July 2020

The Mediterranean Region looks at China
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We found a number of very interesting articles published by the media of the wider Mediterranean region that provide important insights into some of the most interesting aspects of China’s relations with the countries there. Though we selected articles published by the media of a number of countries for this month’s review, the most interesting ones were those from Iran and Lebanon.

Beginning with Iran, a journalist from Diplomasi-e Irani interviewed Mohsen Ruhi-Sefat, a former diplomat with experience in various Southeast Asian countries, about the 25-year agreement with China. [1] Ruhi-Sefat defends the agreement and the work of the Iranian leadership against the various criticisms that have been voiced by domestic and international public opinion. Domestically, the article reports that the agreement with China has been commonly framed as the “Second Turkmenchay,” a reference to the agreement between Qajar Iran and the Russian Empire, which concluded the Russo-Persian War and transferred the possession of different areas in the South Caucasus to the Russian Empire. Interestingly, another article published by Tabnak includes Russia among those against the Sino-Iranian plan. [2]

According to the former diplomat, the discussion of the agreement began with the visit of Xi Jinping to Tehran in January 2016. However, he interestingly argues that the visit failed to generate the momentum necessary to push diplomatic relations between the two countries up to the same level as economic relationship. Although he does not specify what the obstacles were to achieve that development, he mentions repeatedly that the Iranian side did not do enough preparation and the two sides did not hold enough meetings to reach a consensus. The agreement was put back on the agenda only later as a result of, so Ruhi-Sefat argues, the intensive exchanges between Iranian and Chinese government officials and think tank experts that helped to identify the areas of common interest. In a recent book, Daniel Seth Markey describes how both Chinese and Iranian political and economic actors have worked to create interest groups to pressure their governments to invest in their bilateral relations. Ruhi-Sefat’s words seem consistent with this. While emphasizing the importance for Iran of this cooperation plan with China, however, Ruhi-Sefat also reminds the readers that the actual ratification and implementation of the plan is an issue that will continue to require extensive bilateral consultation. In comparison, a journalist from IRNA was far less cautious as he wrote that the cooperation plan “will pave the way” to the upgrade of Iran’s status within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. In our opinion, such a development remains unlikely. [3]

Moving to Lebanon, Al-Domon published a series of sobering articles on the prospect of a Chinese intervention to save the economy of the Arab country. [4] In the first, Ali Nour, the journalist, reports that sources from the Lebanese government have admitted that they are aware that Lebanon is not very likely to receive significant amounts of Chinese capital, especially now that China is slowing down its investment activities overseas and paying more attention to countries where the economic and political conditions are better. Munir al-Rabi, another journalist, wrote that the current rumors regarding an eventual Chinese interest in Lebanon are only propaganda produced by Hezbollah. “China and Russia are not part of the axis of resistance. Their interests and their relations with America and Israel are much stronger than those with and in Lebanon, Syria, or Iran,” he wrote. The reference to an “axis of resistance” is worth attention as that term refers to a political alliance mostly between Iran, the Syrian government and Hezbollah. Syrian official media, too, allude to China being part of it from time to time. Al-Rabi argues that the Lebanese should stop believing in this kind of propaganda and focus on improving relations with the other countries in the region while stabilizing the situation at home. That, he points out, is the only way to attract Chinese businessmen and tourists.

Lebanon is not, of course, the only country that hopes in more investment from and trade with China. The Jordanian daily Al-Dustour, for example, published an article whose author argued that China’s praise for the Jordanian government’s efforts to control the spread of Covid-19 are likely to translate in greater Chinese interest in the country. [5] These hopes originate in the declarations made by the Chinese ambassador in Amman, who stated that a Chinese business delegation was about to visit the country to explore economic opportunities, especially in the city of Aqaba because of the cooperation agreement signed by the Aqaba International Industrial City and the government of Shenzhen in China. The article is likely to reflect the general mood in Jordan as the country ranked first in a recent Arab Barometer survey as the country with the strongest hope to strengthen economic relations with China, as well as to receive Chinese economic aid. Despite a glowing review of the Sino-Algerian relations published by Al Harir, only 36% percent of the Algerians have the same hope. [6]

