June 2019

China looks at the Mediterranean Region
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The economic element of the Trump administration’s “Deal of the Century,” which was unveiled at the “Peace to Prosperity” workshop in Manama on June 25-26, did not convince Chinese commentators even before Donald Trump’s adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner went to Bahrain. “Since the ‘Deal of the Century’ clearly deviates from the ‘two-state solution’ recognized by the international community, the European Union, Russia, and China are highly skeptical,” wrote Niu Xinchun, the head of the Middle East department of the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR). [1] While the American plan is destined to fail, says Niu, it will still have important implications for the Palestinians. Niu, indeed, fears that Trump’s plan as well as previous decisions have definitively broken the delicate equilibrium that other American administrations strived to preserve between Israel and the Palestinians; the “Deal” also destroyed any political capital that the United States had left among the Palestinians. According to him, it will be impossible for future Presidents to reverse this situation in any meaningful way. At the same time, Israel, too, does not seem buying the “Deal”, and might simply not comply with it. In that case, writes Gu Zhenglong, a senior commentator affiliated with the China Foundation for International and Strategic Studies and the Xinhua Centre For World Affairs Studies, tensions will further worsen, thereby leading to significant regional instability. [2]

In the case of Iran, too, American policies are under attack. According to Qin Tian of Shanghai International Studies University (SISU), it is clear that Iran is successfully fighting back and called American bluff in the face of a potential strike. [3] According to the Grandview Institution’s Tian Shichen, it is only a matter of time before the United States will attack Iran. [4] Former Chinese Ambassador to Iran Hua Liming, instead, argued that the situation depends on whether Secretary of State Pompeo, National Security Adviser Bolton, and other foreign actors that would gain from a war will succeed in hijacking American foreign policy despite President Trump’s apparent unwillingness to wage war against Iran. [5]

Ambassador Hua made such a comment during a long interview with the Observer, and also put forward his opinions on both Japan’s tentative role as mediator and the Chinese purchase of oil from Iran, which are worth taking into consideration in the light of two other articles published by Chinese media. As for Japan, Hua described it as a humiliation for both Japan and the United States. According to him, Shizo Abe, the first Japanese Prime Minister to visit Iran in 40 years, volunteered to help the Americans but not only did his mission fail but, by coincidence, two tankers with “Japan-related” cargo were attacked in Strait of Hormuz during Abe’s stay in Iran. Wang Jin, an expert at Northeastern University, too, argued that Abe was destined to fail in his attempt to be a “middleman” between Iran and the United States: Japan does not have the ability to influence any of the parties involved. [6] Such event might well be the end of Japan’s aspiration to play a stronger role in the region, something that was deemed possible by Cheng Yun, an Associate Professor at Nanjing University, who wrote an analysis of Japan’s diplomacy in the Middle East for Xinhua’s Globe. [7]

As for Iran, Hua ambiguously declared that “although CNPC and Sinopec stopped importing Iranian oil, it does not mean Chinese companies cannot buy it. I believe that oil trade between Iran and China will not stop.” These words seem to summarize well the evolution of the Sino-Iranian energy relations. As pointed out by the Global Times in November 2018, 7% of oil imports to China used to come from Iran in the pre-sanctions period and it is impossible to re-gear Chinese refineries to adapt quickly to a no-Iranian oil scenario. Hence, it is likely that China simply cannot avoid buying Iranian oil even after having increased imports from Saudi Arabia and having pursued a diversification strategy that, according to a Global Times article published in June 2019, decreased China’s reliance on Middle Eastern oil to 34,9%. [8] Media reported that Iranian cargoes successfully unloaded crude in Tianjin. Chinese-owned ships, too, have been spotted making port calls in Iran. At the same time, it is important to note that no similar activity has been reported for India and South Korea, two other former major importers of Iranian oil. It is possible that, as hypothesized by Samir Madani, China will try to make the most out of this situation by turning the impossibility of avoiding Iranian oil into a diplomatic tool to undermine the American goal of bringing Iran’s oil exports to zero. This could happen by stopping switching off the Automatic Identification System of its tankers, thereby removing the fig leaf that was used to hide the continuation of China’s imports of Iranian oil.

