January 2022

The Mediterranean Region looks at China
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The first half of January saw the visit to Beijing of the foreign ministers of Oman, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain and the Secretary-General of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Iran’s foreign minister Amir-Abdollahian, and his Turkish counterpart Cavusoglu, while Wang Yi was busy in a trip to three African countries (Kenya, Eritrea, and Comoros), all in the turn of a few weeks. These intense diplomatic exchanges caused media outlets throughout the region to focus once again on the impact of the Chinese presence, as well as the ongoing tensions among the great powers.

Egyptian journalist Ibrahim Nawar wrote for pan-Arab newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi that the intensity of Chinese diplomacy with the GCC countries may hint at “a historic change in the geopolitical balances that govern the relations of the countries of the region with each other and with the world.” [1] According to Nawar, especially in light of an alleged decreased American influence, many Middle Eastern countries look at China as an alternative powerful-but-fair partner, with whom they can develop not only economic and industrial but also political cooperation as Beijing could play an important role in “improving neighborly relations with Iran, in addition to settling the Palestinian issue.”

Bahraini writer Wafa al-Am shares similar views on this topic. However, she also pointed out that if the GGC countries decide to strengthen their energy relations with China, some contradictions with Washington may arise. [2] Citing Saudi researcher Ali Al-Khishaiban, al-Am suggested that, the Gulf would be able to reap some benefit from the so-called “Cold War” between the two superpowers by remaining a “neutral zone” in the conflict.

The need to strike a balance in the country’s relations with both the United States and China is also a major concern for Israel. This has become particularly evident as January 24 marked the 30th anniversary of the establishment of Sino-Israeli relations, which this year also coincided with the fifth convention of the Israel-China Joint Committee on Innovation Cooperation, an initiative of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, founded in 2014, to build a senior government-to-government mechanism between the two countries. During the convention the two sides agreed on a cooperation plan lasting until 2024. However, a senior Israeli official affirmed to Walla that the convention was preceded by a meeting between the State Departments of Israel and the United States, in order “to maintain transparency with the Biden administration, which is extremely sensitive when it comes to Chinese penetration of the Israeli economy.” [3] The source also stated that the government in Jerusalem will have to decide “whether to choose a side in the rivalry between the United States and China, or to continue trying to balance relations between them so as not to harm trade with the Chinese.” Oded Eran, a senior researcher with the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, suggested that American pressure mays not only undermine economic cooperation with China. Instead, it is possible that China will react by ramping up its support for anti-Israeli voices in international fora, although it has never taken practical steps against Israel. [4]

Another development that has made much noise is the announcement by Iran’s Foreign Minister of the implementation of the renowned “Iran-China 25-year joint comprehensive partnership document.” [5] Although no details have yet been published on the content and extent of the document, many commentators in Iran seem to be more excited about this news than about the development of the nuclear talks in Vienna. For example, the conservative newspaper Keyhan suggested that the implementation of this document may be a more useful tool for the Iranian economy than the revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. They believe that it would give Iran the opportunity to circumvent Western sanctions and, therefore, obtain more bargaining power in the international arena. [6] The importance of Tehran’s partnership with China and Russia was also highlighted by Iran, the Iranian government’s official daily newspaper, in its assessment of the third Iran-Russia-China joint military naval drill in the Strait of Hormoz. According to the newspaper, the 2022 Marine Security Belt exercise should be read as part of the deepening of the military cooperation between Iran, Russia and China, as well as a show of strength by “an effective coalition to curb the interventionist power of the United States and their partners.” [7]

However, it must be noted that there are also more moderate voices, calling for a more cautious assessment of China’s actual influence. The former deputy Foreign Minister Rahimpour emphasized in an interview with Etemad that China is likely to pursue a stronger role in the region by adopting more active and multilateral approaches, such as posing as a mediator among the numerous conflicting parties, as exemplified by this month diplomatic visits in Beijing. [8] At the same time, Rahimpour warned against relying exclusively on China, especially through the 25-year cooperation document, which he does not considered to be as effective in practice as it is claimed. Instead, Iran should work toward building a network of partnerships with different actors, just like China and other regional countries are doing.

While other countries were generally satisfied with the meeting in Beijing, that is not the case for Turkey. Indeed, Turkish newspaper Medyascope complained that the meeting between Cavusoglu and Xi Jinping was marked by a heated discussion over the situation in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, which led to the exclusion of Ankara from “China's Middle East/Eastern Mediterranean vision.” This, according to the newspaper, is illustrated by the fact that the main Chinese projects in the region, especially with regard to logistics, have been allocated to Greece and Israel. [9] There have already been similar allegations in the past from both Ankara and Athens, showing concern over Beijing’s preferences.

