June 2020

China looks at the Mediterranean Region
Download PDF

The Middle East is the focal point of this month’s ChinaMed Observer. In light of the discussion at the United Nations regarding the extension of the arms embargo against Iran and the announcement of a 25-year agreement between Tehran and Beijing, we start our review of Chinese media in Iran. Nonetheless, other interesting commentaries on Syria, Libya, and Palestine were also published in Chinese media.

On June 22, the Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiei declared that Iran and China have drafted a 25-year plan for economic cooperation. “This plan proves failure of the United States’ policies to isolate Iran, sever Iran’s relations with the international community and also to harm Iran’s will to expand relations with other countries,” Rabiei said during a press conference. Although some trace its origin back to the upgrade of the Sino-Iranian relations into a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership made in September 2016, the details of the plan are unknown, and this lack of information has sparked an intense debate in Iran. On the contrary, Chinese authorities have been silent. So far, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has not released any statement regarding Iran beyond the ongoing discussion at the United Nations regarding sanctions against Iran.

Against this background, we found an unofficial commentary written by Fan Hongda, a professor at Shanghai International Studies University (SISU). [1] Fan alludes to two factors that can explain the decision to agree on a long-term cooperation plan. The first is that “Iran has stood close to China on issues of sovereignty related to Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Tibet.” The second element is that, according to him, the influence of the “American constraining factor” is increasingly less important to China. For that reason, he writes, “there is much space for the Sino-Iranian relations to develop.” Nonetheless, Fan also mentions a key issue: planning and implementing are two different things. It is the responsibility of the two countries to follow-up on their commitment.

It is difficult to interpret Fan’s comment regarding the decreasing influence of the United States on China’s relations with Iran. It might be true, at least to some extent, if we read it in terms of the value of cooperating over the Iranian nuclear issue. As Sino-American relations continue to worsen, Chinese policymakers are likely to favor leveraging Iran to frustrate the policies of the Trump administration, which have been largely unsuccessful in any case. However, we have to wait until the Chinese side will make its position known.

In any case, Chinese commentators seem resigned to the fact that hard lines have taken control in Tehran. For example, Wang Jin, associate professor at Northwestest University’s Institute of Middle Eastern Studies, argues that Iran’s issuing of arrest warrants for Donald Trump and other members of his administration is more than a symbolic move. [2] It reflects the dominant view that the previous moderate approach has failed and that there cannot be dialogue with the United States.

In another article, Wang Jin also commented on the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, the most wide-ranging U.S. sanctions ever applied against Syria, that was signed into law on June 17. [3] Unlike previous sanctions, the Caesar Act brings under its jurisdiction third-country actors who engage in such activities, including the cross-border business networks that are crucial to the regime’s survival. Indeed, as Wang points out, Iran and Russia are explicitly mentioned in the document. Nevertheless, he believes that the effect of the sanctions will be the prolongation of the conflict and more difficulties to bring it to an end.

As to the conflict in Libya, it provides, once again, the opportunity for Chinese commentators to express their skepticism regarding Turkish foreign policy. This is evident in comments made by Wang Jingyan, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. [4] While admitting that Turkish intervention in support of the Government of National Accord has decisively contributed to changing the course of the conflict, Wang emphasizes how this proactive foreign policy originates from the domestic difficulties of Erdogan and will lead Turkey to be further isolated in the region. This is the latest of a long series of articles where Chinese analysts describe Turkey’s foreign policy as overly ambitious and, sometimes, not beneficial to regional stability.

In any case, Turkey is not the only actor that is described as struggling to pursue its own regional interest through the involvement in Libya. Zhao Jun, a scholar at SISU, wrote an analysis of Egypt’s “Peace Initiative” describing a country that is trying to regain its position in the region, especially as Turkey is expanding its influence in the Red Sea region and Ethiopia announced its plan to fill the Grand Renaissance Dam. [5] Other Chinese commentators made a similar argument before about post-Arab Spring Egypt. Against this background, the Egyptian initiative—put forward as troops also gather near the Libyan border—is framed as an attempt to show strength. Meanwhile, Egypt’s adversaries advance and its allies, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, doubt its capabilities and have to scale back their support due to the Covid-19. Hence, Zhao concludes, the “Peace Initiative” will not bring any peace. At most, it will be used as an excuse to try to bargain with the other actors active in Libya.

