplomacy” (价值观外交). The strike against Iran-back militias in Syria was meant to send a warning to Tehran: the United States will react to attacks against its soldiers and bases. At the same time, Biden is trying to draw a red line also vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia. According to Sun, the attempt of the Biden administration to regain the moral high ground should be seen as part of the efforts meant to make for its decline in terms of political will and military strength to intervene in the region.
The results of Biden’s actions are ambiguous as they try to find a balance between values and interests. In the case of Saudi Arabia, Liu Zhongmin, a professor at the Middle East Institute of Shanghai International Studies University, said that the sanctions and bans on Saudi officials over the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi were a clear sign of the kind of frictions in the relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia, but they should not be overemphasized.  The two countries still need each other and, therefore, American actions against the Saudis will be limited. Similarly, Wang Jin, a scholar based at Northwest University in Xi’an, declared that the American strike could hardly be seen as an effective act to deter Iran.  The reason is that it was very limited and targeted non-Iranian soldiers. Wang said that the United States did not want to anger Iran but, at the same time, it wanted to reassure its allies. In particular, Yin Gang, a researcher at the Institute of West Asia and Africa of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), hypothesized that the strike might be the result of lobbying on Biden made by the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their telephone conversation of February 17.  However, Chinese scholars do not expect Israel to receive the same diplomatic support under Biden that it received with Trump. This is one of the three reasons why, writing in Xinhua’s Globe magazine, Sun Degang believes that it is unlikely that Israeli diplomacy will make many breakthroughs in the relations with Arab countries in 2021.  The other two reasons are, first, the negative public opinion in many Arab countries over Israel’s approach to the Palestinians, and, second, the fact that many of the remaining Arab countries pursue foreign policies that are openly hostile to Israel and/or strongly pro-Palestinians.
The difficult situation created by a new American administration that is trying to balance the interests of its foreign and domestic allies, of course, creates problems for the future of the Iranian nuclear deal. Yu Guoqing, another scholar at the CASS Institute of West Asia and Africa, wrote that it is unlikely that there will be significant developments in 2021.  He describes the evolution of the nuclear issue as, first, bilateral between Iran and the United States, then multilateral with the agreement over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, then bilateral again with Trump, and now it is not clear if and how it will change. The fact that Iran and South Korea have agreed on a plan to release funds frozen in South Korean bank accounts and subject to American economic penalties shows, according to Yu, that the United States wants to find indirect ways to ease the tensions and open a dialogue with Iran. However, the dominance of hardliners in Tehran that are opposed to any new agreement, and the possibility that Israel will take unilateral action against Iran, remain serious obstacles in finding a way to revive the nuclear agreement.
Great uncertainty also surrounds the future of Libya. Li Xueting, a research assistant at the China-Arab States Reform and Development Research Center of Shanghai International Studies University, wrote an article in the Wen Wei Po, highlighting the challenges that the new Libyan Prime Minister, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, faces domestically and externally.  In general, Li seems skeptical about the chances of success of the new Libyan leader. Another Chinese scholar, Wang Jinyan of the CASS Institute of West Asia and Africa, wrote that Libya’s “half-cooked” democracy will not be enough to bring stability to the country.  According to Wang, the lack of democratic culture in the country’s institutions, political parties and societies is evident, especially in comparison to the strong tribal identities that dominate the Libyan political landscape. Foreign intervention throughout the ten years of conflict has made things worse. Now, Wang argues, the warring parties agreed on finding common ground to stabilize the country but the aforementioned problems persist. He concluded his analysis with the usual comment that peace in Libya must be “led and owned” by the Libyan people, though it is not clear what that should mean in this context.
Against this background, Zhang Yuan, a scholar at the CASS Institute of World Economics and Politics, argued that China should play a more active role in regional conflicts, possibly expanding the reach of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to the Middle East or via peacekeeping missions and antiterrorism cooperation.  Economic engagement and cooperation should continue as well. Yet, Zhang also points out that it is possible that conflicts of interests between China and some countries in the region might develop as result of rising Sino-American tensions also outside Asia. Therefore, China should “make forward-looking judgments with regard to where invest in the Middle East to avoid risks.” Zhang is a junior scholar and the proposal regarding the SCO and peacekeeping is unlikely to be more than his own personal opinion. However, the comment regarding possible tensions with countries in the region is very interesting and might reflect a more widespread thinking among Chinese foreign policy elites.
