July 2022

The Mediterranean Region looks at China
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Joe Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia and his presence at the Jeddah Summit for Security and Development 2022 on July 16 reignited debates over the trends in great power competition in the Middle East and North Africa. Specifically, his statements regarding the United States’ intention “not to leave a void” in the region to the benefit of China, Russia and Iran prompted a discussion among observers and media outlets throughout the wider Mediterranean on their countries’ relations with Beijing and, to a lesser extent, Moscow.

According to ʿAbd-Allah Khalifat al-Shayji, a professor of political science at Kuwait University, the war in Ukraine and the tensions in the Taiwan Strait have convinced the Biden administration of the need for the US to reaffirm its commitment to the Middle East to its regional allies: the Gulf countries, Egypt, Iraq and Jordan. [1] This is also because, for Khalifat al-Shayji, Beijing and Moscow would not be able to fill the vacuum left behind by a complete American withdrawal. Regarding China, the professor believes that, despite its huge investments in the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and other deals such as the Iran-China 25-year cooperation agreement, Beijing “does not have the capacity for military expansion […] to compensate, even partially, […] a US military retreat.” Moreover, China would not be able to play a serious security role as long as it refuses to take a clear stance on several regional issues and crises, such as the Arab-Israeli conflict and human rights issues.

Similar opinions were voiced in an article for al-Mayadeen, a news agency allegedly affiliated with Hezbollah, by Tamara Berro, a researcher of Arab-Chinese relations at the Lebanese University, and a Chinese journalist with Voice of China. [2] For the authors, the significant rapprochement between China and the Arab countries that has taken place in recent years while mainly economic, also has a diplomatic dimension related in part to Beijing’s proposals for achieving security and stability in the context of the Syrian civil war and the Palestinian issue. They also pointed out that “the Arab countries stand with China on issues related to its core interests, including Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Taiwan.” Thus, they suggested that Arab countries will try to balance their relations with Washington and Beijing, an approach that will likely be particularly difficult for the countries that rely more on the United States, such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

Also, the countries along the southern shores of the Mediterranean seem to be leaning towards the strategy of diversifying their partnerships vis-à-vis the East-West competition, while at the same time intensifying their economic engagement with China. Reflecting on the implications of the NATO 2022 Strategic Concept and the Madrid Summit Declaration, Moroccan journalist Nizar Derdabi suggested that NATO will likely increase its military presence in the Global South and its cooperation with its regional partners in order to compete with Russian and Chinese influence. [3] Morocco relies on NATO for its defense modernization benefiting from cooperation programs with the United States and France through which it receives weapons and combats terrorism and other threats to its energy infrastructure. However, Rabat also needs Chinese investment in its infrastructure sector and digital economy, as well as Russian agricultural products. Under such circumstances, Morocco will certainly try to present itself as a stable regional partner to consolidate both its security cooperation with the West and its business relations with the East.

Meanwhile, Algerian authorities seem to have started talks to convince the China-Africa Development Fund to finance the 4000-kilometer, 15-billion-dollar Trans-Saharan gas pipeline project connecting the natural gas fields of Nigeria, through Niger, to Algeria and then Europe. [4] According to reports, preparations for this project began in 2002 but the pipeline gained renewed interest following the global energy crisis caused by the war in Ukraine and Europe’s efforts to reduce its dependence on Russian gas.

Additionally, the former Libyan Foreign Minister Abdelhadi Al-Hawaij called on China to “have the courage” to start investing again in Libya as the North African country is now slowly returning to stability. [5] Interestingly enough, in his article al-Hawaij also suggested that his country should remain neutral vis-à-vis the tensions between Beijing and Taipei.

Similarly, the Turkish Trade Minister Mehmet Muş announced the beginning of the implementation of the “Far Countries Strategy,” a growth model based on production and exports, whose main goal is the promotion of Turkish goods in the Chinese market and increasing Sino-Turkish cooperation with regard to the digital economy and e-commerce. [6] However, not everyone in Turkey welcomes further cooperation with China as far-right, ultranationalist, Islamist minority parties affiliated with the ruling AKP continue to strongly condemn the persecution of Uyghurs in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Mustafa Destici, the Chairman of the Great Unity Party, went as far as to state that Beijing is trying to “destroy the Turkish identity” and that Uyghurs “are paying the price of Russia and China's struggle to dominate the region's resources.” [7]

