June 2020

The Mediterranean Region looks at China
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In this issue of the ChinaMed Observer, we cannot but pay great attention to how the discussion on the yet-to-be-finalized agreement between China and Iran has evolved in the Iranian media. Other important issues that we found in the media published in the wider Mediterranean region include the discussion on how to balance the relations between the West and China in Lebanon, Sino-French competition in North Africa, and discording views on China in Italy.

On June 23, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif posted a message in Chinese on Twitter stating that “we reached an agreement on deepening of comprehensive strategic cooperation between the two countries, promoting of bilateral 25-year cooperation plan and supporting each other in international issues.” Unsurprisingly, this news sparked a heated debate around the world, including Iran, where concerns of intimate  relations with China are frequently voiced in the media. While the reform-minded part of the elite remains suspicious of China and Russia, Mohsen Shariatinja and Hamidreza Azizi argue that the conservatives—with a deep anti-Western intellectual background—see potential allies in China and Russia.

The currently negotiated agreement, thus, might be interpreted as an attempt by the conservatives to capitalize on the failure of the reformist-promoted Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and try to “seal the deal” with China. However, it is interesting to see that one of the first and most high-profile critics of the agreement is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who played a key role in strengthening the relations with China when he was President between 2005 and 2013. During a recent visit to the Gilan Province, he criticized the Rouhani government for “secretly signing a deal” with a foreign state. “Any such accord that counters the people’s will and national interests lacks validity and will not be recognized by the Iranian nation,” he warned, suggesting that it also violated the fundamental principles of the Islamic Revolution that were meant to “withhold nothing from the nation.”

It is against this background that we read two articles published by the pro-reform Etemad and the Revolutionary Guard-connected Tasnim News Agency. [1] A reporter of Tasnim News Agency interviewed Majid Reza Hariri, Chairman of the Iran-China Joint Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Hariri made a number of interesting comments. To begin with, the agreement was first discussed in 2016, when Xi Jinping visited Tehran, but negotiations only made headway last year. According to Hariri, the Iranian government was focused on the JCPOA in 2016 and the discussion with China was not taken very seriously. It was the relentless American pressure that pushed Tehran to go back to the idea of a long-term cooperation agreement with China. That said, he argued that during the ongoing negotiations “special attention [had] been paid to electric trains, road construction, underground mines and extraction from joint oil reservoirs with a neighboring country.” However, the specific projects have yet to be defined and, ultimately, reports by foreign media about the total contract value—allegedly USD 400 billion—are fake. As to Ahmadinejad’s comments, Hariri rhetorically asks: “How is it that back then the joint cooperation with China wasn’t a cession of the country to the Chinese but the conclusion of a bilateral cooperation agreement today means giving up our sovereignty?”

The article in Etemad is more straightforward in calling out Ahmadinejad’s opportunism and link his words with his decision to run during the presidential elections of 2021. Mohammad Hassan Qadiri Abyaneh, former ambassador and member of the conservatives, stated that “Ahmadinejad is protesting. He protests against everything. One day he makes his birthday wishes to the American singer Michael Jackson, another day he is writing a congratulatory message to the US baseball team that won the national championships. Ahmadinejad wants to show that he exists.” Ali Tajernia, a member of the sixth Majlis' National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, described Ahmadinejad's comments as an attempt to “swim against the current.” According to Tajernia, Ahmadinejad does not have any “cultural, political, economic and foreign policy strategy” and that “his political life depends on swimming against the current.”

Meanwhile, cooperation with China is also becoming a contested issue in Lebanon. Last month, we reported that the Lebanese government has been in touch with China National Machinery Import and Export Corporation for the construction of power plants. Sources reported to Lebanon Economy that the government is aware of Chinese ambitions in the region but the offer is too good and the Lebanese situation too desperate. Yet, it seems that some have started to voice concerns about closer relations with China. According to Al-Liwa, however, there is no need to worry. [2] The journalist argues that many countries in the region have deep economic relations with China, including Israel, and their relations with the United States have not suffered from this. Clearly, he has not been following Israeli media, which continue to report on how the Israeli government is in an increasingly difficult position between American pressure and economic opportunities in China. [3] In any case, the Minister of Industry, Dr. Imad Hoballah, too, has intervened in the debate reaffirming that the government sees China as an important partner for economic development and that the partnership with Beijing should not be misunderstood as a target against other countries. [4]

Shifting our focus to North Africa, we found a very interesting article published in Libya Akhbar, a Benghazi-based newspaper. [5] The article reports that Chinese media have accused Turkey of destabilizing the Mediterranean region, especially Libya. While, as we mentioned before, it is true that Chinese commentators are rather critical of Turkish foreign policy, it is interesting to see a newspaper based in the stronghold of the Libyan National Army using Chinese media to criticize the main ally of the rival Government of National Accord. Besides Libya, we also found new evidence of the Sino-French competition in the Maghreb. On June 22, Tunisian President Kais Saied met with his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, in Paris. During the meeting, Macron expressed his willingness to construct the TGV railway between Bizerte and the southernmost part of Tunisia—an idea that was welcomed by Saied. According to the economist Mohammed Al-Sadiq Jebnoun, this might indicate that the Tunisian government is choosing to turn down the offer made by China, which included a train from Gabes to Tataouine and a “technological area” in Bin Qirdan. [6] In May, we found similar reports about European, especially French, proposals aimed at diminishing a growing Chinese economic presence in the Maghreb.

