January 2022

China looks at the Mediterranean Region
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In early January, China hosted the foreign ministers of six Middle Eastern countries – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Iran, and Turkey – and the secretary general of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Unsurprisingly, this series of diplomatic visits was at the center of Chinese commentaries in January. Other important issues that were covered by Chinese media include the 30th anniversary of the establishment of relations between China and Israel, as well as Somaliland’s contacts with Taiwan.

“China's diplomacy in East Africa, the Middle East and the Indian Ocean has started the New Year with a bang!” wrote Zhou Rong, a senior scholar at Renmin University’s Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies. [1] Unsurprisingly, Chinese commentators showed great enthusiasm for what Shanghai International Studies University’s (SISU) Niu Song called the “Middle East week.” [2] Writing for the Xinmin Evening News, Niu makes a number of interesting comments. To begin, China’s goal for these meetings is twofold. In the short term, the visits are part of the efforts to build diplomatic support for the Beijing Winter Olympics. In the long run, China wants to preserve and strengthen the momentum created by Minister Wang Yi’s trip to Africa in early January to show the priority that it attaches to those two regions. In doing so, it is building relations with those “pivot countries” that that are seen as playing a crucial role in protecting and expanding Chinese interests. In other words, the countries that sent their ministers to Beijing are those that China perceives as being the most powerful and useful in the Middle East. Secondly, Niu argues that these visits are a demonstration of the increasing level of maturity of China’s Middle East diplomacy, as well as an indicator of the broader trends in the region as economic development, rather than security competition, is becoming the main priority for its countries. Liu Zhongmin made the same point. [3] Such an assessment is not new among Chinese experts, as we have reported in the past. Naturally, this also reflects the success of China’s own political and economic model, as the Global Times promptly celebrated in two articles made of select quotes from a number of foreign experts. [4] It is particularly interesting to read the assessment made by Niu Xinchun, a senior scholar at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, who is usually very pragmatic and cautious in his comments. According to him, what is happening does not reflect only China’s growing importance as an energy market and economic partner for the region, but, also more broadly, a transition of power. [5] According to him, “China's Middle East policy faces unprecedented opportunities.”

However, both Liu and Ding Long, another scholar based at SISU, argue that the smooth development of Sino-Middle Eastern ties faces challenges. According to Liu, the most important one is growing American pressure on countries in the region to limit their cooperation with China, though he argues that China has neither an interest in nor an intention to fill the power vacuum created by the American disengagement from the region. [6] Ding, instead, points to the low level of institutionalization of the cooperation between China and the region, as well exemplified by the continuous delays in the negotiations over a China-GCC free trade agreement. [7] Ding, however, did not make any prediction about if and when the agreement will finally be concluded.

To a large extent, the comments on the status of Sino-Israeli relations on the 30th anniversary of their establishment reflect a similar understanding of the situation. Chinese commentators, such as the Shanghai Institute of International Studies’ Li Weijian, do not expect Israel to give up its special relationship with the United States but, at the same time, they appear sure about Israel’s willingness to preserve and expand cooperation with China. [8] Israel, thus, is in a similar position to other countries in the region: it has to manage the concerns of the United States while pursing its real interests, which lie in stronger relations with China. Once again, this narrative was strengthened by the Global Times publishing excerpts from Israeli media complaining about the United States. [9]

That said, sometimes things go wrong. This is the case with respect to contacts between the authorities in Somaliland and those in Taiwan. According to He Wenping, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who was interviewed by the Global Times on this issue, Somaliland is trying to use the competition between China and the United States to increase its chance of receiving international recognition. [10] In this context it is important to mention that Robert C. O’Brien, Donald Trump’s Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, wrote an article in The National Interest calling for American support for Somaliland against the expansion of Chinese influence in Africa. In any case, He does not believe that much will happen between Somaliland and the United States.

Against this background, Liu Zhongming published three very long pieces in The Paper on democratization in the Middle East and North Africa since the Arab Spring. [11] While these three pieces are largely descriptive and summarize the role of the military, identity politics, and religion in the development of political institutions in the region, Liu concludes that democracy is the future of the region. However, he also points out, it will not be Western-style democracy but a local variant, influenced by religion and local history. Other Chinese experts made similar comments, for example, while discussing the situation in Sudan, and arguing that the era of military dictatorships is over. However, none of them has so far clarified what democratic institutions in the region should look like, and how they should influence regional politics.