We close this issue of the ChinaMed Observer with two articles on Italy and France. The formation of a new Italian government led by Mario Draghi is regarded with interest from Beijing. Sun Yanhong and Yu Nanping, two scholars with CASS and East China Normal University respectively, told to China Business Network that Draghi faces significant challenges as he will have to maximize the effects of the European Union’s (EU) recovery plan and avoid new elections that might bring a center-right coalition to power, a scenario that is implicitly seen as a dangerous one for Italian finances.  It is clear that the Chinese analysts see Draghi’s success as crucial also for the integrity of the EU. As to France, on February 16 the National Assembly passed a controversial bill meant to protect the country against the dangers of what the government deems “Islamist separatism.” Chen Dingding of Jinan University examined its content and origins, along those of other counter-terrorism measures taken by Western countries, to show that the French bill reflects the same concerns of the Chinese government and that initiatives launched by the Chinese government in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and those of other countries are similar too.  Instability in the Middle East, and its influence on global terrorism, is a common source of anxiety. This should create the environment for win-win cooperation between China and the other countries, writes Chen, but the Western use of double standards prevents that from happening.
 Qian Xiaoyan, Bài dēng zhōngdōng zhèngcè bù yīyàng! Fādòng rèn nèi shǒucì jūnshì xíngdòng, tiáozhěng yǔ shātè guānxì 拜登中东政策不一样！发动任内首次军事行动，调整与沙特关系 [Biden’s Middle Eastpolicy is different! He launched the first military strike and adjustedthe relations with Saudi Arabia], China Business Network, February 28, 2021, link.
 Liu Pinran and Tu Yifan, Liúpǐnrán túyīfān “jiàozhǔn” měishā guānxì, bài dēng zhèngfǔ zài zhōngdōng “zhǎo pínghéng” “校准”美沙关系，拜登政府在中东“找平衡”[“Adjusting” the Saudi-American relations, the Biden administrationlooks for a “new balance” in the Middle East], Xinhua, February 27, 2021, link.
 Yu Xiaoxuan, 拜登上台后中东“第一把火”，美国空袭叙利亚目标意在何为？ [The “first fire” in the Middle East since Biden took power,what was the target of the American strike in Syria?], The Paper, February 26, 2021, link.
 Xue Dan, Bài dēng shǒucì “chūbīng” jiàn zhǐ yīlǎng? É wàizhǎng: Měi xíjí qián 4-5 fēnzhōng cái tōngzhī é jūn, wéifǎn guójìfǎ suǒyǒu guīzé 拜登首次“出兵”剑指伊朗？俄外长：美袭击前4-5分钟才通知俄军，违反国际法所有规则 [Biden sent the military against Iran for the first time.Russian Foreign Minister: The US notified the Russian forces only 4-5 minutesbefore the attack, it is against all the rules of international law], GlobalTimes, February 27, 2021, link.
 Sun Degang, Yǐsèliè hái huì yíng lái yī bō “jiànjiāo cháo” ma 以色列还会迎来一波“建交潮”吗 [Will there be another way of new diplomatic relations established byIsrael?], Globe, February 23, 2021, link.
 Yu Guoqing, Yī hé wèntí néng fēnghuílùzhuǎn ma 伊核问题能峰回路转吗 [Can the Iranian nuclear issueturn in a new direction?], Globe, February 23, 2021, link.
 Li Xueting, Lìbǐyǎ guòdù zhèngfǔ zǒnglǐ, zǒngtǒng wěiyuánhuì míngdān chūlú, shí nián dòngdàng jùlí hépíng wěndìng hái yǒu duō yuǎn利比亚过渡政府总理、总统委员会名单出炉，十年动荡距离和平稳定还有多远 [The names of the Libyan Transitional Government’s Prime Minister and Presidential Committee are out, how far are peace and stability?], Wen Wei Po, February 7, 2021, link.
 Wang Jinyan, Lìbǐyǎ zhànzhēng shí nián fǎnsī cóng “jiāshēng” de mínzhǔ dào nán jiě de luàn jú 利比亚战争十年反思 从“夹生”的民主到难解的乱局 [Thinking about ten years of warin Libya, from half-cooked democracy to chaos], Guangming Daily, February 19, 2021, link.
 Xīnnián yīshǐ dòngzuò bùduàn zhōngdōng jiāng xiàng hé chù qù 新年伊始动作不断 中东将向何处去 [The usual dynamics continue, where is the Middle East going?], Xinmin Evening News, February 4, 2021, link.
 Kang Kai, 被总统授权组阁, “超级马里奥”德拉吉能否重振意大利？ [Approved by the President, can“Super Mario” bring Italy back to life?], China Business Network, February 3, 2021, link.
 Chen Dingding, Cóng fàguó zhī tòng kàn zhòng guó xīnjiāng, yùfáng xìng fǎnkǒng hé qù jíduān huà nán zài hé chù? 从法国之痛看中国新疆，预防性反恐和去极端化难在何处？[Lookingat China’s Xinjiang from the point of view of French pain: what is the future of terrorism-prevention and deradicalization?], China News, February 4, 2021, link.