July 2020

China looks at the Mediterranean Region
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This month, we found a number of very interesting articles pertaining to key events in the wider Mediterranean region that help us to better understand the Chinese point of view and approach towards this region. Turkish domestic and foreign policy received significant attention from Chinese scholars. The conflict in Libya, too, was at the center of a number of articles. As always, Chinese commentators also wrote about Iran—and this month we found another commentary on the frequently discussed 25-year cooperation agreement between Beijing and Tehran.  Finally, this month’s ChinaMed Observer also touches upon China’s approach towards the conflict in Syria and Sino-Saudi relations.

Hence, we start our review with an article penned by Zou Zhiqiang, an associate researcher at Shanghai International Studies University (SISU), regarding the decision made by the Turkish government to revert the Hagia Sophia to a mosque. [1] Reaffirming a theme that was common some time ago, Zou frames the issue of the Hagia Sophia as one related to Turkey’s changing national identity: increasingly less secular and ambitious in its efforts to become a leading power in the Islamic world. Zou argues that this transformation has been accelerated by the recent electoral difficulties met by Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party and the growing fragility of the Turkish economy. Religion and a clearly more muscular foreign policy are the solutions to these problems found by the Islamic conservative ruling elite, writes Zou. The impact of these changes is already evident. Sun Degang, a researcher at Fudan University, highlights the fact that the relations between Turkey and the European Union have continued to worsen recently. [2] Among the different reasons, the widening gap of values and Turkey’s strengthening of the bilateral relations with the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya are new important elements that further fuel European distrust toward Ankara. Moreover, Turkey’s foreign policy activism is seen as having greatly contributed to tensions in the entire Eastern Mediterranean region—where other different regional and extra-regional powers are also struggling to secure access to the energy reserves located there. [3]

In Libya, too, Turkey is among the many players that are competing for influence, thereby, according to Chinese observers, making it impossible to stop the conflict that has already been going on for almost ten years. Interviewed by The Paper, Zou Zhiqiang offers, again, an overview of the situation. [4] While Turkey is described as wanting to “rebuild the Ottoman empire,” Italy wants to reassert its colonial influence in the North African country. France is facing problems as it is the only European country supporting Haftar’s Libyan National Army. Meanwhile, as Turkey’s intervention to support the GNA continues to be successful, Egypt—another country with significant political and economic problems at home—is facing a mounting challenge in Libya. According to Zou, it is likely that a talk-and-fight situation will emerge. With the conflict in Libya clearly linked to the struggle in the Eastern Mediterranean, every party will continue to strengthen its position, thereby making it impossible to know when the conflict will be over. An article published by the People’s Daily offers a similar overview of the situation adding, at the very end, the four principles that China deems necessary for each contender to abide: 1) to implement a complete ceasefire; 2) to support a political solution as the only way to end the conflict; 3) to avoid Libya becoming a “breeding ground” for terrorist organizations; 4) to respect the principles and rules of the United Nations. [5]

While China is not significantly involved in Libya, the situation is extremely different in Iran. Yet, while Western media have emphasized the strategic and long-term position of the much-discussed 25-year cooperation agreement that China and Iran are reportedly discussing, one recent commentary written by Fan Hongda (originally published in Persian), a professor at the Middle East Studies Institute of SISU, reveals a much more uncertain situation. [6] The article is well worth reading. Fan’s core argument is that Iran and China are not ready to discuss a long-term cooperation plan because it would not solve the problems that have long plagued their relationship, i.e. external American pressure. What Fan suggests is that an honest discussion is necessary so that both sides can acquire an “objective understanding” of each other’s situation, avoiding misunderstandings and frustrations. Such misunderstandings and frustrations originate in the mutual fear that one will use the other as a pawn in their individual struggle with the United States. For example, Fan writes, Chinese officials, scholars, and media professionals are aware that Iran is looking to deepen relations with China now mostly after its attempt to restore relations with Europe failed due to the Trump’s administration decision to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). It is natural, therefore, that in China there are “doubts about Iran’s true intensions toward China.” Similarly, Fan admits that many in Iran fear that China will abandon Iran to improve the relations with the United States. Hence, “both Iran and China have said many times that they should focus on their bilateral relations, but just saying nothing will not help the development of the relationship between the two countries.” Fan’s suggestion is to boost the exchanges amongst scholars so that both countries will better understand each other’s intentions while they are both targets of American pressure.

From this point of view, Chinese scholars have been looking at Iranian domestic politics. Gu Zhenglong, a scholar affiliated with the Chinese Institute of International Studies, SISU, and Xinhua, noticed how the situation is heating up in Tehran as the 2021 elections get closer. [7] Gu points out how the so-called moderates are under growing pressure from the hardliners as any hope to revive the JCPOA disappears. Thus, he writes, old fears about a nuclear Iran are resurfacing and risk becoming reality. With China serving as the main foreign policy answer for the Iranian hardliners, this does not bode well for Beijing.

