January 2021

China looks at the Mediterranean Region
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In January, two key events caught the attention of Chinese observers. The first was the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States, which invited many questions regarding the future of American foreign policy. The second was the resolution of the crisis between Qatar and Saudi Arabia that was brokered by Kuwait and the United States. Looking at other developments in the wider Mediterranean region, Chinese analysts and journalists have also discussed the opening of the extension of Gazprom's TurkStream pipeline in the Serbia as a weathervane of what will be the future of the United States-Europe-Russia triangular relationship.

Considering how Chinese scholars look at the situation in the Middle East and North Africa, Biden faces some tough challenges that, unsurprisingly, Chinese commentators blame on his predecessors. This was made even worse by the fact that the Trump administration made some last minute, controversial moves, such as branding the Houthis in Yemen as a terrorist organization. Liu Zhongmin, a professor at the Shanghai International Studies University and a frequent commentator of Middle Eastern affairs, wrote in the Global Times that this is a somewhat paradoxical situation as the damage made to the region by the United States did not decrease along with the downsizing of American military presence under Obama and Trump. [1] Probably because of China’s stake in it, the future of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and of the American-Iranian relations is the issue that attracted most of the attention in Chinese media. In general, there seems to be little hope in China for a quick improvement of the situation.

Iran shot “three arrows," as Ding Long called them, at the United States to pressure the Biden administration. Those three arrows include engaging in a series of military exercises, seizing a South Korean-flagged tanker vessel, and beginning the enrichment of uranium to 20% purity. [2] Yet, scholars like Li Guofu of the China Institute of International Studies’ Middle East Research Center and Yin Gang of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ West Asian and African Studies Institute are skeptical about Iran’s chances of success. [3] As Yin stated, there is the risk that the Iranian nuclear issue could turn quickly into a nuclear crisis. Even if the Biden administration accepted to remove all the sanctions, argued Li, it would take time to actually do so. The behavior of Israel and Saudi Arabia is another factor that makes the situation extremely volatile. Other scholars, like Wang Jin of Northwest University, wrote similar analyses. [4] 

Moving to the other side of the Gulf, 5 January 2021 marked the formal beginning of the end of the three-and-a-half-year Qatar crisis. The leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), including the Qatari Emir Tamim and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, gathered for the 41st GCC Summit in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia where they publicly acknowledged it was time to move beyond the acrimony and tensions that had pervaded GCC politics since 2017. As part of the agreement, the Quartet states that led the blockade (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain) agreed to open air, land and sea routes to Qatar. In exchange, Doha would rescind Qatari lawsuits against the four countries at the World Trade Organization (WTO). Collectively, they agreed to desist from negative media coverage and work towards mending a rift that has caused immense reputational, social, financial and political damage for the GCC.

Chinese analysts are rather skeptical about this rapprochement. Zou Zhiqiang, an associate researcher at the Middle East Institute of Shanghai Foreign Studies University, told to China Business Network that the differences between Saudi Arabi and Qatar have not been resolved and will continue to plague their relationship. [5] To a large extent, the end of this diplomatic crisis is due to the Saudi recognition that it gained much less than what it expected, despite the damages inflicted on Qatar. This is an opinion shared also by Liu Zhongmin and Niu Xinchun, the director of the Middle East Research Institute at CICIR. [6] According to Niu, Saudi Arabia also accepted to end the diplomatic standoff as “a gift” for the Biden administration. The waters of the Gulf will remain stormy.

Beyond the Iranian nuclear issue and the intra-GCC tensions, it seems that there are different positions over what direction American foreign policy in the Middle East will take. In the December issue of the ChinaMed Observer, we found articles written by Chinese scholars that argued that Biden will not make significant efforts in the region. Instead, in January, Yang Wenjing–director of the Foreign Policy Office of the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR)’ Institute of American Studies–wrote in Globe that it is unlikely that the United States will decrease its presence in the region and there might even be an attempt to promote a regional agreement against nuclear proliferation bring in Iran, as well as other countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. [7] More interestingly, Yang also wrote that great power competition will remain one of the dominant themes of American foreign policy with Biden and, therefore, he expects this factor to become increasingly prominent not just in Asia, China’s home region, but in others like the Middle East and Europe as well. Others, like Fan Hongda, expressed a similar opinion in the past months.

However, Chinese analysts expect Russia to be the target of American policy in the Balkans, not China. As Serbia opened the so-called Balkan Stream pipeline, scholars like Li Mingli of CICIR and Ding Chun of Fudan University argue that competition between Russia and the United States is going to increase. [8] Furthermore, they believe that European countries will also decide to use that pipeline for their supplies of natural gas. Ding stated that “considering that Russia is a neighbor that cannot be removed, Europe is likely to break the ranks. From this episode, we can also see Europe's intention to further seek strategic autonomy." Surely, this, along with the conclusion of the negotiations over the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, is something that reinforces the narrative in China that Europeans have had enough of the Americans. As always, Chinese scholars made no reference at all to China’s role in that part of the Mediterranean region.

[1] Liu Zhongmin, Liú zhōngmín: Zhōngdōng dìyuán zhèngzhì shēngtài réng zài èhuà 刘中民:中东地缘政治生态仍在恶化 [Liu Zhongmin: The geopolitical situation in the Middle East continues to worsen], Global Times, January 21, 2021, link.

[2] Ding Long, Dīng lóng: Yī hé xiéyì yíng lái zhuàn jī? Bìngfēi yì shì 丁隆:伊核协议迎来转机?并非易事 [Ding Long: A turning point for the Iranian agreement? Not so easy], Global Times, January 22, 2021, link.

[3] Liu Cong and Liu Danyi, Miàn duì měiguó jíxiàn shī yā, yīlǎng “qí chūxiǎn zhāo” zhōngdōng hé wéijī qiánfú… 面对美国极限施压,伊朗“棋出险招” 中东核危机潜伏… [Facing extreme American pressure, Iran makes a dangerous move and the Middle East is on the verge of a nuclear crisis], China News, January 6, 2021, link.

[4] Wang Jin, Sū lái màn ní yùcì yī zhōunián, měi yī guānxì huǎnhé kùnnán chóngchóng 苏莱曼尼遇刺一周年,美伊关系缓和困难重重 [One year since the assassination of Soleimani, many obstacles remain for United States and Iran to improve their relations], January 4, 2021, link.

[5] Qian Xiaoyan, Pòbīng! Hǎiwān duànjiāo wéijī shǔguāng chū xiàn, shātè yǔ kǎtǎ'ěr chóngxiūjiùhǎo? 破冰!海湾断交危机曙光初现,沙特与卡塔尔重修旧好? [Breakthrough! There is light at the end of the tunnel of the Gulf diplomatic crisis, did Saudi Arabia and Qatar bury the hatchet?], China Business Network, January 5, 2021, link.

[6] Li Lei, Hǎi hé huì fēnghuì kāimù, hǎiwān duànjiāo fēngbō xiàn zhuǎnjī 海合会峰会开幕,海湾断交风波现转机 [The GCC summit begins, the diplomatic turmoil in the Gulf comes to an end], Liberation Daily, January 6, 2021, link.  

[7] Yang Wenjing, Bài dēng de wàijiāo yìchéng yǔ héxīn guānqiè 拜登的外交议程与核心关切 [Biden's diplomatic agenda and core concerns], Globe, January 22, 2021, link.

[8] Yan Yu, Tiānránqì zhī zhēng, ōuzhōu méi mǎi měiguó de zhàng 天然气之争,欧洲没买美国的账 [In the battle for the natural gas, Europe does not obey to the United States ], People’s Daily, January 9, 2021, 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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