In January Chinese media coverage of the region was focused on the evolution of the current situation in the Middle East as it progresses in 2019. This commentary was run against the backdrop of weakening American influence while Russia continues to strengthen ties in the Mediterranean and its immediate surrounds. Chinese commentators see the relations among regional powers and extra-regional powers becoming tenser, especially as the United States is increasingly less willing and capable of guiding its regional allies as well as regional enemies. China considers that the region has yet to enter the “post-American” and that this transitory period will be a long and uncertain one, especially as the competition between Russia and the United States continues to escalate.
In general, Chinese commentators do not expect any significant improvement in 2019. According to Tian Wenlin, a researcher at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, the social stability of many of the region’s countries remain extremely weak. Tian asserts that, despite many governments managing to bolster their hold on power, their people as yet still demand reforms at a time when economic development remains well below what would be necessary to improve standards of living in a significant way. The war in Yemen, for example, Chinese media believes will likely continue. Furthermore, despite the amount of resources invested in the war, it is unlikely that Saudi Arabia will achieve any breakthrough in defeating the Houthi. Though China believes that Iran will not collapse, it does contend that Iran’s economy will continue to suffer due America’s sanctions. According to the China Institute of International Studies’ Dong Manyuan, the only place where war seems being close to end is Syria. This Dong mostly attributes to Russia’s part in supporting the Syrian government to the point where it can reassert control over most of the country.
However, despite this acknowledgement of Moscow’s success, there is little sign that China is ready or interested in playing any role in a Russia-led peace process in Syria. Indeed, though the 12th round of the Astana Process on Syrian Peace scheduled for early February, Chinese media does not appear to be covering it. This is a fairly clear sign that Beijing is not willing to endorse it explicitly. As mentioned in previous issues of the ChinaMed Bulletin, Chinese scholars believe that a peace process that does not include Western countries and that takes place outside the United Nations (UN) cannot ensure a long-term solution to the Syrian problem. References to the divisions between regional power, and Russia and the United States made by Li Weijian in an article published by the People’s Daily appear to further indicate China’s discomfort in participating in a process whose diplomatic foundations it considers inherently weak.
China’s activities in January have not, however, been curtailed by its opinion on Syria or Yemen. For instance, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs published a short article on the visit of a group of Chinese entrepreneurs to Libya. This was the first of such visits since the Chinese embassy in Libya closed and its diplomats began operating from Tunisia in 2014. The entrepreneurs talked with Libyan authorities about the business and security environment of the country with the visit presented in the article as an “active response” to a request from Libya. Reportedly, this request was officially made by the UN-backed Libyan Government of National Accord’s leader Fayez al-Sarraj during the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in September 2018. As we reported, China’s Charge d'Affaires in Libya, Wang Qimin, declared that the situation at the time was too dangerous for China to meet this request. The visit of the entrepreneurs in January, therefore, was a significant event. Qatar also received attention from Chinese media this month with Qatar's Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani visiting Bejing at the end of the January to sign several memorandums of understanding with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The Chinese President stated that he hopes to see cooperation with Qatar to grow in the areas of energy, finance, and infrastructure. Moreover, the exchange of points of view over counterterrorism and the fight against extremism should be strengthened.
Chinese security presence in the Mediterranean region has also headlined in its domestic media this month with Chinese peacekeepers being indirectly involved in the response to strikes against the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Mali of 20 January. The attack was carried out by a Norther-African branch of Al-Qaeda and led to the death of 10 Chadian soldiers, with 25 other persons injured. 8 of these were successfully treated in the hospital of the Chinese peacekeeping camp. While this emphasized the positive elements of a Chinese military presence, the future of China’s ongoing support was a topic of discussion on 9 January at a press conference held by Information Office of China’s State Council. The former Vice President of China’s Academy of Military Sciences, Lieutenant General He Lei stated that, following the completion of the current Djibouti base project, the further building of Chinese bases on foreign soil will depend on the needs of the UN and the consent of the host countries. Although this opinion does not carry the same weight as if He Lei were still at the Academy, his statement does provide a certain degree of official legitimacy to the possibility of a second Chinese military base in or near to the Mediterranean region in the future.
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