February 2023

China looks at the Mediterranean Region
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In February, two key events were at the center of the Chinese media’s coverage of the wider Mediterranean region: the earthquake that hit Türkiye and Syria, and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s – three-day visit to Beijing. Chinese commentators also discussed the rising tensions between Israel and the Palestinians.

On 6 February 2023, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck near the Turkish-Syrian border resulting in 50,000 and 7,200 deaths in Türkiye and Syria, respectively. Alongside this terrible loss of life, the quake injured more than a hundred thousand people and caused USD 104 billion of damages in Türkiye and USD 5.1 billion in Syria. Among Chinese analysts, there were diverging opinions on how the earthquake would impact the Turkish economy and politics. While acknowledging the tremendous devastation, Zou Zhiqiang, a researcher at the Middle East Research Center of Fudan University, told 21st Century Business Herald that “this major disaster and the resulting rescue operations are conducive to Türkiye's national unity, and will help Erdogan's government stabilize the domestic situation and increase its support rate in the future.” [1] Conversely, Mei Xinyu, a researcher at the Ministry of Commerce's Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation, offered a more pessimistic analysis in an article emphatically titled “The fading ‘economic miracle of Erdogan’.” [2] According to Mei, Türkiye was already facing its worst economic crisis since Erdogan came to power in 2003, not helped by the unconventional monetary and economic policies Ankara implemented to preserve its rural constituencies’ political support. The earthquake and reconstruction will significantly increase the country’s economic burden and thus likely accelerate the failure of “Erdogan economics” and reduce Türkiye’s prospects for medium- and long-term economic development. To make matters worse, Mei noted that Türkiye does not have the industrial capacity to take on reconstruction alone. Hence, a relevant chunk of the money set aside will actually be spent on importing equipment and materials, as well as on paying foreign companies.

It is against this background that the Global Times published an article on the role of Chinese companies in the post-earthquake reconstruction. [3] The earthquake has disrupted the operations of Türkiye-based Chinese firms as many do not dare enter the buildings and production plants left standing. Yet, many of them have already sent teams to the earthquake-stricken areas to discuss with local authorities which projects to prioritize. Consistently with the just-mentioned assessment by Mei Xinyu, those companies’ representatives told the Global Times’ reporter that there are important opportunities for Chinese construction firms. This is because, one the one hand, Ankara blacklisted many Turkish companies accused of failing to meet safety standards; on the other, many Chinese companies' financial and technological strengths make them extremely competitive in the future reconstruction bids. Reportedly, Chinese-built infrastructure – including three power plants in Adana province and a high-speed railway line – did not suffer any significant damage. Hence, Chinese companies also enjoy a strong reputation in the country, said Ding Long, a professor at the Middle East Institute of Shanghai International Studies University (SISU).

As to Syria, Fudan University’s Sun Degang expressed his hope that the international community could unite to provide assistance to that earthquake-stricken country as well. [4] However, Sun accused the Biden administration of preferring to pursue its geopolitical interests over helping the Syrian people, with him decrying the temporary relaxation of Caesar Act-related sanctions as just a symbolic gesture. According to Sun, “the United States' ‘long-arm jurisdiction’ and coercive diplomacy have also led Europe and its Middle Eastern allies to join it in imposing sanctions on Syria, worsening the Syrian crisis.”

Moving to the Iranian President’s visit to Beijing, the views expressed by Chinese commentators and analysts were unanimously positive. This was despite the general acknowledgment that American sanctions, especially Iran’s exclusion from the SWIFT system, represent a significant obstacle to Sino-Iranian cooperation. As summarized by Ding Long, “given the complex international situation, both China and Iran have a realistic need to deepen cooperation.” [5] Against that background, it is interesting to read some of the comments made by SISU’s Liu Zhongmin in an interview with the popular website Guancha Syndicate. [6] To begin with, he suggested that Raisi’s visit was meant also to show Beijing’s support for the Iranian leadership in a moment in which their domestic situation is difficult. After all, as pointed out by Niu Xinchun, China is aware of that the current conservative government in Tehran is a better partner than the previous one led by Hassan Rouhani. [7] Liu was also confident in China’s ability to deal with the problems that can come from pursuing good relations with rival countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. Indeed, while stressing the need to maintain balanced relations, he also argued that possible Iranian and Saudi discontent is a minor and temporary price to pay if China wants to deepen its engagement in regional issues. “China has gradually realized the complexity of the problem. This is an unavoidable problem for China to participate in Middle East affairs in the future,” he stated.

