January 2020

The Mediterranean Region looks at China
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In the first month of 2020, Mediterranean media published a number of extremely interesting articles. The coverage of China’s activities and relations with Mediterranean countries was, somehow surprisingly, rather positive. This is especially the case in Israel. At the same time, we found detailed commentaries on the oil-for-reconstruction agreement signed by the Chinese and Iraqi government in late 2019, as well as analyzes on the Sino-Jordanian and the Sino-Iranian relations. Other interesting news regard Spain, Italy, and Tunisia.

We begin our monthly review by examining an article published in The Marker, a Hebrew-language daily business newspaper published by the Haaretz group. [1] In it, we read for the first time an explicit call for Israel to leave the American security umbrella and take China’s side, joining the Belt and Road Initiative. Without a doubt, this is not going to happen any time soon as American diplomatic and military assistance can hardly be substituted by China, which, in any case, is unlikely to take the place of the United States in Israeli diplomacy and in the region at large. That said, it is important to highlight that this is the first time that such an argument has been made in such a blunt manner. As we observed in the past, tensions between economic engagement with China and a diplomatic alliance with the United States has long been the most important issue at the center of Israel’s debate on China, with pro-business actors that push to avoid excessive limitations to Chinese economic operations in Israel. This drastic change in Israel’s international orientation has never been proposed. For the moment, it is difficult to say what is the significance of this article but it surely suggests that tensions are growing.

Meanwhile, China was mentioned in relation to a growing number of key political issues in Italy. For example, some call to pay attention to the “Chinese shadow” in Libya—one of the most important dossiers of Italian diplomacy. [2] This, Professor Giulio Sapelli of Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei argues, is particularly true after the Berlin Conference on Libya. [3] China and Russia are now the new real powers in Africa. Such an exaggeration of Chinese influence in Libya is likely to reflect Italy’s concerns over its already feeble grip on the evolution of the situation in Libya. However, it must be acknowledged that it fits with the narrative on China that is currently used by Italian right-wing parties to attack the government. Hong Kong and the Belt and Road Initiative are two other issues that right-wing politicians routinely mention for the same reason—although some were a part of the government when the memorandum of understanding for cooperation on China’s new Silk Road was signed. [4] In general, we continue to see a shift from an almost exclusive emphasis on business opportunities in the past to a more diversified and politicized discussion of the relations with China. This is something that stands out in comparison to the media publications in other southern European countries like Spain and Greece, where the debate mostly revolves around the benefits of current and potential Chinese investments. [5] In Greece, in particular, it seems that all the tensions related to the potential impact of COSCO’s investment plan beyond the port facilities in the Piraeus have completely dissipated.

The situation is clearly different in Tunisia and Jordan. During a workshop jointly organized by the Chinese embassy in Tunis and the International Centre for Strategic, Security and Military Studies, a number of Tunisian analysts, politicians, and commentators have lauded China, emphasizing the benefits that can be reaped by cooperating with it although trade imbalance in Chinese favor is a problem that must be addressed. [6] While the precise content of the speeches delivered by the participants in the Tunisian workshop is not reported, the Jordanian newspaper Al Ra'i published a rare and detailed overview of the country’s relations with China. [7] Jordan will host the 9th China-Arab States Cooperation Forum Ministerial Meeting and, the author of the articles argues, it is therefore important to look at the situation of the Sino-Jordanian ties. According to him, Jordan has different lessons to learn from China because China was able to overcome many development challenges that Jordan is still facing today. China is not only one of the top trade partners of Jordan, but also an important investor as State Development & Investment Corporation bought more than a quarter of the shares of the Arab Potash Company and Chinese investors contributed to the creation of Jerash Holding Company, the first company in Jordan and the Arab world to be listed on the NASDAQ. Huawei, too, is engaged in the Arab country. Jordan must use the ministerial meeting to further develop the dialogue with China, especially on tourism and infrastructure development.

At the same time, the Iraqi media continues the discussion on the government’s capability to deal with China in an effective manner. At the center of this debate, there is an agreement to allocate the revenues from 100,000 barrels of oil per day to China to implement infrastructure projects in various Iraqi provinces over 20 years. The quantity of oil sent to China might vary between 3 to 9 million barrels of oil every month depending on the circumstances with the money deposited in a Chinese bank account. The agreement was signed by Abdul Mahdi after his resignation in late November 2019. Given the potential of this deal to transform the Iraqi economy, a journalist of the newspaper al-Zaman does not pull his punches and elucidates that the way the government has acted is concerning: the parliament was not allowed to discuss the agreement and Abdul Mahdi had no legitimacy to sign the agreement. [8] According to another article published in the same newspaper, the different Iraqi ministries were suddenly given 15 days on February 12, 2020 to provide a list of projects that will be financed with Chinese money. [9] However, there is no official estimate of how much is the total value of the agreement, thereby casting doubts on how effectively and efficiently those money will be used. Moreover, the journalist argues, it is possible that Chinese companies will be given a preferential treatment during the bids for the project financed by the agreement, thereby risking the close the door to more expensive but more technologically advanced Western contractors.