Economic cooperation with China, however, can also bring challenges. As always, this is evident in Israel. For example, Globes published an article highlighting how Chinese investments in the country as well as others in the region are creating a strategic dilemma for the Israeli government. [7] The author mentions various examples. The first is SIPG’s presence in the Port of Haifa, which he describes as “almost a concession within the State of Israel, controlled by the Chinese operator.” The second example consist of a series of speculations regarding the fact that Chinese engagement with Iran, Syria, and Lebanon “may limit Israel's ability to operate in the region.” Unfortunately for China, it seems that Hezbollah and Syrian media are not the only ones that look at China as a member of the “axis of resistance.” If anything, it seems that Israel has no problem in providing support to China’s rivals. According to the Calcalist, India and Israeli arms and drone manufacturers are negotiating contract for USD 100 million-worth of bombs and drones. [8]

In any case, more countries in the region continue to face difficulties in balancing their relationship with China and the United States. For example, Italian and Kuwaiti media published articles in July regarding the pros and cons of partnering with China, especially in the telecommunication and space sectors. [9] In Italy, the debate is even hotter as the government is accused by opposition parties for having refused to strongly condemn Beijing’s new policies toward Hong Kong. [10] Other newspapers in Spain and France were more focused on the role of Europe at large in the midst of the Sino-American struggle without any specific reference to the wider Mediterranean region. [11]

Meanwhile, as tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia continue to grows because of the Renaissance Dam, we found an article published by Masrawy, the biggest and the first news portal in Egypt, that is worth paying attention to. [12] The article largely draws from another one published by the South China Morning Post on China’s relations with Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan. While the Egyptian article does not allude to any sort of Chinese responsibility or role in the dispute, it is interesting to see that, once again, Chinese economic engagement with one country in the region risks drawing Beijing in a thorny dispute among countries with whom it has good economic and diplomatic relations. At least officially, China is currently being praised for its role in regional issues but it is likely that the number of challenges for Beijing will increase in the future. [13]

[1] ʿAbd al-Rahman Fath Elahi, Sand-e hamkari-e 25-sale-ye Iran va Cin, “forsat” ya “tahdid” bara-ye manafeʿ-e Tehran سند همکاری ۲۵ ساله ایران و چین، «فرصت» یا «تهدیدی» برای منافع تهران [Iran-China 25-year strategic document, an “opportunity” or a “threat” for Tehran’s interests?], Diplomasi-e Irani, July 10, 2020, link.

[2] Iran va Cin cetowr bara-ye ʿaqd-e qarardad-e 25-sale be tavafoq residand? / Cin ceqadr, cetowr va dar kodam howzeha dar Iran sarmayegozari mikonad? / Mokhalefan va movafeqan- qarardad-e 25-sale-ra beshenasid ایران و چین چطور برای عقد قرارداد ۲۵ ساله به توافق رسیدند؟ / چین چقدر، چطور و در کدام حوزه‌ها در ایران سرمایه‌گذاری می‌کند؟ / مخالفان و موافقان قرارداد ۲۵ ساله را بشناسید [How did Iran and China agree upon a 25-year contract?/ How much, how and in which areas will China invest in Iran?/ Learn about the pros and cons of the 25-yer contract], Tabnak, July 21, 2020,  link.

[3] Sattar Mohammadi-Talvar, Barname-ye 25-sale-ye hamkari ba Cin va ayande-ye ʿozviyyat-e Iran dar Peyman-e Shanghay برنامه 25 ساله همکاری با چین و آینده عضویت ایران در پیمان شانگهای [The 25-year cooperation program with China and the future of Iran membership in the Shanghai Pact], IRNA, July 19, 2020, link.

[4] ʿAli Nour, Limadha “al-tawajjuh sharqan” takhrif iqtisadiyy wa-kudhbat siyasat wa-khidaʿ li-l-lubnaniyyin? لماذا "التوجه شرقاً" تخريف اقتصادي وكذبة سياسية وخداع للبنانيين؟ [Why is the “Shift East” an economic deviation, a political lie and an illusion for the Lebanese?], Al-Modon, July 12, 2020, link; Munir al-Rabiʿ, Al-Sin tadhadu propaganda al-mumanaʿa: la yuhimmuna balad mudtarib wa-muhasir الصين تدحض بروباغندا الممانعة: لا يهمُّنا بلد مضطرب ومحاصر [China refutes the current propaganda: we do not care about a troubled and besieged country], Al-Modon, July 6, 2020, link.