Meanwhile, Israeli Brigadier General Assaf Orion, Director of the Israel-China Program at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), stated that, given the sensitivity of the cybertechnology and artificial intelligence sectors for both Israel and its American ally, but also the huge opportunities for investment that China offers, Tel Aviv needs to develop a “slightly more complex” understanding of its relations and regional and international position. [8] However, a closer look at Israeli high-tech sectors and venture capital funds shows the extent of American influence on Israel’s partnership with China. Drawing from an INSS study edited by Doron Ella, the newspaper Globes analyzed what seems to be the almost complete decoupling of Israel’s high-tech companies from Chinese investments in the last five years. [9] In 2021 the Chinese invested in only 32 Israeli companies, compared to the 45 of 2020, while during the first semester of this year only 12 investments have been completed, mostly in “less sensitive” sectors such as biotechnology and pharmaceuticals. The article proposed three reasons behind this situation: 1) the Communist Party of China’s 2017 decision to limit foreign investment in areas that are not included in the 13th Five-year plan (2016-2020) or the BRI, 2) the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, and 3) Israel establishing an advisory committee to provide feedback on the national security implications of proposed foreign investment during the approval process. This committee was founded shortly after the visit of former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in 2019 and is based on Washington’s Committee for the Supervision of Foreign Investment in the United States. According to Ella, the confidential nature of its activities, which makes knowing how and which decisions are made impossible, appears to function as a deterrent for Chinese investments. Additionally, since the committee convenes only a few times a year, it is unable to address queries from possible investors, which in turn prefer to give up.

Italian media share similar concerns regarding Chinese companies infiltrating their country’s strategic and maritime infrastructure. The news platform Formiche reported that on June 27 COSCO inaugurated a railway link connecting the Port of Trieste to a factory in Slovenia belonging to Chinese electronics manufacturer Hisense as part of the China-Europe Land-Sea Express Line. [10] The authorities involved reacted differently to this event. Zeno D’Agostino, President of the Eastern Adriatic Port Authority, together with the president of the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region, shared a positive view of COSCO’s activities in Trieste although D’Agostino also noted that the changing global dynamics caused by the war in Ukraine will lead to “regionalized globalization,” in which Beijing’s BRI “will not be as relevant” as it was before. On the contrary, Michelangelo Agrusti, president of Confindustria Alto Adriatico, expressed “suspicion” over the expanding scope of COSCO’s activity in the context of growing efforts to prevent China from gaining control of strategic assets. Formiche also reported the signing of a program agreement between the Ferretti Group, controlled by the Chinese state-owned company Weichai, and the Municipality of Taranto. [11] Although the project itself did not cause any national security concerns, the debate on the implications of Chinese expansion continues, as the Port of Taranto, a strategic hub for both Italy and NATO, is managed by the Turkish Yılport, a company with ambiguous ties with COSCO.

We also report new analogous developments in the ongoing tense relationship between Piraeus Port Authority (PPA)-COSCO and local municipalities over the Port of Piraeus. A new master plan was approved by the Greek Executive State that includes 135 acres in the Palataki and Keratsini seafront for new shipyards and other buildings, a new logistic center located inside the PPA-COSCO fence, a new shipyard in an historic site, and the allocation of 770 thousand square meters for multi-purpose buildings inside the port area stretching from Palataki to Perama. [12] Nikos Belavilas, head of the group “Piraeus for All,” lamented that the new master plan was approved in only six days without proper examination, thereby giving PPA-Cosco “uncontrollable power” over port activities. [13] Moreover, no additional studies on the environmental, social or traffic impacts were required. Belavilas also held Yannis Moralis, the mayor of Piraeus, responsible due to his absence during the approval process. For his part, during a meeting with the Chinese ambassador to Greece, Moralis stressed that the new project, and overall cooperation with China, will bring numerous benefits, at least for what concerns his municipality, and that all conflicts, especially those regarding environmental and traffic issues, should be resolved through “dialogue and better coordination” between the parties involved.