In neighboring Iran, January’s media debate, unsurprisingly, revolved around how to assess the conclusion of the Phase 1 deal between China and the United States and China’s reaction to the assassination of Qassem Soleimani. [10] In light of past events, Iranian commentators were sober in their assessment: while Beijing needs stable relations with Washington, Iran plays an important role for Chinese energy security and diplomacy in the Middle East. They are aware that China needs a stable Middle East and Iran is an essential counterbalance to the erratic behavior of the United States and its Israeli and Saudi allies. Hence, mentioning the joint naval exercise between China, Iran, and Russia, they expect China to keep on supporting Iran despite American pressure.

[1] Dvir Aviam-Ezra, Israel tzricha lhitztarf lyozmat ha-chagora ve-haderech ישראל צריכה להצטרף ליוזמת החגורה והדרך של סין [Israel should join China's Belt and Road Initiative], The Marker, January 28, 2020, link.

[2] Gabriele Carrer, Occhio alle ombre cinesi dietro le mosse turche in Libia [Watch out for the Chinese shadow behind Turkey’s moves in Libya], Formiche, January 4, 2020, link.

[3] Francesco Bechis, Non solo petrolio. Sapelli traccia la road map per l’Italia in Libia [Not just oil. Sapelli outlines Italy’s roadmap in Libya], Formiche, January 20, 2020, link.

[4] Francesco De Palo, Dalla Libia alla Cina. Perché è a rischio la sicurezza nazionale. Parla Delmastro (FdI) [From Libya to China. Why Italian national security is threatened according to Delmastro (FdI)], Formiche, January 10, 2020, link.

[5] Kostas Ketsietzis, Ependyseis ano toy 1 dis eyro allazoyn ton peiraia Επενδύσεις άνω του 1 δισ. ευρώ αλλάζουν τον Πειραιά [Investments of more than 1 billion Euros are changing Piraeus], Insider Gr, January 18, 2020, link; Mesones Javier, China acelera en 2020 la inversión en España tras bajarla un 95% en 2019, [China is accelerating the investments in Spain in 2020 after a decrease by 95% in 2019], El Economista, January 26, 2020, link.  

[6] Warshat eamal bi-tunis hawal Taryiq al-haryir ورشة عمل بتونس حول طريق الحرير [Tunisian workshop on the Silk Road], Strategia News, January 17, 2020, link.

[7] Mohammad Abu Humur, Al-Urdun wa-mubadirat al-hizam wa-l-tariq…hal min fursat al-ightinamiha? الأردن ومبادرة الحزام والطريق..هل من فرصة لاغتنامها؟ [Jordan and The Belt and Road Initiative…is there a chance to seize this opportunity?], Al Ra'i, January 12, 2020, link.

[8] Raʾed al-Hashemi, Man yafuku talasim al-ittifaqiyat al-ʿiraqiyyat al-siniyya? من يفُــك طلاسم الإتفاقية العراقية الصينية؟, [Who can unravel the Sino-Iraqi agreement?], al-Zaman, January 19, 2020, link.

[9] Govand Sherwani, Al-ittifaqiyat al-ʿiraqiyyat al-siniyya…mizaya wa-makhadh الاتفاقية العراقية الصينية.. مزايا ومآخذ [The Sino-Iraqi agreement…advantages and disadvantages], al-Zaman, January 22, 2020. link.

[10] Gozaresh| forsatha-ye taze bara-ye afzayesh-e hozur-e Cin dar gharb-e Asya dar dowran-e pas az terur-e sardar-e Soleymani گزارش| فرصت‌های تازه برای افزایش حضور چین در غرب آسیا در دوران پس از ترور سردار سلیمانی [Report| New opportunities for an increasing Chinese presence in West Asia after the assassination of Soleymani], Tasnim News Agency, January 13, 2020, link; Cin; forsatha va tahdidha-ye dowran-e pas az tahqir-e Amrika dar ʿEyn ol-Assad چین؛ فرصت‌ها و تهدید‌های دوران پس از تحقیر آمریکا در عین‌الاسد [China: opportunities and threats after the American humiliation in ʿEyn ol-Assad], Tasnim News Agency, January 19, 2020, link.

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