July 2018

China looks at the Mediterranean Region
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Unsurprisingly, the 8th ministerial conference of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum (CASCF) and the 7th Summit of Heads of Government of the CEEC and China (also known as the “16+1 Summit”) received wide coverage in the Chinese media. These high-profile meetings included Chinese leaders and diplomats, notably State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi. At the same time, some extremely interesting news concerning both Algeria and Iran also appeared in the Chinese media.

The People’s Daily reported the main points of Xi Jinping’s CASCF speech, which revolved around the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Strategic mutual trust (friendly negotiations, respect of sovereignty, reconciliation, and fight against terrorism) and cooperation on economic development, specifically the loan of USD 20 billion offered via the “Plan for economic reconstruction through industrial revitalization” and the “1+2+3” cooperation model, were the main themes of Xi’s speech. In addition to Xi Jinping, Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi were both present at the meeting. Between July 9 and July 11, Wang Yi held bilateral meetings with the ministers of almost all the countries attending the Forum. As a result, Memorandums of Understanding (MoU) were signed with Bahrain, Libya, and Tunisia to strengthen the cooperation within the framework of the BRI. Commenting on the Forum, Wang Meng, a Researcher at China’s Northwest University, called for China to build a security and consultation mechanism aimed at furthering its strategy and interests, and provide a solution to the multiple crises in the region. However, he argued that it is important for China to succeed in convincing its regional partners that development (through the BRI) is the only permanent and effective way to bring stability. Sun Degang, another scholar from Shanghai International Studies University, described China as the “promoter of peace and security in the Middle East,” “protector of the core interests of the countries in the Middle East,” and “promoter of economic development in the Middle East.” Sun presents China’s current aid to Syria, Yemen, and Palestine as a way of paying back the Middle Eastern region for the help China received from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Oman, and other countries in 2008 following the aftermath of the Wenchuan earthquake.

During his speech at the Opening Ceremony of the Seventh World Peace Forum held and Qinghua University, Yang Jiechi mentioned China’s engagement in both the Iranian nuclear deal and in the Syrian crisis as specific examples of how it is contributing to international security. His response reflects growing interests towards security issues in the Middle East and was also possibly inspired by his meetings with regional leaders during the CASCF. North Korea was also mentioned in the speech. Although it is not certain whether the emphasis on the Middle East was intentional or not, there is little doubt that this region is increasingly becoming a testing ground for Chinese diplomacy.

The same optimistic, yet vague rhetoric was used to describe Xi Jinping’s two-day visit to the UAE, the first stop on his tour to the Middle East and Africa in late-July. Key figures of Chinese BRI-related policymaking, such as Wang Yi, He Lifeng, and Wang Yanzhi, as well as top managers of Chinese state-owned companies traveled alongside him. Ni Jian, China’s current ambassador to Dubai, noted that Xi’s visit takes place 29 years since a Chinese head of state last visited the UAE, underlining the renewed importance of the country to Chinese diplomacy. According to the ambassador, this marks the strongest point in history for the relations between China and the Middle East. During the visit, the Chinese and Emirati leadership announced the upgrade of bilateral relations into a “comprehensive strategic partnership” encompassing a number of items in the economic, military, education, energy, diplomatic, people-to-people, technology, and political realms. A more in-depth summary of the partnership has been published by the Emirati MFA. The leaders of the two countries also signed more specific MoUs and cooperation agreements. Unsurprisingly, there was no mention of the increasingly contentious issue between the Emirati DP World and several Chinese companies, most notably the China Merchants Group, over the management of the Doraleh Container Terminal in Djibouti.

