July 2021

China looks at the Mediterranean Region
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July’s Chinese commentaries mostly focused on State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s trip to the Middle East and North Africa. This is Wang’s second trip to those regions this year. Chinese scholars made some very interesting comments about Wang’s trip, especially in regards to Sino-Syrian relations. Other interviews and analyses published by Chinese media revolve around the situation in Lebanon, Iraq, and Tunisia.  Looking at the European shore of the Mediterranean Sea, we also found a response to foreign scholars’ analyses regarding Italy’s China policy.

From July 17 to 20, Wang Yi visited Syria, Egypt and Algeria by the invitation of those countries’ governments. This trip took place only three months after he paid visit to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Iran, Bahrain, and Oman in March. It is also important to highlight that Wang was at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Foreign Ministers Meeting in the Tajik capital Dushanbe on July 13-14, during which the decision to grant the status of dialogue partners to Egypt and Saudi Arabia was approved. The two Middle Eastern countries are, therefore, poised to join the Eurasian bloc later in September this year. There is no doubt that this is an unprecedented show of interest by China toward North Africa and the Middle East.

Ding Long, a professor at the Middle East Institute of Shanghai International Studies University (SISU), and Yu Jianhua, Vice President of the Chinese Middle East Studies Association and deputy director and researcher of the Institute of International Studies at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, talked about Wang’s trip with the Liberation Daily. [1] Yu pointed out that, first, the Middle East is the home region of many developing countries. China has to pay close attention to that region because those countries are at the foundation of Chinese diplomacy. Second, according to Yu, the Middle East has been seen as “an extension of China's peripheral strategy and an integral part of the larger peripheral strategy.” Hence, China is stepping up its efforts to build a “community of common destiny” to deal with regional hotspots in a fair and just way. At the same time, China is trying to promote peace through development of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). At the same time, peace in the region is necessary for the success of the BRI. As to Ding, he emphasized the role of energy and the growing Middle Eastern markets for Chinese products. Moreover, he stated, "Many countries in the Middle East are good friends and partners of China. They firmly support each other in terms of core interests and major concerns; they share a common language and common interests in opposing hegemonism and interference in internal affairs in the name of human rights. This is of great significance in advocating multipolarity and promoting a more just and reasonable international order." In another article, Ding Long also made another point, seemingly aiming to deliver a message to China’s domestic audience. [2] He wrote that not only in the West, but also at home many think that Wang Yi’s trips prelude a deeper level of involvement in the Middle East–maybe too deep. To those people, Ding writes that China will remain present in the region mainly through economic actors. Current Chinese diplomacy, as also shown by the state councilor’s visits, is designed in a way that eliminate the risks of being drawn into regional conflicts.

Against this background it is interesting to read what Ding, Yu, and other scholars said and wrote about some of the specific issues touched upon during the discussions between Wang and the leaders of the countries that he visited. Ding made a very interesting interview with a journalist from the Global Times on Sino-Syrian relations. [3] To begin with, Ding plays down the political significance of Wang’s visit to Damascus after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad won a fourth term in office in May. According to him, the elections and the growing acceptance by other regional powers of al-Assad’s government mean that China’s support is far less important to the Syrian leader than foreign observers think. Moreover, Wang’s visit does not change the fact that the Syrian government still has a long way to go to be able to control the entire national territory. Replying to a follow-up question, Ding further clarified that there are simply too many obstacles, such as American sanctions, Syria’s lack of industrial capabilities, and continuous violence in the northern part of the country, that are simply too big for China and Syria to think seriously about practical cooperation. As he aptly summarized, “Based on objective realities, the two sides' stated intention to strengthen cooperation is still mainly an attitude display.” In May, we reported that Yan Wei, a professor at the Syrian Research Center at China Northwestern University, wrote that al-Assad’s re-election “has made it more difficult to reach a political reconciliation in the country, at least to some extent.” In general, despite Wang Yi’s new four-point solution for Syria, it is not difficult to see that there seems to be little interest in China to make significant concrete step in the cooperation with Syria at the moment.

In Cairo, Wang Yi put forward three possible ideas to implement a two-state solution to the Palestinian issue. Both Ding and Long mentioned this fact in their comments but refrained from saying whether they think it will work. Wang also discussed anti-COVID and counter-terrorism efforts, and Sino-Egyptian cooperation in the context of the BRI. An unnamed expert told to the Global Times that the talks about anti-terrorism cooperation should be seen against the background of China’s efforts to protect its interests overseas, especially after a number of attacks against Chinese nationals that took place in Pakistan, Mali, and Sudan. Of course, an issue that attracted significant attention by Chinese media and commentators is the joint statement that was released after Wang's meeting with Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul-Gheit in El Alamein, in which the two declared mutual support, and agreed to make preparations for the first China-Arab Summit scheduled for 2022 in Saudi Arabia. Ding Long argues that the Summit should be seen as an upgrade from the annual Sino-Arab Cooperation Forum that was launched in 2004.  “It is rare for Arab countries with different religious denominations and policy ideas to be able to establish a cooperative platform through the Arab League with a major country." Ding Long said. Liu Zhongmin, a professor at the SISU Middle East Studies Institute, declared that both the Sino-Arab Cooperation Forum will remain active in parallel with the new summit.

