January 2021

The Mediterranean Region looks at China
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This month, the search through media outlets in the wider Mediterranean region brought forth some interesting insights on the recent developments of China’s economic engagement in the area and its increasing position as an international power.

The China-Central Asia-Western Asia Economic Corridor of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), also known as the “middle corridor,” is at the center of the debate in Turkey and Iran. Commenting on the newly established railway connection between Turkey and China and the increased rail cargo transit during the coronavirus pandemic, a journalist of the Turkish newspaper Vira Haber states that, “Turkey's economic recovery will improve thanks to growing exports to China via railway connection, […][the] newly opened Turkey-China corridor will increase the volume of transit cargo in our country while reducing the congestion experienced in the North Corridor.” [1] Similarly, Soner Esmer, a professor at the Iskenderun Technical University, points out that the enhancement of Sino-Turkish logistic cooperation will not only reduce the time of transit along the “middle corridor” on the Köseköy-Xi’an railway connection, but it could also help integrate the maritime and land routes of China’s BRI, thereby providing Turkey with important opportunities to improve its logistical network and the economic recovery. [2] 

On the other hand, Iranian media and experts address the challenges Iran faces in taking advantage of the opportunities created by the China-Central Asia-Western Asia Economic Corridor. In this regard, Fereydoun Vardinejad, Abolfazl Alamayifar, and Mohsen Shariatinia agree on the crucial role of a future revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in easing Iran’s economic isolation, creating a more favorable environment for Chinese investments and, therefore, benefitting from the trade exchanges along the BRI’s “middle corridor.” [3] As Shariatinia points out, “Iran can be one of the most important winners of the implementation of the Silk Road megaproject, with an increase of our country’s export by 12%.” [4] However, the reformist newspaper Etemad suggests that, in order to regain economic sovereignty and access to global markets–and to benefit from a stable cooperation with China–in the form of the renowned 25-year cooperation plan, Iran also needs to adhere to FATF directions, open a peaceful diplomatic channel with powers like the United States and the European Union, and increase the role of tourism, and other non-oil based industries, in its economy. [5]

Meanwhile, Greek media continues to be critical vis-à-vis Chinese influence in the country. This is manifested in the recent confrontations between the Greek government and the Chinese company COSCO over the Piraeus Port, as reported by Kathimerini. [6] The two sides may have to recur to resolve their differences in court. COSCO requested the return of 16% of the share capital of the Piraeus Port Authority that had to be transferred as part of the concession agreement with the Greek side at the completion of the binding investments. However, it seems that, from 2016 until mid-2019, the Greek government issued very few of the necessary permits for COSCO to launch all binding investments. According to the Greek newspaper, the origin of this problem can be found in the fact that the new government has been reluctant to approve new investments, possibly because it is looking to sign a better agreement for Greece and the local communities to avoid clashes with the workers’ associations, who meet Cosco’s expansion with caution or even open hostility. This is happening despite the fact that the government accepted COSCO’s plan upon its election in 2019. This seems to be only one front of the confrontations between the Greek State and the Chinese companies, as there have been other clashes regarding the construction of a shipyard and a cruise pier, and the management of the digitalization of containers documents. Kathimerini suggests that, from a geopolitical perspective, the tensions over the Piraeus Port might be due to “the declared great opposition of the American side, as well as from several European capitals, to any further expansion of Chinese presence in Europe.” The Greek port is seen as the main vector of China’s economic influence in the country and Europe through the maritime Silk Road.