At the same time, the growing tensions between Israel and the Palestinians is becoming a growing concern for Chinese commentators. According to Ding Long, the situation is unpredictable. [8] On the one hand, the ongoing marginalization of the Palestinian issue in world and regional politics means that it is unlikely to provoke any war between Israel and Arab countries, though Arab public opinion is becoming more vocal in its opposition to the normalization of relations with Israel. On the other hand, episodes of violence are becoming more frequent and intense as new hardline Palestinian organizations form and emerge in reaction to the policies adopted by Israel’s right-wing government. According to Shu Meng, a colleague of Ding Long at SISU, the Israeli government will use these tensions to distract public opinion away from the radical policies that it is attempting to implement. [9] Shu also emphasized that it is crucial for the international community to intervene and address the concerns of the Palestinians as otherwise their frustration will translate in stronger support for further violence.

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[1] Shu Xiaoting, Tǔ'ěrqí fāshēng qiángliè dìzhèn, duì gāi guó jīngjì yǐngxiǎng jǐhé? 土耳其发生强烈地震,对该国经济影响几何? [A powerful earthquake hit Türkiye, how will it influence the economy?], 21st Century Business Herald, February 6, 2023, link.

[2] Mei Xinyu, Nán cái kuài píng: Tuìshǎi de “āi ěr duō ān qíjī” 南财快评:褪色的“埃尔多安奇迹” [Quick analysis: The fading ‘economic miracle of Erdogan’], 21st Century Business Herald, February 9, 2023, link.

[3] Wang Chuanbao and Chen Zishuai, Tǔ’ěrqí zhèn hòu chóngjiàn, zhōng qǐ zhuóshǒu zhǔnbèi 土耳其震后重建,中企着手准备 [Chinese companies start preparing for Türkiye’s reconstruction], Global Times, February 23, 2023, link.

[4] Sun Degang, Sūndégāng: Xùlìyǎ zhènzāi nàn, liánhéguó de hūyù yīng zhòngshì 孙德刚:叙利亚赈灾难,联合国的呼吁应重视 [Sun Degang: The UN's call for disaster relief in Syria should be taken seriously], Global Times, February 13, 2023, link.

[5] Zhang Quan, Shēndù |yīlǎng zǒngtǒng míngrì fǎng huá, chúle qiān bǎi yì měiyuán dà dān, hái yǒu nǎxiē kàn diǎn深度|伊朗总统明日访华,除了签百亿美元大单,还有哪些看点? [In-depth | Iran’s President’s visit to China tomorrow, besides signing tens of billions of dollars, what are the highlights?], Liberation Daily, February 13, 2023, link.

[6] Liúzhōngmín: Zhōng yī hézuò, néng fǒu bāngzhù yīlǎng kèfú měi xīfāng zhìcái? 刘中民:中伊合作,能否帮助伊朗克服美西方制裁?[Liu Zhongmin: Can Sino-Iranian cooperation help Iran overcome Western sanctions?], Guancha Syndicate, February 18, 2023, link.

[7] Zheng Liying, Bù dào bànnián, zhōng yī yuánshǒu zàidù jiànmiàn 不到半年,中伊元首再度见面 [Chinese and Iranian leaders meet again less than half a year since the last meeting], China Newsweek, February 15, 2023, link.

[8] Huang Peizhao, Chen Zishuai, and Li Jing, Měi méi yùcè dì sān cì bālèsītǎn dà qǐyì, bā yǐ chōngtú chūxiàn xīn “zhà diǎn”? 美媒预测第三次巴勒斯坦大起义,巴以冲突出现新“炸点”? [US media predict the third Palestinian uprising, has the Israeli-Palestinian conflict reached a new “explosive point”?], Global Times, February 9, 2023, link.

[9] Shu Meng, Wèi kuòjiàn yóutàirén dìngjū diǎn tuīchū xīn jǔcuò cìjī dìqū júshì jìnyībù jǐnzhāng yǐ - zhèngfǔ jí yòuyì huà huò jīhuà bā yǐ chōngtú 为扩建犹太人定居点推出新举措刺激地区局势进一步紧张 - 以政府极右翼化或激化巴以冲突 [A new decision to expand Jewish settlements fuels further regional tensions - The extreme right of the Israeli government may intensify the Israeli-Palestinian conflict], Wen Wei Po, February 16, 2023, 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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