Fears over Chinese infiltration have also returned to Iraq in the context of the much-debated so-called “Chinese agreement”, also known as “oil-for-reconstruction deal,” under which Chinese companies are building one thousand schools across the country. [14] Observers and experts, among which the former Minister of Transport and Communications, have shared concerns that the confidentiality of the agreement, whose details have not been made public, may lead to a significant increase of corruption, in addition to the risk of “mortgaging” Iraq’s economy to China, since the deal relies on the unstable oil prices. Moreover, different political sources suggested that behind Prime Minister al-Kadhimi’s decision to implement the deal there could be pressure from militias, political groups and media organizations “loyal to Tehran,” who would have made accepting the deal “one of the most important conditions for voting on his re-election.” Considering the most recent political turmoil in Baghdad, however, the truthfulness of these claims remains to be verified.

Interestingly though, the political debate in Iran regarding the direction that Iranian foreign policy should take in light of regional and international developments, such as the future outcome of the nuclear talks and the war in Ukraine, and the country’s economic situation, seems to show some not-so new trends. This could be seen in the conversation published by Sharq between reformist journalist Abd al-Rahman Fathelahi and Seyyed Jalal Dehghani Firouzabadi, a professor of Law and Political Studies at Allameh Tabatabai University, which focused on the role of economic diplomacy in Iranian foreign policy. [15] Fathelahi suggested that Tehran has not been able to pursue a coherent economic diplomacy because of the ideological dimension of its foreign policy, which prevents the country from establishing much-needed economic relations with the West, be it the United States or European countries. The journalist continued saying that this de facto seclusion from a huge part of the international community has led to the “turn to the East,” in part justified given the economic and energy crisis caused by the conflict in Ukraine, which in turn has made Iran economically and militarily dependent on China and Russia. For his part, Firouzabadi stated that Tehran would show more flexibility towards the West if the United States and Europe acknowledged, at least in part, Iran’s national interests, stressing that “Iran has always tried to create stability and security in the region, and insecurity has been the gift of extra-regional powers.” Under such circumstances, the scholar pointed out that the “triangular alliance with China and Russia” is consistent with the increasing “multi-polarization of the global order” and that it is based on independence, mutual respect and comprehensive cooperation in strategic fields.

Firouzabadi statements are in line with the views of the country’s political establishment. Among others, Ali Akbar Velayati, advisor to Ayatollah Khamenei for international affairs, clearly affirmed in an interview with Keyhan that Iran, China and Russia are the only countries in the world to be independent and powerful enough to contrast American imperialism. [16] Therefore, the two Asian powers are the only viable partners that could meet Iranian national needs. However, on the other side of the political spectrum, the criticism is even harsher. For example, the reformist newspaper Sharq sharply attacked China’s BRI, claiming that it is “not compatible with the national interests of the countries involved, including Iran” and is a threat to global security, as it only serves Beijing's “hegemonic, unilateralist interests.” [17] It also stated that China’s economic and military initiatives against the United States are likely to cause major geopolitical tensions, which need to be addressed with an “appropriate set of diplomatic measures.” It should be noted that reformist actors, traditionally more inclined toward the West, have grown cautiously open to a deeper partnership with China, since the reintroduction of US secondary sanctions in 2018.The outcome of the latest round of nuclear talks could provide new developments and insights on the matter.

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[1] ʿAbd-Allah Khalifat al-Shayji, Al-taʿwil ʿala dawr amni li-Rusiya wa-l-Sin darb min al-khiyal! التعويل على دور أمني لروسيا والصين ضرب من الخيال! [Relying on a security role for Russia and China is a fantasy!], al-Quds al-Arabi, July 31, 2022, link.

[2] Tamara Berro and Nadir Rungh Huan, Al-ʿalaqat al-siniyat al-ʿarabiya ila ayna? العلاقات الصّينية العربيّة إلى أين؟ [What is the status of the Sino-Arab relations?], al-Mayadeen, July 5, 2022, link.

[3] Nizar Derdabi, Maroc-OTAN: perspectives d’un partenariat plus avancé, [Morocco-NATO: Prospects for a more advanced partnership], L’Opinion, July 13, 2022, link.

[4] Li-muwajahat al-Maghrib... al-Jaza’ir talja’ ila al-sin li-tamwil unbub al-ghaz al-ʿabir li al-sahra’ لمواجهة المغرب..الجزائر تلجأ إلى الصين لتمويل أنبوب الغاز العابر للصحراء [To confront Morocco, Algeria turns to China to finance the Trans-Saharan gas pipeline], Al Ayam 24, July 29, 2022, link.