Against this background it is interesting to note that in an online discussion organized by the Institute for International Economic Relations (IIER), several speakers, including Anna Diamantopoulou, President of the Network for Reform in Greece and Europe, and Plamen Tonchev, Head of the Department of Asian Studies at IIER, expressed unfavorable opinions about Chinese investments in the country and Cosco’s administration of the Piraeus Port Authority (PPA). [10] Tonchev stressed that, if it is true that the PPA’s capacity has hugely increased from 700,000 containers in 2008 to 5.5 million in 2021, these figures only benefit the Chinese partner. Diamantopoulou mentioned that, although Cosco’s investment could be some-what profitable, the official statistics provided by the company should not be trusted. Moreover, she pointed out that “China does not have the technology, nor the know-how, to create added value in the host country and consequently to have a win-win situation for both sides.” Diamantopoulou thus suggested that, in case of American pressures to end or limit the relationships with Cosco and the Chinese government, Greece should reconsider its national interest in the long run, and keep a united front with the European Union. In this context, NEA interestingly reported that the Thessaloniki Port Authority is trying to reach a cooperation agreement with the Suez Canal Economic Zone to enhance trade between Greece and Egypt, and between Africa, Asia and Europe, thereby bypassing the Piraeus. [11]

The rivalry between the United States and China is expanding to the Horn of Africa. Sky News Arabia reported the observations of two researchers on the complexity of the situation. [12] For his part, the coordinator of research on Africa at the Institute of Future Studies in Beirut, Mohamed Abdel Karim Ahmed, believes that Washington's strategy is witnessing radical changes, and will focus more on issues like the Ethiopian conflict. The researcher stated that the new Chinese envoy for the Horn of Africa will have to coordinate primarily with Kenia, and hypothesized a scenario of “concerted efforts between the two superpowers” to solve the crisis. On the other hand, the Sudanese researcher of Afro-Asian and Chinese studies Mona Abdel-Fattah argued that the possible gradual American withdrawal from Africa, which started during the Trump administration, will give new impetus to the Chinese expansion, supported by Moscow.

China’s presence in Africa continues to be of great concern for Europeans. In an interview with Le Monde, Jean-Pierre Cabestan, research director at the National Centre for Scientific Research, stated that “Beijing is trying to rally the continent to its cause” through scholarships and party-to-party relations aimed at cultivating a class of Sinophile African elites. [13] Bilateral military cooperation based on training and delivery of equipment is also an important part of those efforts. According to the scholar, China would gain African diplomatic support in the international arena and lead a “coalition of the South” against the North. At the same time, following the example of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, Spanish Defense Minister Margarita Robles expressed her concern over a possible European retreat from the two hotspots of Mali and Ukraine. The minister especially feared that the “danger” created by a European exit from Mali, which would leave “the doors open to China and Russia to extend their influence over the area.” [14]

We conclude this issue of the ChinaMed observer with the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the Syrian government and the Chinese Ambassador Feng Biao on Syria’s joining of the Belt and road Initiative. The head of Syria’s Planning and International Cooperation Commission, Fadi Al-Khalil, pointed out that a set of proposals was presented that would contribute to the process of economic development through the participation of Chinese companies in the reconstruction phase, as well as overcoming of the unilateral coercive sanctions imposed on Syria. Another journalist considered this agreement “a shift from the current reality of limited economic cooperation with China to a systematic advance toward the strategic partnership between the two countries in the economic field.” [15] However, the Lebanese news agency al-Modon stressed that the signing of this agreement “does not mean that there will be significant gains in the short and medium term because Beijing has not yet begun to implement” it. [16]

[1] Ibrahim Nawar, Mawsim al-hajj al-siyasi ila al-Sin: al-Sharq al-Awsat yabhathu ʿan mustaqbal jadid baʿidan ʿan al-haymanat al-amrikiya موسم الحج السياسي إلى الصين: الشرق الأوسط يبحث عن مستقبل جديد بعيدا عن الهيمنة الأمريكية [The season of political pilgrimage to China: The Middle East is talking about a new future far from American hegemony], al-Quds al-Arabi, January 18, 2022, link.

[2] Wafa al-ʿAm, Al-Sin wa-l-Khalij wa-mazid min al-tashbik الصين والخليج ومزيد من التشبيك [China, the Gulf and more networking], al-Mayadeen, January 16, 2022, link.