[5] Owni al-Dawud, Hal tutarjimu al-Sin ishadataha bi-najah al-Urdun fi-muwajahat corona… “istithmariyan”? هل تترجم الصين إشادتها بنجاح الأردن في مواجهة كورونا..«استثماريًا» ؟ [Will China translate its praise for Jordan’s victory over coronavirus into… “investments”?], Al-Dostur, July 26, 2020, link.  

[6] Wu Fugui and Abd Al-Karim, -al-sin wa al-jaza’ir 'ashiqqa' fi tahadi al-si‘ab wa muajaha al'azamat الصين والجزائر أشقاء في تحدي الصعاب ومواجهة الزمات [China and Algeria are brothers in challenging difficulties and facing crises], Al Harir, July 16, 2020, link.

[7] Dubi Ben Gedaliah, Hameuravut ha-Sinit be-proyeactay tashtiut meshabechet et Israel medinit ve-astrategit המעורבות הסינית בפרויקטי תשתיות מסבכת את ישראל מדינית ואסטרטגית [Chinese involvement in infrastructure projects complicates Israel politically and strategically], Globes, August 3, 2020, link.

[8] Udi Etzion, Biglal ha-metichut im Sin; Hudu tazmin me-Israel malatim ve-ptzazut chachmot be-yotem mi-mea million dollar בגלל המתיחות עם סין: הודו תזמין מישראל מל"טים ופצצות חכמות ביותר מ-100 מיליון דולר [Because of tensions with China: India will order more than $ 100 million in UAVs and smart bombs from Israel], Calcalist, July 15, 2020, link.

[9] Walid Mansor, Tariq al-Harir al-Raqmi...makatir wa mukafaat ela Alsharq al-Awsat طريق الحرير الرقمي.. مخاطر ومكافآت إلى الشرق الأوسط [Digital Silk Road...Risks and Rewards for the Middle East], Alqabas, July 7, 2020, link; Gabriele Carrer, Usa e alleati europei alla prova del 5G (l’Italia c’è) [US and the European allies face the 5G test (Italy is ok)], Formiche, July 14, 2020, link.

[10] Salvini contro l'ambasciata cinese: "Non paragoni l'Italia a Pechino" [Salvini against the Chinese embassy: “You cannot compare Italy with China], Sky Tg24, July 3, 2020, link.

[11] EE UU vs China: escenarios de la nueva guerra fría [The EU versus China: new Cold War scenarios], El Pais, July 26, 2020, link; Natasa Stasinou, Mporei I Germania na allaxei tin stasi tis EE apenanti stin Kina Μπορεί η Γερμανία να αλλάξει την στάση της Ε.Ε. απέναντι στην Κίνα [Can Germany change the attitude of the EU towards China?], Naftemporiki, July 8, 2020, link.

[12] Halifa li al-thalathi.. hal tustakhdam al-sin nufudhaha wa tatawasat fi 'azmat sad al-nahda? حليفة للثلثي   هل تستخدم الصين نفوذها وتتوسط في أزمة سد النهضة؟ [An ally of the three ... Is China using its influence and mediating the Renaissance Dam crisis?], Masrawy, July 29, 2020, link.

[13] Al-sid nasir buriyta: al-maghrib yaraa fi al-sin ‘amil tawazun fi al-ta‘ati ma‘a al-qadaya al‘arabia wa sharikan mawthuqan fi al-‘alaqat al-thuna’iya السيد ناصر بوريطة :المغرب يرى في الصين عامل توازن في التعاطي مع القضايا العربية وشريكا موثوقا في العلاقات الثنائية [Mr. Nasser Bourita: Morocco sees China as a balancing factor in dealing with Arab issues and a reliable partner in bilateral relations], Maroc Diplomatie, July 7, 2020, link.

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