July 2021

The Mediterranean Region looks at China
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This month, although many countries, such as Iraq, Algeria, and Syria, continue to underline the positive outcomes of their relations with China, the search through the media outlets of the wider Mediterranean also showed that there are raising concerns over a rising Chinese political presence in the MENA region, especially where Beijing’s interests seem to clash with the local balance or with the interests of other superpowers.

As reported by the Greek economic newspaper NewMoney, the Greek government and the Chinese state-owned company Cosco have reached an agreement on their dispute over the Port of Piraeus. [1] This agreement sets a new timeframe for the completion of Cosco’s “first compulsory investments” and grants the transfer of the remaining 16% share of the Piraeus Port Authority (PPA) from the Hellenic Republic Asset Development Fund (HRADF) to the Chinese company, for a value of 88 million euros. At the same time, some provisions have been introduced to protect Athens’ interests: if Cosco would fail to complete the compulsory investments–whose legal permits are now guaranteed by the Greek State–within the new timeframe, the transferred shares will return automatically to the HRADF, that has gained veto power over the decisions related to the PPA. However, at the present time, the citizens of Piraeus, represented by the association “Piraeus for all,” continue to show great concern over the environmental implications of the development of the PPA, claiming that the Greek government and the HRADF have been turning a blind eye on Cosco’s violation of national and European environmental laws. [2]

Similarly, Mazhar Muhammad Salih, advisor to the Iraqi President, announced new developments for the Iraq-China Fund Agreement (also known as the “oil-for-reconstruction” agreement). In fact, Salih stated that “the budget for the current year 2021 includes a clear and positive hint to the agreement” and that “the second half of this year is the actual and real moment for the start of the work of the Iraq-China Fund Agreement.” [3] The presidential advisor also explained that the agreement was not implemented sooner due to the delays of the Iraqi Parliament in approving the 2020 Federal Budget Law and the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Iraqi government will attentively select the most vital projects related to educational and water infrastructure, and the oil sector. In this context, the Iraqi Oil Minister, Ihsan Abd al-Jabbar, announced that China National Chemical Engineering will implement the al-Faw refinery project employing 10 thousand local workers. [4]

It is noteworthy that Iraqi media also addressed the issue of the withdrawal of US troops from the country, following the latest agreement signed between the two presidents Joe Biden and Mustafa al-Kadhimi. According to this agreement, the nature of the presence of US-coalition forces will shift from combat missions to training and support sessions. While many political and regional experts highlight the role of regional parties and factions, mostly affiliated to the so-called “Resistance Front,” loyal to Tehran, in targeting American interests and in supporting the country’s independence, Dr. Raad Qassim al-Azzawi, political analyst and professor of international relations, believes that the US withdrawal “is related to those rapid changes that appeared on the international scene with China’s entry in the alliance with Iran and Russia in the framework of the so-called Silk Road’s soft power.” [5] Al-Azzawi suggests that Washington, rather than withdrawing, is trying to establish a “high-tech space force” in the country to control the Chinese penetration in the region through the Silk Road.

Against the background of US withdrawal from the Middle East, unsurprisingly, many media outlets from the MENA region addressed the issue of a possible larger Chinese role in the current Afghan crisis. According to Hazem Saghieh, a Lebanese journalist writing for the pan-Arab Asharq al-Awsat, what Western forces have done in Afghanistan in the past decades have resulted in “massive problems” for both Kabul and other countries, such as China, Russia, Iran and Turkey. [6] Saudi journalist Mohammad al-Saʿid believes that Washington, aware of the expansion of terrorist movements such as the Turkestani Islamic Party in Afghanistan, made the move of leaving the country in order to drag China into the “Afghan quagmire,” that will eventually lead to a slow-down in China’s economic growth and influence. [7] Al-Saʿid also argues that the United States will then support Kabul against Beijing, under the pretext of defending Uyghur rights.