Egypt for the second month in a row is the subject of articles and analyses published by Chinese media. In May, we reported that Chinese analysts look at that country as a potential resurgent heavy weight in regional politics, although its economic and domestic political situation are not positive. In June, Zhao Jun, a scholar with SISU, confirmed this assessment in two articles. [9] On the one hand, Egypt is investing in its strengthening its military by purchasing new hardware and cooperating with countries like France in order to reestablish its position in the region and maximize its strategic autonomy in a moment where many countries look at Cairo as an important partner in the Libyan theater. On the other hand, the Egyptian regime remains fragile, as proven by the adoption of a state of emergency after then sudden death of Mohamed Morsi, which was probably caused by mistreatment in prison. In any case, Zhao Jun does not see this event as seriously undermining Egypt’s stability in a significant way.

Fragility is a theme that reemerged in the commentaries about Turkey. Unsurprisingly, the defeat of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party in the second round of mayoral elections of Istanbul was seen by SISU’s Niu Song as a confirming the analysis published by other Chinese scholars immediately after the results of the first round of election were made public: Erdoğan is in a difficult position, especially after his opponents received many more votes than during the first round. [10] Moreover, the defeat discredited Turkey’s democratic system while also creating tensions between central and local governments. Somehow, these words echo those of Tang Zhichao, an expert with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, who in February 2017 argued that Turkey is becoming “more Middle Eastern” as its institutions that used to inspire to the Western model of governance have been undermined by Erdogan’s way of doing politics. [11] This fact, writes the Director of the Director of Institute of Arms Control and Security Studies of CICIR Guo Xiaobing, is also evident in Turkey’s acquisition of the Russian S-400 air defense system, instead of the American equivalent. [12] Interestingly, Guo also argued that that issue also showed how political and diplomatic issues are undermining the efforts of Chinese armament manufacturers despite the quality of their products. Yet, there is no consensus on how much the purchase of the S-400 as well as Turkey’s general turn to Russia will affect the relations between Turkey and the United States. The Director of the Turkish Studies Center at Shanghai University, Guo Changgang, indeed believes that the two countries need each other and Turkey will probably make some concessions to the United States to compensate for the acquisition of the S-400. [13]

[1] Niu Xinchun, Niú xīnchūn: Mò dīgū “shìjì jiāoyì” de pòhuài xìng yǐngxiǎng 牛新春:莫低估“世纪交易”的破坏性影响 [Niu Xinchun: Do not underestimante the negative effects of the “Deal of the Century”], Global Times, 19 June 2019, http://opinion.huanqiu.com/hqpl/2019-06/15017539.html?agt=15422.

[2] Gu Zhenglong, Gù zhènglóng:“Shìjì jiāoyì” ràng yǐ bā shuāngfāng yílǜ chóng zhòng 顾正龙:“世纪交易” 让以巴双方疑虑重重 [Gu Zhenglong: Both Israel and the Palestinians have doubts about the “Deal of the Century”], Cfisnet, 17 June 2019, http://comment.cfisnet.com/2019/0617/1316448.html.

[3] Qin Tian, Yīlǎng “háodǔ” měiguó de zhànzhēng “hóngxiàn 伊朗“豪赌”美国的战争“红线 [Iran gambles against the American “red lines”], Beijing Review, 24 June 2019, http://www.beijingreview.com.cn/shishi/201906/t20190624_800171470.html.

[4] Tian Shichen, Tián shìchén: Ruò duì yī dòngwǔ, měiguó huì zhǎo shénme jièkǒu 田士臣:若对伊动武,美国会找什么借口 [Tian Shichen: What excuse will the United States use if it wants to attack Iran?], Global Times, 21 June 2019, http://opinion.huanqiu.com/hqpl/2019-06/15027787.html?agt=15422.