Finally, the Emirates Policy Center published a thorough assessment of the amendments to Chinese National Defense Law that entered into force on January 1, 2021. [7] Although the details remain rather vague, Marwan Fayz Farahat argues that this is a “remarkable development,” as it allows China to play security roles outside its borders. Moreover, against the background of continuous tensions between the Chinese government and the Trump administration, and just before the arrival of the new Biden administration to the White House, it sends a clear message about the role China intends to play on the international stage. However, as China’s popularity among developing countries relies on its policy of non-interference, these amendments may alter these countries’ perception of the Chinese presence. It should be noted, though, that because of its increased role and presence in the global economy, China might want to better defend its interests and citizens abroad, especially within the framework of the BRI. At the same time, “many elements indicate that China has already moved away from the principle of non-interference.” For example, it is heavily “involved in the approval and implementation of UN peace-keeping missions” and has launched multilateral security mechanisms with neighboring countries like Tajikistan, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Moreover, in 2018, China established its first military base in Djibouti, which is located in a strategic position along the maritime Silk Road that connects the Suez Canal and the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean and, according to estimates, whose debt to China makes for almost 70% of its total external debt. [8] China claims that the base is a logistic hub for anti-piracy and rescue operations, but its real purpose remains to be seen, wrote the authors of the report. It is possible “that China, which hold stakes in many important ports around the world, will use them to protect its maritime trade.” In this regard, it should be noted that the Yemeni government has recently submitted an offer to the Chinese Ambassador to Yemen, Kang Yong, for the management of the Port of Aden, thereby implying the cancellation of the previous contract with the Emirati DP World. [9] This development takes place after the first deal between the Yemeni government and the Emirati company was cancelled in 2012 and DP World returned to operate in the Port of Aden in 2015.

[1] Çin’e giden ihracat treninin Türkiye için önemi ne? [What is the importance for Turkey of export trains to China?], Vira Haber, January 11, 2021, link.

[2] Soner Esmer, Kuşak ve Yol Girişimi Türkiye için ne fırsatlar yaratıyor? [Belt and Road Initiative creates opportunities for Turkey], Dunya Gazetesi, January 14, 2021, link.

[3] Dar neshast-e estratezhi-ye cerkhe-ye dogune-ye Cin 2025 matrah shod: jaygah-e iran dar tarh-e kamarband-rah در نشست استراتژی چرخه دوگانه چین ۲۰۲۵ مطرح شد: جایگاه ایران در طرح کمربند-راه [During the meeting “China’s Dual-Circulation Strategy 2025”, Iran’s position in the BRI was discussed], Donya-ye Eqtesad, January 16, 2021, link.

[4] Cera ahya-e koridor-e rah-e abrisham-e Cin ke az Iran migozarad, ba rafʿ-e tahrimha va tasvib-e FATF niyaz darad? Mohsen Shariatinia karshenas-e masaʾel-e Cin pasokh midehad چرا احیا کریدور راه ابریشم چین که از ایران می گذرد، به رفع تحریم ها و تصویب FATF نیاز دارد؟ / محسن شریعتی نیا کارشناس مسائل چین پاسخ می دهد [Why does reviving the Chinese Silk Road corridor passing through Iran need the lifting of sanctions and the approval of the FATF?/ Mohsen Shariatinia, an expert on Chinese affairs, answers], Entekhab, January 5, 2021, link.

[5] Ehsan Shams, Shir va ezhdeha شیر و اژدها [The lion and the dragon], Etemad, January 13, 2021, https://www.magiran.com/article/4138586

[6] Ilias Mpellos, Ta anoihta metopa tou dimosiou me tin Cosco Τα ανοικτά μέτωπα του Δημοσίου με την Cosco [Open fronts between the State and Cosco], Kathimerini, February 1, 2021, link.

[7] Marwan Fayz Farahat,Tadaʿiyat taʿdil qanun al-difaʿ al-watani al-siniyy تداعيات تعديل قانون الدفاع الوطني الصيني [Implications of the Chinese National Defense Law Amendments], Emirates Policy Center, January 14, 2021, link.

[8] Alexandre Bodkine, À Djibouti, le rêve avorté du Singapour africain [Djibouti, the dismissed dream of an African Singapore],  Entreprendre.fr, January 13, 2021, link.

[9] Mawani’ dubai al-‘alamia tanhar ba‘d jibuti wa al-sumal: ’ittifaq bayn al-yaman wa al-sin ‘ala tashghil mina’ ‘adin موانئ دبي العالمية تنهار بعد جيبوتي والصومال : اتفاق بين اليمن والصين على تشغيل ميناء عدن [DP World collapses after Djibouti and Somalia: An agreement between Yemen and China to operate the port of Aden], Adenkbr News, January 11, 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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