Regarding the other important diplomatic event, the “16+1 Summit” held in Sofia during the first week of July, Wang Li, a researcher for CICIR, wrote that the Summit has become “an important bridge for the BRI to reach and penetrate Europe.” According to him, the Summit should not only maintain its strong emphasis on economic cooperation and people-to-people exchanges, but should also become more “open” by encouraging Balkan countries to join the European Union (EU). Interestingly, Wang also noted that the development of the “16+1 Summit” offers a number of lessons “for China's cooperation with sub-regions such as Southern Europe and Northern Europe.” From that perspective, accession of the Balkan countries would allow China to strengthen its cooperation with the EU, and in turn, economic cooperation with China would make it easier for the Balkan countries to reach the level of development necessary to join the EU. In late-July, the China-Serbia Business Association was established in Belgrade with the support of six founding members (China Road and Bridge Corporation, Huawei, China Machinery, Hesteel Group, Shandong Expressway Company, and YTO Group). Serbia is described as a model of BRI-related cooperation in Wang’s article and, tellingly, this is the first business association in the Balkan Peninsula whose leading members are Chinese private and state-owned companies. The Chinese ambassador to Serbia and the Serbian Minister of Finance attended the opening ceremony.

In addition to these high-level events, Chinese media also reported on the protest of Chinese employees of GAEA China Construction Limited Company in Algeria in response to the delay of payment of their wages. GAEA requested numerous times that Chaabane Belazzoug, a local real estate promoter and developer, pay the USD 1,6 million that was promised for the construction of two residential towers, a hotel and several villas in Oran. Chinese workers were photographed with banners and filmed calling President Abdelaziz Bouteflika for help. This incident occurred only a month after a Chinese citizen was killed in Algeria. As reported in the previous issues of the ChinaMed Bulletin, Algerian media have long been critical of the government’s approach to Chinese investments and workers in the country. According to Guancha Syndicate, similar incidents are common occurrences among Chinese workers in Algeria. However, since most of them travel to the North African country through agencies and companies that are not legally authorized to do so, it is usually very difficult for them to defend their rights. Algeria contains the largest number of Chinese workers in the MENA region, and there is no doubt that Algeria is becoming an important testing ground for the implementation of the BRI in the region.

Yet, not everything is bleak for Chinese citizens in the region. On the other side of the Mediterranean Sea, in Greece, members of the Chinese community and tourists alike have joined local aid workers in response to wildfires that have killed 91 people (at the time of writing). Some started to collect money through WeChat, while others donated blood.

In other news, the Xinmin Evening News reported on the “Seaborne Assault” exercise, a part of the Russian-organized 2018 International Army Games. This exercise was hosted by the Chinese navy for the first time. Although it was held in Quanzhou, this exercise is important because it brought together Chinese, Iranian, Sudanese, Russian, and Venezuelan troops to simulate an amphibious assault. The number of soldiers was limited to thirty per country, but it further shows how China can use Russia-led institutions to strengthen its ties with key partners like Iran, who has also been an Observer in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization since 2005, and whose accession in the same Organization would have significant implications for China’s diplomacy in the Middle East.  

Finally, both the Global Times and People’s Daily focused coverage on Djibouti. Special economic zones have long been identified as the platform par excellence for Chinese companies to invest and operate abroad and Djibouti just opened a new one, thereby “writing a new chapter in the history of China-Djibouti and China-Africa Cooperation.” While the General Manager of the China Merchants Group in the free trade zone stated that this new project will strengthen Djibouti’s position within the BRI context, CASS Zhang Yongpeng argued that the opening of the trade zone should be regarded as another step toward the consolidation of a market-oriented approach towards Africa. Li Dan, a Professor at the China Foreign Affairs University, noted that indeed it is necessary to promote long-term development to help Djibouti in this specific case and Africa more in general. Currently, he said, the persistent instability in the region is a major obstacle to this plan. According to the journalist of the Global Times that visited Djibouti in mid-July, the living conditions in the East African country remain difficult, while development there has only begun to develop during the last five years, as a result of Chinese investment. As of December 2017, there were 20 Chinese companies and some 2000 Chinese citizens operating in Djibouti. They will become increasingly important for the country because, as declared by a Chinese businessman interviewed by the Global Times, the local economy needs to develop in a healthy way. Previously, the government had relied solely on revenue coming from renting land to foreign countries for their military bases. Yet, the article also notes local political instability caused by the presence of various foreign militaries as another potential obstacle for this transition.

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