July 2022

China looks at the Mediterranean Region
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Chinese commentators focused on two key issues in July. The first is US President Joe Biden’s trip to the Middle East – the first since he took office – that brought him to Israel and Saudi Arabia. The second is the Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Tehran where he met with the leaders of Iran and Turkey. Besides these two events that almost monopolized the attention of Chinese reporting on the wider Mediterranean region, we also found articles on the evolving relations between the countries of Southern Europe and those of North Africa in the shadow of the ongoing war in Ukraine. That said, Chinese media and experts paid little attention to important events like the fall of the Mario Draghi-led government in Italy and the growing weakness of the French government in the aftermath of the June elections.

In general, Chinese media commentators and experts were far from impressed or worried by Biden’s long-overdue visit to the Middle East. The words of Liu Zhongmin, a senior scholar at Shanghai International Studies University (SISU) and regular commentator in The Paper, summarize well the general Chinese perception of the trip: “President Joe Biden's first trip to the Middle East ended in disgrace amidst the ridicule and derision of international public opinion. This trip was made for utilitarian purposes. It did not only fail to fully realize its selfish purposes of increasing oil and gas production to put pressure on Russia, adjusting and consolidating the US-led alliance system, establishing a Middle Eastern version of NATO and a Middle Eastern air defense alliance, and convincing Middle Eastern countries to reject cooperation with China and Russia, but it was also clearly criticized by Saudi Arabia and other countries for all these reasons. This is the first time that something like this has happened during a US presidential visit to the region.” [1] Defining Biden as “aging,” Liu concluded his commentary stating that “the United States is currently facing an irreversible decline in the Middle East in terms of both soft and hard power.” Other experts like Sun Degang and Ding Long made very similar comments in articles for Jiefang Daily and Global Times, respectively. [2] The main cause of Biden’s failure, according to these scholars, is that the interests of the countries in the region are often in contradiction with each other or with US foreign policy. Biden, whose foreign policy has never really focused on the Middle East, went to the region without clear ideas, convincing proposals or any real intention to find solutions to regional issues. Key American concerns like containing China and, increasingly, Iran are not shared by most Middle Eastern countries, argued Li Zhaoxian. [3]

Chinese commentators also agreed that the primary motivation behind Putin’s trip to Iran was to reinforce the message to the international community that the era of American dominance is over. [4] While they believe that Putin’s trip was successful, some cannot but notice how cooperation between Turkey, Iran and Russia remains plagued by long-standing problems and a certain dose of mistrust. [5]

It is against this background that Fan Hongda, another important commentator affiliated with SISU, wrote a very interesting article in Guancha Syndicate. [6] According to Fan, while it is true that Biden’s trip was not successful, it is also true that Russia no longer has a strong position in the region because its economic and military strength has greatly diminished since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, and because its regional partners are under heavy US sanctions (Iran) or in a deep economic crisis (Turkey). In other words, the American idea that other powers will fill the vacuum left by the United States is hardly correct. “For the great powers, it is time to take a fresh look at the Middle East,” writes Fan, as there are already multiple signs that the countries in the region are becoming more confident and autonomous as they try to solve their problems with each other. For Fan, it is time to stop looking at the region only in terms of “lawless” and “backward” countries in “need of saving,” as the international media often does. This is why he also encourages China “not to fall in the trap of caring about public opinion in the United States and other countries.” Middle Eastern countries are “looking East” to diversify their diplomacy but that does not mean that they are or want to be reliant on China, especially because the United States remains the most “attractive” and influential extra-regional great power in the region. The key to a successful Middle East policy lies in the capability to understand and to help satisfy the desire for development of Middle Eastern countries. While not offering recommendations to Chinese leaders, Tang Zhichao, the director of Institute of West-Asian and African Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, made a very similar argument in Xinhua’s Globe magazine with regard to the trend of increasing strategic autonomy and multipolarity in the Middle East. [7] In January, China Institute of Contemporary International Relations’ Niu Xinchun wrote that China faced unprecedented opportunities because of this development.

Besides the long-term regional trend of growing multipolarity, Chinese commentators have also been paying attention to short-term developments, especially regarding the impact that the war in Ukraine is having on the countries of Southern Europe and North Africa. There is fear that a region-wide crisis is imminent as rising energy and food prices might create similar conditions to those that produced the Arab Spring in 2011. While the war in Ukraine caused an increase in prices, Tang Jianduan argues that Arab countries have nobody to blame but themselves as they have disregarded investing in food security for many decades. [8] Nevertheless, Tang believes that revolutions are unlikely this time mainly because US intelligence agencies and organizations are not as active as they were a decade ago.