[5] Muhammad Fawzi, Al-Hawaij yad‘u al-Sin li muwasalat al-istithmar fi Libia الحويج يدعو الصين لمواصلة الاستثمار في ليبي [Al-Hawayj calls on China to continue to invest in Libya], LyWitness, July 11, 2022, link.

[6] Ticaret Bakanı Muş: Çin’e e-ihracatımızı artırmak için çevrim içi mağazalar kuracağız [Trade Minister Muş: We will set up online stores to increase our e-exports to China], Anadolu Agency, July 6, 2022, link.

[7] Destici: Doğu Türkistan’ın sesi olmaya devam edeceğiz [Destici: We will continue to be the voice of East Turkestan], DHA, June 6, 2022, link.

[8] Ofer Shelah, Hamivkhan Hasini Veanakhnu המבחן הסיני ואנחנו [The Chinese test and us], Ynet, July 1, 2022, link.

[9] Assaf Gilead, Tsipu Likhbosh Et Hahaytek Hayisraeli Veaz Ne’elmu: Keytsad Hitroken Anaf Hatekhnologia Hayisraeli Mehon Sini ציפו לכבוש את ההייטק הישראלי, ואז נעלמו: כיצד התרוקן ענף הטכנולוגיה הישראלי מהון סיני [They expected to conquer Israeli high-tech, then they disappeared: How the Israeli technology industry was emptied of Chinese capital], Globes, July 13, 2022, link.

[10] Gabriele Carrer, La Via della Seta rientra dalla finestra? Le mosse di Cosco a Trieste [Is the Silk Road returning through the back door? Cosco’s moves in Trieste], Formiche, June 30, 2022, link.

[11] Gabriele Carrer, A Taranto la Cina va in porto. Dettagli (e dubbi) sull’accordo? [China lands in Taranto: Details (and doubts) about the agreement], Formiche, July 6, 2022, link.

[12] Belavilas kata OLP- Cosco-Kivernisis: Pos ksefitrose mia kineziki poli 770.000 t.m. mesa apo to neo master plan Μπελαβίλας κατά ΟΛΠ - Cosco - Κυβέρνησης: Πως ξεφύτρωσε μια κινεζική πόλη 770.000 τ.μ. μέσα από το νέο μαστερ πλαν [Belavilas v. PPA - Cosco - Government: How a Chinese city of 770,000 m2 was born through the new master plan], Business News, July 25, 2022, link.

[13] Sinantisi Dimarchou Pirea Gianni Morali me ton neo Presvi tis Kinas stin Ellada Xiao Juncheng Συνάντηση Δημάρχου Πειραιά Γιάννη Μώραλη με τον νέο Πρέσβη της Κίνας στην Ελλάδα Σιάο Τζουντσένγκ [Meeting between the Mayor of Piraeus Yiannis Moralis and the new Ambassador of China to Greece Xiao Juncheng], Pireas Piraeus, July 2, 2022, link.

[14] ʿAli al-Hayani, Al-madaris al-siniya fi al-ʿIraq: iʿadat banaʾ al-qitaʿ al-taʿlimi am irtihan li-taʿlimat Tahran? المدارس الصينية في العراق: إعادة بناء القطاع التعليمي أم ارتهان لتعليمات طهران؟ [The Chinese schools in Iraq: Reconstruction of the education sector or dependence on Tehran’s instructions?], al-Hall, July 5, 2022, link.

[15] ʿAbd al-Rahman Fathelahi, Diplomasi-e eqtesadi, az ruya ta vaqeʿiyat, دیپلماسی اقتصادی، از رویا تا واقعیت, [Economic diplomacy, from dream to reality], Sharq, July 3, 2022, link.

[16] Velayati: Iran, Rusiye va Cin 3 qodrat-e mohemm va mostaqell dar moqabel-e towseʿe-talabi-e Amrika va Gharb ast ولایتی: ایران، روسیه و چین 3 قدرت مهم و مستقل در مقابل توسعه طلبی آمریکا و غرب است [Velayati: Iran, Russia and China are three important and independent powers against the expansionism of America and the West], Keyhan, July 23, 2022, link.

[17] Mahmud Ashrafi, Diplomasi-e tardid va ruyaha-ye Cin دیپلماسی تردید و رویاهای چین [Diplomacy of hesitation and China’s dreams], Sharq, July 21, 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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