Chinese commentators did not say much about Wang’s trip to Algeria. Despite some progress in terms of political stability, many of the social and economic problems that plague that country are still there. According to Ding Long and Yu Jianhua, economic cooperation with China could help in addressing them. Other scholars like Tian Wenlin and Niu Song made a similar point about the nature and gravity of Lebanon’s and Tunisia’s problems, respectively. [4] According to Tian, the Tunisian President’s decision of sacking the prime minister and suspending parliament demonstrates the failure of the Western liberal democratic model. Westerners believe that the solution to all the problems is adopting the right political system, and that democracy is the best one because it is the only legitimate one. However, Tian writes, what happened in 2011 and is happening now in Tunisia and the entire region shows that what matters is that a government, whatever its shape and form, is able to tackle the problems that the people care about. Hence, the implicit argument that Tian makes is that President Saied’s move should not be seen as a negative development as long as his next step will prove effective in tackling Tunisia’s long-standing problems. As to Lebanon, Niu Song is far more pessimist. According to him, Lebanese elites still refuse to give up their privileges and try to improve the country’s situation. They still have little constrains in their behavior and are not accountable to anyone. For this reason, “Lebanon will hardly show any sign of improvement in the short term.”

In Iraq the situation is different because of the American military presence, which Tang Zhichao, a senior expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), defined as the main cause of turmoil in the entire region. [5] The Iraqi government asked the Biden administration to withdraw American troops after US presence in Iraq became a major issue in the follow-up of the assassination of top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani during a drone strike in the capital Baghdad last year. American soldiers will remain in Iraq as trainers and advisers. Against this background, Liu Zhongmin believes that American withdrawal from combat operations in Iraq will be somehow less traumatic than what is going on in Afghanistan. [6] On the one hand, the end of American military presence will strengthen the popular support of the government. On the other hand, the situation in Iraq is very different from that in Afghanistan, where the Taliban is proving much more capable than government forces.

We close with the review of an article penned by Sun Yanhong, an expert of European and Italian affairs at CASS in Beijing. [7] Although she did not specify which article from American media she is responding to, Sun’s commentary is likely meant to address an article published in Foreign Policy in which an Italian researcher highlighted the changes that took place within the government and in the China-related debate in Italy, especially in the aftermath of Mario Draghi becoming prime minister. While the article in Foreign Policy argues that Rome “had learnt the lesson” after the Memorandum of Understanding for cooperation on the BRI did not boost Italian exports and was harshly criticized by other Western governments, Sun wrote that it is true that Italy’s China policy changed but to a very limited extent. Sun pointed out that Italy has always been careful in balancing its alliance with the United States with trade relations with China, and that has not changed. Indeed, Sun argues that Draghi’s statement regarding the necessity to reassess the implications for Italy of joining the BRI should not be interpreted in a negative way. Rather, it simply means that Italy wants to find ways to benefit more from the BRI, not that it is rejecting it. Sun concludes with a message that seems directed more to Chinese policymakers than to the Global Times’ readers: Italy is an important player in European politics, and the positive development of Sino-European ties also depends on ensuring the smooth management of the relations with Italy.

[1] Zhang Quan, Zhōngguó wàizhǎng zhōngdōng běifēi zhī xíng chéngguǒ pǒ fēng 中国外长中东北非之行成果颇丰[The visit of the Foreign Minister to the Middle East and North Africa achievesmany results], Liberation Daily, July 21, 2021, link.

[2] Ding Long, Dānxīn zhōngguó xiànrù “zhōngdōng nítán”? Dà kě bùbì 担心中国陷入“中东泥潭”?大可不必 [Concerned that China will enter the “Middle Eastern quagmire”? There is no need for that], Global Times, July 20, 2021, link.

[3] Zhōngguó yào “quánmiàn jìnrù xùlìyǎ”? 中国要“全面进入叙利亚”?[Does China want to “go all-in in Syria”?], Global Times, July 20, 2021, link.

[4]Tian Wenlin, Yìqíng chōngjí “ālābó zhī chūn” yàngbǎn 疫情冲击“阿拉伯之春”样板 [The pandemic hits the “Arab Spring”model], Global Times, July 27, 2021, link;Qian Xiaoyan, Dà bàozhà hòu kuài yī nián, zhège guójiā xiànrù 170 niánlái shǎojiàn de jīngjìwéijī 大爆炸后快一年,这个国家陷入170年来少见的经济危机 [One year after the big explosion, this country has enteredan economic crisis without very few precedents in the past 170 years], China Business Network, July 15, 2021, link.

[5]Tang Zhichao, Zhōngdōng zhī luàn, měiguó nàn cí qí jiù 中东之乱,美国难辞其咎 [The United States is to blame forthe chaos in the Middle East], Guangming Daily, July 3, 2021, link.

[6] Qian Xiaoyan, 中东政策再调整!驻伊拉克美军年底结束作战任务,美国又打算甩锅? [Another readjustment of the Middle East policy! American troops will withdraw from combat operations in Iraq at the end of the year. Is the United States about to pass the buck again?], China Business Network, July 27, 2021, link.

[7] Sun Yanhong, 务实合作仍是中意关系的主流 [Pragmatic cooperation remains the core of Sino-Italian relations], Global Times, July 2, 2021, 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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