Meanwhile, Xinhua’s Globe magazine published an article written by Niu Song, a Middle Eastern studies expert at SISU, about Israel’s plan to annex the Jordan Valley. [6] Unsurprisingly, Niu is critical of the plan which he ascribes to the increasingly evident turn to right-wing Israeli politics and the active support of the United States—otherwise described as being “kidnapped by right-wing populism.” In general, Niu’s analysis echoes those of others as he highlights how the Palestinian issue has been marginalized and how the Arab world has proven incapable of resisting to Israel’s plan. Saudi Arabi’s “ambiguous and cold-blooded attitude” is particularly evident.

Saudi Arabia and other oil-producing countries in the Gulf are the center of focus in an article published by the Global Times on the economic trends in the Middle East. [7] The author, Ding Long from the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing, argues that those countries face significant challenges as they try to diversify their economy in a moment of low oil prices. One important reason, he writes, is that they have pursued an ineffective strategy of investment abroad in recent years. First, they invested abroad through intermediaries that were not capable of making much profit. They also made investments, like the acquisition of football clubs, that do not make sense in economic terms. Second, the investments that they carried out did not bring technological advancements home and, thus, did not help the local economy to diversify and develop. In turn, they simply changed what they are dependent on—from oil to other countries' economies. Third, many investments in the United States were made for political reasons and, consistently, did not target the most profitable enterprises.

Hence, he argues, we should expect a number of different developments. First, the entire region will suffer because the oil-producing countries used to help other countries in economic trouble but are now no longer in a position to offer aid. Lebanon, for example, will not be rescued by the monarchies in the Gulf. Egypt also relies on the remittance of workers in other countries and will have serious problems as those economies slow down. Second, the social contract in oil-producing countries will change. Ruling monarchies will not be able to ignore what the people want and social actors will become more influential. Third, the region will become less important in world politics and the oil-producing countries will enter in competition with Russia and the United States in the international energy market, thereby facing significant challenges.

[1] Fan Hongda, Guānchájiā | yīlǎng xuānbù yǔ huá 25 nián quánmiàn hézuò jìhuà, zhōng yī guānxì néng fǒu jìnyībù zǒu jìn? 观察家 | 伊朗宣布与华25年全面合作计划,中伊关系能否进一步走近?[The Observer | Iran announces a 25-year cooperation plan with China; Are China and Iran moving a step closer to each other?], Shanghai Observer, June 30, 2020, link.

[2] Wang Jin, “Xiàng tè lǎng pǔ fā dàibǔ lìng”: Yīlǎng qiángyìng pài zhèngzhì lìliàng de “fǎnjí” “向特朗普发逮捕令”:伊朗强硬派政治力量的“反击” [“Issue the arrest warrant for Trump”: The “counterattack” of Iran’s hardliners], The Beijing News, June 30, 2020, link.

[3] Li Jiabao, Měi duì xù xīn zhìcái “yīshí sān niǎo”? 美对叙新制裁“一石三鸟”?[American new sanctions against Syria: “three birds with one stone”?], People’s Daily, June 25, 2020, link.

[4] Pan Xiaojing, Yán hé yòu wèichéng lìbǐyǎ wèntí xiàn “guàiquān” 言和又未成 利比亚问题陷“怪圈” [Once again, there is no peace in Libya], Xinhua, June 10, 2020, link.

[5] Zhao Jun, Āijí de lìbǐyǎ wèntí “hépíng chàngyì” huì shíxiàn ma? 埃及的利比亚问题“和平倡议”会实现吗?[Will Egypt’s “Peace Initiative” become reality?], China.org, June 13, 2020, link.

[6] Niu Song, Yuēdàn hégǔ de tuī tǔ shēng 约旦河谷的推土声 [The sound of bulldozers in the Jordan Valley], Globe, June 18, 2020, link.

[7] Ding Long, Dīng lóng: Zhōngdōng jīngjì zhìxù miànlín lìshǐ xìng chóng sù 丁隆:中东经济秩序面临历史性重塑 [Ding Long: The economic order in the Middle East faces historical changes], Global Times, June 3, 2020, link.

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-No Derivatives 4.0 International License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/ or send a letter to Creative Commons, PO Box 1866, Mountain View, CA 94042, USA.
With the support of
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.
Privacy Policy
Cookie Policy