In any case, the news from Paris might be a welcome one for some in France as the French media spares no effort in documenting China’s “massive” military presence in Africa, and the calls to reduce the European and French dependence on China as a market and supplier find space in mainstream newspapers. [7] Similarly, critical voices against China are present in Italy. The leader of the Northern League, Matteo Salvini, was interviewed by Formiche on a number of China-related issues. [8] Salvini harshly criticized the government for being too cautious on Hong Kong and Huawei’s potential role in the Italian 5G network. This interview is a part of the continuous efforts made by Italian right-wing parties to position themselves as the protectors of Italian national security and relations with the United States, even though the Memorandum  of Understanding (MOU) with Beijing for the cooperation on the Belt and Road Initiative was promoted by a government led by the League with the Five Star Movement, and spearheaded by Michele Geraci, a member of the League. Luca Ferrari, Italy’s ambassador to Beijing, also intervened in the debate through an interview with Affari Italiani. [9] Ferrari’s message was very different from Salvini’s as he emphasized the importance of the Chinese market and urged to avoid the politicization of Chinese aid to Italy against the Covid-19 pandemic.

[1] Jozʾiyat-e tavaffoq-name-ye jameʿ va estratezhik-e Iran va Cin/ Ahmadinezhad dar hamkari ba Cin pish-qadam bud/ Nehayi shodan-e qarardad pas az tasvib-e majles جزئیات توافقنامه جامع و استراتژیک ایران و چین/احمدی‌نژاد در همکاری با چین پیش‌قدم بود/نهایی شدن قرارداد پس از تصویب مجلس [Details of the Iran-China Comprehensive Strategic agreement/ Ahmadinejad was a pioneer in the cooperation with China/ The agreement is to be finalized after the Parliament’s approval], Tasnim News Agency, June 29, 2020, link; Marjan Zahrani, “Hamle”, estratezhi-e bazgasht be “Pasteur” استراتژی بازگشت به پاستور “حمله” [Attack; strategy to return to Pasteur], Etemad, June 30, 2020, link.

[2] Dhu-l-Fiqar Qubaysi, Limadha tahwil ʿalaqat al-Sin wa-Lubnan min al-iqtisad ila al-idiyulujiya? لماذا تحويل علاقة الصين ولبنان من الاقتصاد إلى الأيديولوجيا؟! [Why has the Sino-Lebanese relation changed from being an economic one to an ideological one?], Al-Liwa, June 22, 2020, link.

[3] Ha-Sinim Bemerutz lisgor et hapaar ha-technology mol ha-maarav הסינים במרוץ לסגור את הפער הטכנולוגי מול המערב [The Chinese race to close the technological gap with the West], Arut 7, June 22, 2020, link; Amos Harel, Ha-tacharut bin arhad le-sun gova meyisrael hachlatut kashot, ve-netanyahu yodeaa be-mi hu taloy yoter התחרות בין ארה"ב לסין גובה מישראל החלטות קשות, ונתניהו יודע במי הוא תלוי יותר [The competition between the US and China is making it difficult for Israel to make decisions, and Netanyahu knows who he depends more on], Haaretz, May 26, 2020, link.

[4] Hubb-Allah: al-taʿawun maʿa al-Sin istratijiyy wa-laysa didd ahad حب الله: التعاون مع الصين استراتيجي وليس ضد أحد [Hubb-Allah:  the cooperation with China is ideological and against no one], Lebanon Economy, June 29, 2020, link.

[5] Al-siyn tuhajim al'atma‘ al-iqtisadia al-turkiya fi libia wa al-bahr al-mutawasit الصين تهاجم الأطماع الاقتصادية التركية في ليبيا والبحر المتوسط [China attacks Turkish economic ambitions in Libya and the Mediterranean Sea], Libya Akhbar, June 10, 2020, link.

[6] Mashru‘ al-qitar al-sari‘ ‘aradathu al-siyn lakin tama rafduhu min qibal “alfiransu-tunsiyn”? مشروع القطار السريع عرضته الصين لكن تم رفضه من قبل « الفرنسو-تونسيين » ؟ [The express train project was offered by China, but it was rejected by the "French-Tunisians"?], Buzzcam, June 23, 2020, link.

[7] Michael Pauron, Chine Afrique - Une presence militarie massives [China Africa – A massive military precedence], Mondafrique, June 28, 2020, link;  Francis Journot, Réduire notre dépendance à la Chine, c’est possible! [Reducing our dependance on China , it is possible], Le Figaro, June 8, 2020, link.

[8] Francesco Bechis, Huawei, 5G e Covid-19, difendiamo l’Italia dalla Cina. Intervista a Matteo Salvini [Huawei, 5G, and Covid-19: let’s protect Italy from China. The interview with Matteo Salvini], Formiche, June 12, 2020, link.

[9] Lorenzo Lamperti, “Ambasciatore Ferrari: ‘2022 nuovo anno Italia-Cina. Export, non si può fare a meno di Pechino’” [Ambassador Ferrarri: ‘2022 will be the year of China and Italy. We cannot do without Beijing for our exports’], Affari Italiani, June 5, 2020, link.

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