January 2020

China looks at the Mediterranean Region
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Unsurprisingly, the assassination of Iranian Major General Soleimani by the US military caught much of the attention of Chinese commentators. In this issue of the ChinaMed Observer, we contextualize the reaction of Chinese commentators to that event against the background of growing regional instability, especially in Libya. At the same time, we start to see some of the elements typical of China’s discourse on the Middle East, a push back against the politicization of Chinese economic engagement, appearing in how Chinese commentators discuss events in Southern Europe.

As one of our analysts argued here, Chinese commentators still do not believe that war is going to happen between Iran and the United States. As usual, they are more understanding of Iran and more critical of American actions. According to them, the assassination of Soleimani does not represent a significant change in the American strategy in the Middle East and it contributed to making the United States more isolated. Short-term electoral considerations are making Washington adopt policies that make the United States less safe in the long run, says the author of an editorial article of the Global Times. [1] According to Jiang Chunliang, a Major General of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army that is currently working at the Chinese Academy of Military Science (China’s foremost military think tank and training institution), the United States utterly failed in conquering the hearts and minds of the people in the Middle East. [2] This is what has kept on negating to Washington anything that can be called a victory in the region and eroding its presence and influence there. The lack of local support, argues Gong Zheng of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, is why the United States has become now the main problem of the Middle East, as its actions constantly create more divisions in the region. [3]

Against this background, Ma Xiaolin, the Director of the Mediterranean Rim Studies Institute at Zhejiang Foreign Studies University, wrote an overview of the development of five key powers in the region: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel, and Iran. [4] The situation is not good for any of the countries as Ma emphasizes the fragility of their achievements in the region and domestic problems that constantly act to undermine them. Yet, it is the criticism towards Turkey that stands out. Indeed, he writes that the maritime agreements with Libya go clearly against international law, but they, together with the intervention in Libya, have also upset many countries in the region. This is the greatest diplomatic embarrassment for Turkey during the last ten years.

This is not an isolated comment as Turkey’s moves in Libya were already under the attack of Chinese commentators in December. In January, the number of articles supporting the same argument grew. Many Chinese analysts see Libya becoming like Syria—which is something Chinese media have been discussing for a long time—and what connects the two countries is the intervention of many great powers, especially Russia and Turkey. Since the conference on Libya that was held in Berlin failed to convince Chinese observers about the effectiveness and commitment of the European Union, Wang Jinyan of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) and Liu Zhongmin of Shanghai International Studies University argue that what will happen in Libya ultimately depends on the relationship between Moscow and Ankara. [5] However, it is Turkey’s role that is discussed the most, while there are very few and largely neutral comments on Russia. Such as the case of the United States, Chinese commentators argue that Turkey’s strategic blunder is the result of a government attempt to divert the attention of public opinion from the growing economic problems at home. [6] At the same time, Turkey is expanding its struggle with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to North Africa.

An article written by Niu Xinchun, Director of the CICIR Institute of Middle East Studies, for the Global Times explains very well China’s point of view in this increasingly unstable situation. [7] According to him, a common misconception in the Chinese domestic discourse (and we would argue that is the same in the English-language press) is that turmoil in the Middle East as an opportunity to ease American pressure on China. While it’s true that the United States dispatched a large contingent of troops during the Gulf war and the Iraq war (630,000 and 160,000 troops respectively), America has changed its involvement strategy in the Middle East, and no longer engages in large-scale ground operations, as Niu points out. He also highlights the fact that the losses for China have increased in every war and revolution. The Gulf War forced China to evacuate thousands of Chinese nationals and Chinese companies lost about USD 2 billion. The 2003 American invasion of Iraq created important opportunities for Chinese oil companies but that did not come without cost. The fall of Saddam led to the renegotiation and writing of 80% of the Iraqi sovereign debt owed to China in exchange to re-establish a presence in the Middle Eastern country. In 2011, 36,000 Chinese nationals had to leave Libya and Chinese companies lost an estimated USD 18 billion losses in contracts.

Finally, we conclude this issue with the review of an article written by Sun Yanhong, an Associate Researcher at CASS, in response to an article published in early December 2019 by the New York Times on Italy’s right-wing parties. [8] The American newspaper argues that Italian right-wing parties are benefitting from the widespread discontent among Italian voters caused by the unemployment and slowdown of manufacturing activities due to competition from Chinese producers of many products that used to be at the core of Italy’s light industry. Sun, unsurprisingly, puts forward a two-pronged argument. On the one hand, she writes that it is the 2008 financial crisis that created the condition for the rise of political parties like the Lega Nord. On the other hand, the memorandum of understanding signed in Spring 2019 by the Italian and the Chinese governments shows clearly that Italy regards China as an opportunity for its economy. The truth probably lies in the middle: competition from Chinese producers did deliver several blows to the Italian manufacturing sector but the Italian government failed to devise a counterstrategy to help the Italian economy to innovate and adapt.

[1] Shèpíng: Měi yòu zài zhōngdōng yòng “gǎo ànshā” duǎnxiàn cāozuò 社评:美又在中东用“搞暗杀”短线操作 [Commentary: The United States takes again the “assassination” shortcut in the Middle East], Global Times, January 3, 2020, link.

[2] Jiang Chunliang, “Xiàndài zhànzhēng míwù” xià dì měiguó “现代战争迷雾”下的美国 [The United States in the “fog of modern warfare”], Globe, January 28, 2020, link.

[3] Gong Zheng, Měiguó zhōngdōng zhànlüè dǐ sè 美国中东战略底色 [The srategic bottomline of the United States in the Middle East], Globe, January 28, 2020, link.

[4] Ma Xiaolin, Zhōngdōng wǔ qiáng shí nián “zhǔchàng” 中东五强十年“主唱” [The strongest leaders in the Middle East during the last ten years], Globe, January 28, 2020, link.

[5] Jia Pingfan, Lìbǐyǎ hépíng jìnchéng wèihé zhème nán? 利比亚和平进程为何这么难?[Why is peace in Libya so difficult to attain?], People’s Daily, January 17, 2020, link; Liu Zhongmin, Lìbǐyǎ wèntí bólín fēnghuì: Shì hépíng jìnchéng dì yī bù háishì yòu yīcì wújí'érzhōng? 利比亚问题柏林峰会:是和平进程第一步还是又一次无疾而终?[The Berlin Libya conference: One step toward peace or another failure?], The Paper, January 21, 2020, link.

[6] For example: Shen Danling and Duan Xinghan, Tǔ'ěrqí chūbīng, lìbǐyǎ luàn shàng jiā luàn 土耳其出兵,利比亚乱上加乱 [Turkey sends troops, Libya becomes more chaotic], People’s Daily, January 4, 2020, link.

[7] Niu Xinchun, Niú xīnchūn: Měiguó jiǎoluàn zhōngdōng duì shéi dōu méiyǒu hǎochù 牛新春:美国搅乱中东对谁都没有好处 [Niu Xinchun: American chaos in the Middle East is not good for anyone], Global Times, January 7, 2020, link.

[8] Sun Yanhong, Sūnyànhóng: Yìdàlì zhèngzhì yòuqīng jìng yě lài zhōngguó? 孙彦红:意大利政治右倾竟也赖中国? [Sun Yanhong: Is it true that Italy’s right-wing parties rely on China?], Global Times, January 6, 2020, link.

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