[1] Zhou Rong, Xīnnián yīshǐ, zhōngguó de zhōngdōng wàijiāo qǔdé kāiménhóng 新年伊始,中国的中东外交取得开门红 [At the beginning of the new year, China's Middle East diplomacy got off to a good start], China.com, January 14, 2022, link.

[2] Zhōngguó wàijiāo “zhōngdōng zhōu” jùyǒu shēnyuǎn yìyì 中国外交“中东周”具有深远意义 [China’s diplomatic “Middle East week” has an important meaning], Xinmin Evening News, January 20, 2022, link.

[3] Yu Xiaoyan, Zhōngdōng liù guówài zhǎng mìjí fǎng huá, tòulù chū nǎxiē xìnxī? 中东六国外长密集访华,透露出哪些信息? [The foreign ministers of six Middle Eastern countries visit China, what does it mean?], The Paper, January 15, 2022, link.

[4] Zhōngdōng júshì, zhèngzài fāshēng shēnkè biànhuà? 中东局势,正在发生深刻变化?[The trends in the Middle East, is the situation undergoing profound changes?], Global Times, January 21, 2022, link; Hǎiwān sìguó wàizhǎng hǎnjiàn “jíyuē shì” fǎng huá, ālābó méitǐ: Tūxiǎn duì zhōngguó gāodù zhòngshì 海湾四国外长罕见“集约式”访华,阿拉伯媒体:凸显对中国高度重视 [The foreign minister of four Middle Eastern countries “intensively” visit China. Arab media: highlighting the great importance they attach to China], Global Times, January 10, 2022, link.

[5] Niu Xinchun, Quánqiú néngyuán zhuǎnxíng jiāsù “dōngshēng xī jiàng” 全球能源转型加速“东升西降” [The global energy transition speeds up the “rise of the East and decline of the West], Global Times, January 18, 2022, link.

[6] Liu Zhongmin, Yī kāi nián zhōngguó zhōngdōng wàijiāo hěn rènào, dàn yě miànlín tiǎozhàn 一开年中国中东外交很热闹,但也面临挑战 [China’s Middle East diplomacy is very active as the new year begins but there are also challenges], The Paper, January 18, 2022, link.

[7] Ding Long, 丁隆:海湾国家组团访华意味着什么 [What does the group visit of Gulf countries officials to China mean?], Global Times, January 11, 2022, link.

[8] Li Weijian, Wàibù yīnsù wúfǎ zǔnáo zhōng yǐ guānxì de chíxù jiànkāng fāzhǎn 外部因素无法阻挠中以关系的持续健康发展 [External factors cannot hinder the sustainable and healthy development of China-Israel relations], China.com, January 30, 2022, link.

[9] Zuǒyòu wéinán? Yǐ méi: Yǐsèliè tóngyì xiàng měi tōngbào duì huá màoyì zuìxīn qíngkuàng 左右为难?以媒:以色列同意向美通报对华贸易最新情况 [A dilemma? Israel agrees to inform the United States about the status of economic relations with China], Global Times, January 4, 2022, link.

[10] Li Xue and Wang Yi, 索马里兰妄助美制衡中国,专家:想打“美国牌”,但实际反将了美国一军 [Somaliland vainly support the United States in containing China. Expert: They want to play the “American card” but they have become an American pawn], Global Times, January 17, 2022, link.

[11] Liu Zhongmin, “Ālābó zhī chūn” fǎnsī zhī yī: Yīsīlán zhǔyì yǔ zhōngdōng mínzhǔ huà  “阿拉伯之春”反思之一:伊斯兰主义与中东民主化 [Reflections on the "Arab Spring", Part 1: Islamism and democratization in the Middle East], The Paper, January 6, 2022, link; Liu Zhongmin, “Ālābó zhī chūn” fǎnsī zhī èr: Jūnrén gānzhèng yǔ zhōngdōng mínzhǔ huà  “阿拉伯之春”反思之二:军人干政与中东民主化 [Reflections on the "Arab Spring", Part 2: Military political intervention and democratization in the Middle East], The Paper, January 7, 2022, link; Liu Zhongmin, “Ālābó zhī chūn” fǎnsī zhī sān: Shēnfèn zhèngzhì yǔ zhōngdōng mínzhǔ huà  “阿拉伯之春”反思之三:身份政治与中东民主化 [Reflections on the "Arab Spring", Part 3: Identity politics and democratization in the Middle East], The Paper, January 7, 2022, 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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