[5] Huá límíng: Āmàn wān yóulún zháohuǒ, bùshì cā qiāng zǒuhuǒ, ér shì yǒurén diǎnhuǒ 华黎明:阿曼湾油轮着火,不是擦枪走火,而是有人点火 [Hua Liming: Tanks on fire in the Gulf of Oman, this is not an accident, someone lighted up the fire], Observer, 15 June 2019, http://www.guancha.cn/HuaLiMing/2019_06_15_505694_s.shtml.

[6] Wang Jin, Ānbèi de yīlǎng zhī lǚ: Dāng “chuán huàtǒng” xiǎn jīlèi, zuò “tiáotíng rén” quē quánwēi 安倍的伊朗之旅:当“传话筒”显鸡肋,做“调停人”缺权威 [Abe’s trip to Iran: can pass the message but does not have the influence to be a mediator], The Paper, 12 June 2019, https://www.thepaper.cn/newsDetail_forward_3659831.

[7] Cheng Yun, Rìběn shēnhuà zhōngdōng bùjú 日本深化中东布局 [Japan to deepens its involvement in the Middle East], Globe, 19 June 2019, http://www.xinhuanet.com/globe/2019-06/19/c_138131027.htm.

[8] Lin Boqiang, Línbóqiáng: Néngyuán duìwài yīcún dù gāo bù děngyú bù ānquán 林伯强:能源对外依存度高不等于不安全 [Lin Boqiang: Reliance on foreign energy sources does not mean being less safe], Global Times, 6 June 2019, http://opinion.huanqiu.com/hqpl/2019-06/14969090.html?agt=15422.

[9] Zhao Jun, Āi fǎ jūnshì hézuò ‘gè qǔ suǒ xū’埃法军事合作‘各取所需 [Sino-Egyptian military cooperation, to each his own], PLA Daily, 13 June 2019, http://www.81.cn/jfjbmap/content/2019-06/13/content_235884.htm; Zhao Jun, Mùěrxī túrán bìngshì, āijí wèihé xuānbù jìnrù jǐnjí zhuàngtài? 穆尔西突然病逝,埃及为何宣布进入紧急状态? [Morsi is suddenly dead, why Egypt entered the state of emergency?], China.com, 20 June 2019, http://opinion.china.com.cn/opinion_53_208953.html.

[10] Niu Song, Gāngà èr lián bài gěi āi ěr duō ān qiāo xiǎng jǐngzhōng 尴尬二连败给埃尔多安敲响警钟 [The awkward results of the second mayoral elections rings an alarm bell for Erdogan], Wen Wei Po, 25 June 2019, http://www.cssn.cn/gjgxx/gj_zdjs/201906/t20190625_4923453.html.

[11] Chen Jing, Zhuanjia: baokong "changtaihua" tuerqi jiazhu "zhongdonghua" 专家:暴恐"常态化" 土耳其逐渐"中东化" [Expert: terrorism is "normalizing" and Turkey is gradually "becoming a Middle Eastern country"], China Youth Daily, 4 January 2017, http://mil.youth.cn/djbd/201701/t20170104_9010320.htm.

[12] Guo Xiaobing, Guō xiǎobīng: Tǔ'ěrqí gòumǎi fángkōng xìtǒng, yuǎn bùzhǐ mǎimài shuāngfāng de shì er 郭晓兵:土耳其购买防空系统,远不止买卖双方的事儿 [Guo Xiaobing: Turkey’s purchase of the air defense system, much more than buying and selling], Cfis, 19 June 2019, http://comment.cfisnet.com/2019/0619/1316480.html.

[13] An Jing, Tǔ měi guānxì: Bù hépāi dàn dǒng pínghéng [US-Turkey relations: Different but balanced], Liberation Daily, 10 June 2019, http://www.xinhuanet.com/world/2019-06/10/c_1210154376.htm.

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