[3] Barak Ravid,  Beshel haregishot hamedinit: israel tiaamaa im arhab kium pisga calcalit im sin בשל הרגישות המדינית: ישראל תיאמה עם ארה"ב קיום פסגה כלכלית עם סין [Due to political sensitivity: Israel has coordinated with the US the existence of an economic summit with China], Walla, January 24, 2022, link.

[4] Oded Eran, 30 sana lekinon hayachasim bin Israel lesin: elu haetgarim shnitzavim bakesher bin hamedinot  האתגרים שניצבים בקשר בין שתי המדינות 30 שנה לכינון היחסים בין ישראל וסין: אלו  [30 years since the establishment of the relations between Israel and China: These are the challenges facing the relationship between the two countries], Maariv, January 24, 2022, link.

[5] Tavafoq-e 25-sale ba Cin az emruz ejrayi mishavad توافق ۲۵ ساله با چین از امروز اجرایی می‌شود [The 25-year agreement with China will be implemented starting from today], IRNA, January 14, 2022, link.

[6] Peyamadha-ye rahbardi-e aghaz-e ajra-ye sanad-e 25-sale-ye Iran va Cin پیامدهای راهبردی آغاز اجرای سند ۲۵ ساله ایران و چین [The strategic consequences of the implementation of the Iran-China 25-year document], Keyhan, January 20, 2022, link.

[7] Mosallas-e mohar-e Amrika مثلث مهار امریکا [The America-restraining triangle], Iran, January 24, 2022, link.

[8] Shahab Shahsavari, Ebrahim Rahimpur, moʿaven-e pishin-e vazir-khareje dar goft-o-gu ba Etemad: Cin be khater-e ma isar nemikonad ابراهیم رحیم پور، معاون پیشین وزیر خارجه در گفت و گو با «اعتماد»: چین به خاطر ما ایثار نمی کند [Ebrahim Rahimpur, former Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs, in an interview with Etemad: China will not make sacrifices for our sake], Etemad, January 13, 2022, link.

[9] Türkiye Çin’in Ortadoğu ve Doğu Akdeniz planlarından dışlandı [Turkey excluded from China's Middle Eastern and Eastern Mediterranean plans], Medyascope, January 20, 2022, link.

[10] I Kina den katesti sotiras tis ellinikis oikonomias, I simasia tis ependisis tis Cosco Η Κίνα δεν κατέστη «σωτήρας» της ελληνικής οικονομίας, η σημασία της επένδυσης της Cosco [China has not become the “saviour” of the Greek economy – The importance of Cosco’s investment], metaforespress.gr, February 8, 2022, link.

[11] Lampros Karageorgos, Skliro-poker-metaksy-ipa-kinas-sti-v-ellada Σκληρό πόκερ μεταξύ ΗΠΑ – Κίνας στη Β. Ελλάδα [Struggle between USA and China in Northern Greece], in.gr, February 6, 2022, link.

[12] Sira‘ bayn al-sin wa rusia wa ’amirka.. al-qarn al-’ifriqi "bu’ra sakhina" صراع بين الصين وروسيا وأميركا.. القرن الإفريقي "بؤرة ساخنة" [A conflict between China, Russia and the United States... the Horn of Africa is a "hot spot"], Khbrak, January 10, 2022, link.

[13] Frédéric Bobin,  L’Afrique entre dans une stratégie chinoises d’encerclement du Nord par le Sud [Africa becomes part of the Chinese strategy to encircle the North from the South], Le Monde, January 12, 2022, link.

[14] Fernando Làzaro, Margarita Robles alerta del 'síndrome Afganistán' y del fracaso de abandonar Mali y abrir las puertas a Rusia y China [Margarita Robles warns against the 'Afghanistan syndrome', and the failure to leave Mali and open the doors to Russia and China], El Mundo, January 18, 2022, link.

[15] Muhannad Soleyman, Mudhakkirat tafahum bayna Surya wa-l-Sinfi itar mubadirat al-hizam al-iqtisadiya li-tariq al-harir مذكرة تفاهم بين سورية والصين في إطار مبادرة الحزام الاقتصادي لطريق الحرير [Memorandum of understanding between Syria and China in the framework of the Silk Road economic belt], SANA, January 12, 2022, link.

[16] Mustafa Mohammad, Al-Assad fi mubadirat al-Hizam wa-l-Tariq… al-Sin abʿad mimma tabdu الأسد في مبادرة "الحزام والطريق"..الصين أبعد مما تبدو [Assad and the Belt and Road Initiative…China not as close as it seems], al-Modon, January 13, 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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