Meanwhile, as China and Saudi Arabia celebrate the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations, Li Zhaoxian, the Dean of the Arab Studies Department of Ningxia University, told Xinhua that “the mutual trust between China and Saudi Arabia continues to grow; China supports Saudi Arabia in playing an important and constructive role in the region.” [8] In the same article other senior scholars and China’s ambassador to Riyadh greatly emphasized the strong relations between the two countries that have developed through economic cooperation, cultural exchanges, and mutual political support. China surely wants to maintain good relations with all the major actors in the Gulf instead of focusing only on one—as the cooperation agreement with Iran would imply.

As in the case of Iran, such a cautious approach seems largely determined by the awareness that the countries in the region are undergoing profound changes and facing significant challenges. While Iran has to deal with American diplomatic and economic pressure, the countries in the Gulf are greatly suffering because of low oil prices. In commenting on this issue, Zou Zhiqiang seems to share the same perspective of another scholar that wrote in June about this same topic. [9] Although Zou is less pessimistic, he also argues that Gulf countries are not doing well as they try to diversify their economy and reduce the dependence on oil revenues. Among them, he identifies Oman as the one most at risk. According to him, “it is vital [for Gulf countries] to seize the remaining ‘oil dividends’ and the last window of opportunity to successfully achieve economic transformation.” Failing to do so will have deep repercussions at the domestic, as well as regional level.

[1] Zou Zhiqiang, Shèng suǒfēiyà bówùguǎn zhēngyì bèihòu de tǔ'ěrqí shēnfèn zhèngzhì 圣索菲亚博物馆争议背后的土耳其身份政治 [The identity politics in Turkey behind the struggle for the Hagia Sophia], Legal Weekly, July 9, 2020, link.

[2] Li Jiabao, Tǔ'ěrqí yǔ ōuméng jiàn xíng jiàn yuǎn 土耳其与欧盟渐行渐远 [Turkey and the EU are drifting apart], People’s Daily, July 14, 2020, link.

[3] Qian Xuming, Dōng dìzhōnghǎi yóuqì zhī zhēng huò chéng zhōngdōng xīn “huǒyào tǒng” 东地中海油气之争或成中东新“火药桶” [The struggle for energy in the Eastern Mediterranean could become a new powder keg in the Middle East], Workers Daily, June 12, 2020, link.

[4] Yu Xiaoxuan and Wang Jiwei, Lìbǐyǎ nèizhàn dì shí nián: Bèi yíwàng de zhànzhēng, wèihé “wánjiā” yuè lái yuè duō? 利比亚内战第十年:被遗忘的战争,为何“玩家”越来越多?[The tenth year of the war in Libya: Why are there so many players in this forgotten conflict?], The Paper, July 24, 2020, link.

[5] Zhou Yu, Lìbǐyǎ nèibù chōngtú bùduàn shēngjí 利比亚内部冲突不断升级 [The Libyan conflict continues to escalate], People’s Daily, July 31, 2020, link.

[6] Fan Hongda, Fànhóngdá fànhóngdá: “Yīlǎng zhōngguó wèi quánmiàn hézuò zuò hǎo zhǔnbèile ma?”, Yīlǎng yī sī kǎ tōngxùnshè 范鸿达范鸿达:“伊朗中国为全面合作做好准备了吗?”, 伊朗伊斯卡通讯社 [Fan Hongda for Isca News: “Are China and Iran ready for comprehensive cooperation?”], SISU, June 23, 2020, link.

[7] Gu Zhenglong, Gù zhènglóng: Yīlǎng guónèi zài hé xiéyì wèntí shàng liǎngjí fèn huà 顾正龙:伊朗国内在核协议问题上两极分化 [Gu Zhenglong: The polarization of Iranian politics on the issue of the nuclear agreement], Cfisnet, July 24, 2020, link.

[8] Lin Yan and Hu Guan, Tè gǎo: Xiéshǒu gòng pǔ sī lù xīn yuèzhāng——jiànjiāo 30 zhōunián zhōngguó shātè guānxì fāzhǎn shǐ shàng “kuàichē dào” 特稿:携手共谱丝路新乐章——建交30周年中国沙特关系发展驶上“快车道” [Special article: Joining hands to compose a new chapter on the Silk Road: The 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Saudi Arabia is on a ‘fast track’"], Xinhua, July 21, 2020, link.

[9] Zou Zhiqiang, Hǎiwān chǎn yóu guó jīngjì móshì jiānnán móu biàn 海湾产油国经济模式艰难谋变 [The economic model of Gulf oil-producing countries is difficult to change], Globe, July 14, 2020, link.

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