February 2022

China looks at the Mediterranean Region
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Unsurprisingly, Chinese commentators on international affairs are focused on the evolution of the situation in Ukraine. Consequently, Chinese media have published far fewer articles and interviews on issues related to the wider Mediterranean region than in January, when China hosted the foreign ministers of six Middle Eastern countries – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Iran, and Turkey – and the secretary general of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Nonetheless, we still found interesting commentaries on a number of interesting issues including on the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on the region, on Turkish foreign policy, and on the French decision to withdraw troops from Mali.

Russia and Ukraine supply a quarter of the world's wheat exports, while Egypt is the world's biggest importer of wheat. Therefore, the current war could lead to a severe food crisis in a region already under pressure and where the high cost of food was one of the driving forces behind the Arab Spring in 2011. Zhao Jun, a professor at Shanghai International Studies University (SISU), discussed this issue with a journalist of China Business Network. [1] According to him, the situation is not disastrous yet because Egypt has significant reserves of wheat and, after quality problems with the wheat previously imported from Russia, the country has also boosted its own production. However, the Egyptian government is increasingly spending more money on food subsidies, and will continue to do so as the war in Ukraine goes on.

While the real impact of the Ukrainian crisis on the region will become clear only in the long-run, Chinese scholars have definitely noticed how Turkey is trying to capitalize on the conflict. In his column in The Paper, Liu Zhongmin argues that Ankara is trying to achieve two goals. [2] The main one is to improve its position vis-à-vis the United States, Europe, and Russia by fully leveraging its geographical position. This is particularly important as Turkey’s relationships with the United States and Europe have significantly worsened over the years, and the relations with Russia are far from being harmonious. As Chinese experts have stated a number of times, Turkey does not have the strength to sustain this kind of relations with much stronger powers. At the same time, Ukraine is a significant partner and customer for Turkey in the defense sector. The preservation of this relationship has further pushed Turkey to oppose Russia in this war. Hence, Liu points out that while this conflict is a great opportunity for Turkey, as stated by both Gu Zhenglong and Liu himself in another article, [3] Turkey’s problems with its neighbors remain substantial and it is unlikely that they will be solved any time soon.

Besides the possible impact of the war in Ukraine, Chinese experts are also concerned about the consequences of the withdrawal of French and other European troops from Mali. Yu Wensheng, a scholar working at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, talked with the People’s Daily about this. [4] Yu argues that the French military presence in Mali has long been unsustainable from a financial perspective. Moreover, France hardly enjoys support from the population of its former colonies. Now, there is the risk of a security vacuum in the country, thereby further undermining Malian and West African security. Interestingly, the journalist that interviewed Yu refers also to an article published by Reuters which discusses the negative implications for the security of the United Nations peacekeeping contingent in the African country. Chinese soldiers are part of said contingent. In any case, Yu also argues that economic development, rather than military intervention, is the solution to the conflict in Mali, though he did not clarify what in practice he thinks should be done. Surely, he does not suggest that China should somehow fill the vacuum created by the withdrawal of European troops, as speculated by some European policymakers.

We close this issue of the ChinaMed Observer with a review of an article penned by Liu Zhongmin on the status of Middle Eastern studies in China. [5] According to Liu, the main problem with areas studies is that there is not enough communication and cooperation between the scholars that specialize in the study of regional languages, those that specialize in social sciences, and those in economics. He argues that such a separation is understandable at the undergraduate level, but that think tanks and universities must make more efforts to integrate different disciplinary approaches at the graduate level. The focus on description, rather than more sophisticated analysis, is another major issue identified by Liu. Finally, Liu believes that Middle East studies in China should reflect and support the priorities and values of Chinese diplomacy.

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[1] Qian Xiaoyan, Wūkèlán júshì jiāng tuī gāo guójì liáng jià, zhōngdōng fēizhōu zuì dānxīn liángshí duàn gōng 乌克兰局势将推高国际粮价,中东非洲最担心粮食断供 [The events in Ukraine will push the international grain prices up, the countries in the Middle East and Africa worry about a cut to the supplies], China Business Network, February 22, 2022, link.

[2] Liu Zhongmin, Cóng jījí tiáotíng dào gāodiào fǎnduì èluósī, tǔ'ěrqí wèi shà yào shuā cúnzài gǎn 从积极调停到高调反对俄罗斯,土耳其为啥要刷存在感 [From proactive mediation to strong opposition to Russia, why does Turkey want play such a prominent role?], The Paper, February 25, 2022, link.

[3] Liu Zhongmin, Yǐsèliè zǒngtǒng huò fǎngwèn tǔ'ěrqí, dàn liǎng guó héjiě zhī lù nán yán lèguān 以色列总统或访问土耳其,但两国和解之路难言乐观 [The Israeli Prime Minister visits Turkey but the road to reconciliation between the two countries is far from being bright], The Paper, February 11, 2022, link; Gu Zhenglong, Huáshèngdùn yuánhé chèhuí duì dōng dìzhōnghǎi xiàngmù dì zhīchí 华盛顿缘何撤回对东地中海项目的支持 [Why has Washington withdrawn its support to the Eastern Mediterranean project?], Cfisnet, February 11, 2022, link.

[4] Chang Keli, Fàguó děng duōguó xuānbù cóng mǎlǐ chèjūn xīfēi ānquán xíngshì huò jiāng miànlín xīn biànshù 法国等多国宣布从马里撤军 - 西非安全形势或将面临新变数 [France and other countries announce the withdrawal from Mali – West African security will face a number of new challenges], People’s Daily, February 26, 2022, link.

[5] Liu Zhongmin, Guānyú zhōngdōng yánjiū “sān dà tǐxì” jiànshè de ruògān sīkǎo 关于中东研究“三大体系”建设的若干思考 [Some thoughts on the creation of “three big systems” ins the study of the Middle East], China Social Sciences, February 7, 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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