At the same time, European energy companies are under great pressure to find alternatives to Russian gas and oil as in Europe inflation grows and economic problems persist. This could likely harden Europe’s approach to the food crisis brewing along the southern shores of the Mediterranean, wrote Li Zhenjie, a scholar at Zhejiang International Studies University. [9] Geopolitical problems and high costs might also prevent the countries of the Eastern Mediterranean from finding a way to exploit the gas fields off their shores, which could improve Europe’s energy situation and provide critical income to countries like Tukey and Egypt.

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[1] Liu Zhongmin, Zhōngdōng ruì píng |bài dēng zhōngdōng xíng ànrán shōuchǎng, zhéshè měiguó quánlì hé shēngwàng shuāngchóng shuāiluò 中东睿评|拜登中东行黯然收场,折射美国权力和声望双重衰落 [Middle East Foresight|Biden’s trip to the Middle East ends sadly, reflecting the decline of American power and prestige], The Paper, July 19, 2022, link.

[2] Qiu Wenhan, Xuānchēng jiāng kāiqǐ shuāngfāng guānxì “xīn piānzhāng”, jiéguǒ què zāoyù duōchóng gāngà: bài dēng rèn nèi shǒucì zhōngdōng xíng chéngguǒ liáoliáo 宣称将开启双方关系“新篇章”,结果却遭遇多重尴尬拜登任内首次中东行成果寥寥 [Many embarassing moments during Biden’s first trip to the Middle East despite the promise of beginning a “new chapter” in the relations between the two sides], Jiefang Daily, July 18, 2022, link; Ding Long, Dīng lóng: Bài dēng fǎng zhōngdōng, zhūduō bèi lùn nàn jié shàn guǒ 丁隆:拜登访中东,诸多悖论难结善果 [Ding Long: Biden visits the Middle East but there are tom many paradoxes and it was difficult to achieve good results], Global Times, July 14, 2022, link.

[3] Zhang Quan, Jīn qǐ xiānhòu fǎngwèn yǐsèliè, yuēdàn hé xī'àn hé shātè ālābó - bài dēng rèn nèi shǒu fǎng zhōngdōng zhuóyǎn duōchóng mùbiāo 今起先后访问以色列、约旦河西岸和沙特阿拉伯 - 拜登任内首访中东着眼多重目标 [Biden will visit Saudi Arabia, Israel and the West Bank and Saudi Arabia – His first visit to the Middle East has many goals], Jiefang Daily, July 13, 2022, link.

[4] Wang Hui, Fàngxià shēnduàn qù shātè, bài dēng wèihé fēi chě shàng zhōng é? 放下身段去沙特,拜登为何非扯上中俄?[Forced to go to Saudi Arabia, why does Biden want to exclude China and Russia?], Guancha Syndicate, July 17, 2022, link; Gao Wencheng, É tǔ zǒngtǒng fǎng yī shìfàng duōchóng xìnhào 俄土总统访伊释放多重信号 [The visits of the Russian and Turkish presidents to Iran sends multiple signals], Xinhua, July 20, 2022, link.

[5] Niu Song, Déhēilán “sānguózhì”|é yī hélì yā měi tuǒxié, dàn zhè zhǒng bàotuán yě hěn cuìruò 德黑兰“三国志”|俄伊合力压美妥协,但这种抱团也很脆弱 [The "Three Kingdoms" in Tehran | Russia and Iran work together to pressure the United States to compromise but this group is also very fragile], The Paper, July 26, 2022, link.

[6] Fan Hongda, Fànhóngdá: Shìjiè dàguó yǔ bùduàn chóng sù de zhōngdōng 范鸿达:世界大国与不断重塑的中东 [Fan Hongda: The great powers and the constantly changing Middle East], Guancha Syndicate, July 22, 2022, link.

[7] Tang Zhichao, Zhōngdōng guójiā mài xiàng zhànlüè zìzhǔ 中东国家迈向战略自主 [Middle East countries move toward strategic autonomy], Globe, July 26, 2022, link.

[8] Tang Jianduan, Jǐngtì ‘dà bǐng wéijī’! É wū chōngtú zàicì jǐngshì ālābó shìjiè 警惕‘大饼危机’!俄乌冲突再次警示阿拉伯世界 [Be wary of the “bread crisis”! The Russia-Ukraine conflict sends another warning to the Arab world], Shanghai Observer, July 1, 2022, link.

[9] Li Zhenjie, Huán dìzhōnghǎi qūyù yíng lái “zhì àn shíkè” 环地中海区域迎来“至暗时刻” [The “darkest hour” of the Mediterranean region], Globe, July 4, 2022, 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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