The Uyghur issue continues to also complicate Sino-Turkish relations, while constituting a pretext to express discontent toward the ruling party. Gazete Duvar, for example, reported an analysis authored by journalist Murat Yetkin of Erdogan’s message for the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party. [8] Yetkin highlighted President Erdogan’s ambiguous approach to the issue: while he considers himself to be “the protector of the oppressed Muslims and Turks in the world,” issuing a statement to support Uyghur rights in Xinjiang would signify a Turkish rapprochement to the American sphere of influence. Instead, Erdogan and its allies choose to emphasize the trade volume between Beijing and Ankara under the Belt and Road Initiative, which is worth 22 billion dollars and is expected to reach USD 100 billion.

Similarly, the statements made by Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hassan Diyab regarding a “eastern turn” to solve the country’s problems were met with skepticism by Lebanese political forces and public opinion. According to Merlin Wahba, who reported the position of the Strong Republic parliamentary bloc, Diyab’s “threats” to turning to China for investments are merely empty words.  The caretaker government should make efforts to improve the political and security situation of the country, while implementing economic laws and policies aimed at establishing a favourable environment for foreign investment, regardless of whether it is from China or elsewhere. [9]

On a brighter side, the visit of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Syria, Algeria, and Egypt was perceived positively. Khattar Abu Diab, professor of political and international relations at the University of Paris, told al-Modon that “Wang’s visit, which, in terms of its timing, coincides with Bashar al-Assad’s swearing-in for a fourth presidential term, suggests that China’s position is perfectly aligned with Russia and Iran in supporting the Syrian regime.” [10] Also, it is the first time that China sends a high-level official to Damascus, indicating that Beijing may be abandoning its cautious approach toward that country. Abu Diab also believes that the Chinese renewed interest in Syria may be linked to its position along the Belt and Road routes. What China will gain out of its relations with Syria will become clearer once it announces its reconstruction projects for Damascus.  Writer and political analyst Ammar Jalo also suggests that this visit is an important step for Chinese foreign policy in the region as “China is preparing to increase its influence in the region after the decline of American influence.”

The Algerian al-Ain, instead, reported that during the meeting between Wang and its Algerian counterpart, Ramtane Lamamra, the two sides expressed a mutual desire of raising the level of partnership and that “a timetable for the completion of important agreements with a strategic dimension” was agreed, although the nature of the agreements was not revealed. [11]

Similarly, Egypt’s ambassador, Bassam Radi, and Foreign Minister, Sameh Shoukry, both pointed out the strength of Sino-Egyptian relations in medical, technological, and business cooperation, focusing in particular on the importance of the Sino-Egyptian Economic and Trade Cooperation Zone in the Suez Canal Economic Zone, “as a successful model for investment cooperation between the two countries.” [12] However, the latest developments of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) were also discussed. President al-Sisi stressed Egypt's firm position on the matter and its keenness “to preserve its water security and its historical rights to the Nile waters, by reaching a binding legal agreement to fill and operate the Renaissance Dam that achieves the interests of all in a fair manner.”

Although the Chinese side reiterated Beijing’s efforts to find a solution that may satisfy all parties involved, Ethiopia seems to be rather confident that China will continue to support its stances. Writing for the Ethiopian newspaper Akhbar Alan, Muhammad al-Junun reflects that China, which holds the largest share of Addis Ababa’s foreign debts, could easily control the decision-making process in Ethiopia to protect its investment and its endorsement of the Ethiopian stances on the GERD issues could hand it an even stronger foothold in the African country. [13]

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[1] Fofi Giotaki, Φώφη Γιωτάκη,limani-pirea-to-neo-kivernitiko-plano-gia-tis-ependisis-ke-tin-cosco, ΛιμάνιΠειραιά: Το νέο κυβερνητικό πλάνο για τις επενδύσεις και την COSCO, [Piraeus Port: the new government plan for investments and COSCO], newmoney.gr, August 1, 2021, link.

[2] Aporifthike I stratigiki meletiperivallontikon epiptoseon gia ta erga tis COSCO ston OLP, Απορρίφθηκε η Στρατηγική Μελέτη Περιβαλλοντικών Επιπτώσεων για τα έργα της COSCO στον ΟΛΠ, [The study on the environmental impact of COSCO's projects was rejected], avgi.gr, July 1, 2021, link.

[3] Tasrih jadid min mustashar al-Kadhimibi-shaʾn mashariʿ al-ittifaqiyat al-siniyya, تصريحجديد من مستشار الكاظمي بشأن مشاريع الاتفاقية الصينية, [A new statement from al-Kadhimi’s advisor on the projects related to the Chinese agreement], Mawazin News, July 20, 2021,https://www.mawazin.net/Details.aspx?jimare=161251

[4] Saʿd al-Samak, Wazir al-naft: masfa al-Faw yunaffadhu bi-tamwil siniyy wa-yastawʿibu 10 alafʿamil mahalli وزير النفط: مصفى الفاو يُنفّذ بتمويلصيني ويستوعب 10 آلاف عامل محلي [The Minister of Oil: the al-Faw refinery will be built thanks to Chinese funding and will employ 10 thousand local workers], al-Sabah, July 18, 2021, link.

[5] Salah Hassan Baban, Ittifaq al-insihab al-amriki… Istijaba li-l-daght al-ʿiraqi amli-dukhul al-Sin ʿala khatt al-munafasa? اتفاقالانسحاب الأميركي.. استجابة للضغط العراقي أم لدخول الصين على خط المنافسة؟ [The US withdrawal agreement…in response to Iraqi pressure or some kind of preparation to compete against China?], al-Jazeera, July 29, 2021, link.

[6] Hazem Saghieh, Afghanistan… Afghanistan!, Asharq al-Awsat, July 18, 2021, link.

[7] Mohammad al-Saʿid, Afghanistan… sum al-Sin al-ʿadhim أفغانستان.. سم الصين العظيم [Afghanistan…China’s deadliest poison], Okaz, July 5, 2021, link.

[8] Erdoğan’ın Çinli komünist lidere ilginç 100. yıl mesajı,[Erdogan's interesting 100th anniversary message to the Chinese communist leader], Gazete Duvar, July 7, 2021, link.

[9] Merlin Wahba, Diyab: li-l-tawajjuh sharqan! Wa-l-qiwwat tatawajjahuli-muhasabatihi? دياب: للتوجّه شرقاً! والقوات تتوجهلمحاسبته؟ [Diyab: let us head East! And are the forces going to hold him accountable?], Al-Jomhuria, July 7, 2021, link.

[10] Mustafa Muhammad, Al-Sin tatakhally ʿanhadhriha fi Surya… bi-tashjiʿ min Rusiya? الصينتتخلى عن حذرها في سوريا..بتشجيع من روسيا؟ [China lets its guard down in Syria...encouraged by Russia?], al-Modon, July 19, 2021, link.

[11] Younis Burnan, al-jaza’ir wa al-sin... qafza istiratijia wa ittifaqia dakhma الجزائر والصين.. قفزة استراتيجية واتفاقياتضخمة [Algeria and China...a strategic leap and huge agreements], Al-Ain, July 20, 2021, link.

[12] Muhsin Samika, Al-Sisi li-wazir al-kharijiyya al-Sin: mawqif Misr thabitbi-hifazh ʿala amniha al-maʾi wa-huquqiha fi miyah al-Nil السيسي لوزير خارجية الصين: موقف مصر ثابتبالحفاظ على أمنها المائي وحقوقها في مياه النيل [Al-Sisi to the Chinese Foreign Minister: Egypt’s position is consistent in protecting its water security and its rights to the Nile waters], Al-Masryal-Youm, July 18, 2021, link.

[13] Muhammad Al Junun, Limadha inhazat rusia wa al-sin li salih’ithyubia fi qadia sad al-nahda? لماذا انحازت روسيا والصين لصالح إثيوبيا في قضيةسد النهضة؟ [Why did Russia and China sided with Ethiopia over the issue of the Renaissance Dam?], Akhbar Alan, July 9, 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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