June 2021

China looks at the Mediterranean Region
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Israeli foreign policy under the first government without Benjamin Netanyahu, and the election of Ebrahim Raisi as the eighth Iranian president, are the two issues that dominated the Chinese debate on the wider Mediterranean region in June. Elections in Syria and the relations between Turkey and the European Union were among the topics touched upon by Chinese media and commentators as well. Importantly, this issue of the ChinaMed Observer also features the review of an article on China’s Middle Eastern approach written by one of the country’s top experts.

The thirty-sixth government of Israel, or the Bennett–Lapid government, was born on June 13, 2021, after a coalition agreement was signed between Yesh Atid, Blue and White, Yamina, the Labor Party, Yisrael Beiteinu, New Hope, Meretz, and the United Arab List earlier that same month. The government is the first to include an independent Arab Israeli party as an official member of the governing coalition. It is also the first after 12 years without Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud. These elements, plus the renewed focus of the international community on the situation in Jerusalem, as well as the quickly worsening relations between China and Israel, made Chinese media and scholars pay significant attention to the situation in Israel, and how that might impact on the region. In general, Chinese scholars interviewed by the media expect more continuity than change compared to the policies pursued by Netanyahu. For example, Ding Long, a professor at Shanghai International Studies University (SISU), wrote in the Global Times that the change of government is a “landmark” in Israeli history but it hardly represents a radical turning point. [1] Yu Guoqing, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of West-Asian and African Studies, and Li Weijian, a senior scholar at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies (SIIS) and the president of the Chinese Association for Middle Eastern Studies, made a similar point when talking with journalists from The Beijing News and Xinmin Evening News, respectively. [2] According to Yu, Bennet remains a rightwing politician like Netanyahu, who took tough stances on both the Iranian nuclear deal and the Palestinians. While he will have to focus on domestic economic issues and repair the relations with the United States, one should not expect him to be softer in foreign policy but simply more cautious. As to Li’s comments, he emphasized that the presence of Arabs in the government might partially soften some of the most controversial policies adopted by the previous government. However, it is highly unlikely that there will be any meaningful change in how Israel will approach the Palestinians and Iran.

However, Israel’s policy vis-à-vis the Palestinians is not the only thing that will remain the same. The general trends in Arab politics will continue to make the issue of the Palestinians a marginal one in the region. SISU’s Niu Song wrote that no regional player has a real interest in helping the Palestinians, though one should not completely ignore the strong anti-Israeli public opinion in many countries. [3] Tian Wenlin, a researcher at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), too, argued in an article in Xinhua’s Globe magazine that the Arab world remains highly fragmented, with pan-Arabism clearly in retreat. [4] According to Tian, Israel will be the only country to benefit from this. Yet, this is just one of the factors that makes it difficult to resolve the Palestinian issue. In an article published in The Paper, Liu Zhongmin listed other problems as well. [5] Firstly, the legacy of the Trump administration and tensions between Russia and the United States in the Middle East are the main causes of the stalemate among great powers over this issue. Secondly, regional powers are competing against each other to fill the power vacuum created by the decreasing American influence in the region. Thirdly, Palestinian nationalism remains “immature” as the main Palestinian organizations are unable to coordinate, are in the hands of powerful families, lack support outside urban areas, and are overly depending on external patrons. Finally, pan-Islamism has turned out to be a weak unifying force with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation doing little more than offering moral support to the Palestinians.

Against this background, Chinese scholars, however, have also identified something that has changed: Israel’s attitude toward China as symbolized by the Israeli signing on to a condemnation issued at the United Nations Human Rights Council’s 47th session. Talking with the Global Times, Ding Long declared that Israeli actions should be seen as the result of American pressure, as well as Israel’s own reaction to the Chinese support for the Palestinians. [6] Ding did not clarify whether the thinks that this is a temporary downturn or Sino-Israeli relations will remain cold for a while. Instead, he clearly alluded to the fact that this is something that Israel, not China, wanted because “China’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has never changed, and all its statements comply with international law and the two-state agreement.”

Moving to Iran, Ebrahim Raisi has won the presidential election as expected by many. Somehow, like in Israel’s case, Raisi’s election is seen by Chinese scholars as an important event that, however, will not change the situation in a radical manner. For example, Jin Liangxiang, a scholar at SIIS, told to Xinmin Evening News that Raisi’s arrival to power will not undermine Iran’s engagement in the negotiations with the United States. Actually, the presence of a conservative in power could ensure a stronger commitment to the terms, once an agreement will be reached. Writing for Xinhua, Jin added that even though reviving the nuclear deal is the only way to revive the Iranian economy, and Raisi knows that, we should expect moments of tensions with the United States because Raisi will not want to show weakness to his constituency, and provocation will not go unanswered. [7] Qian Xuming and Wang Bo, two scholars at SISU, and SIIS’ Zhao Jianming expressed similar opinions during a workshop held in Shanghai on June 23rd, adding that the relations with Israel will also be very tense in the foreseeable future because both countries are now ruled by hardliners that have to prove their worth after being elected. [8] Moreover, Liu Lanyu, a researcher at Tsinghua University, pointed out that Iranian society remains highly divided. [9] Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s appeal among Iranians and his exclusion from the list of candidates by the Guardian Council cannot hide the fact that Raisi enjoys only partial support. We could not find articles in Chinese about China’s perception of the possible impact Iranian election on Sino-Iranian ties but SISU’s Niu Song published an article in the English version of the Global Times, writing that he expects cooperation to become more intense but no formal alliance will be established. Stating in an explicit manner what Chinese media and commentators have implied for a long time, Niu wrote that China has no interest in upgrading the relations with Iran beyond what they are today.

Iran and Israel were not the only country where elections were held. Presidential elections were also held in Syria on May, 26 2021, though they did not produce any change in the Syrian government: Bashar al-Assad won with more than 95% of the votes. Yan Wei, a professor at the Syrian Research Center at China Northwestern University, wrote a commentary for Xinhua’s Globe magazine about it. [10] While Yan spends many words briefly reviewing al-Assad’s experience in power, the most interesting part of the article consists of a few words at the end, where he points out that al-Assad’s re-election “has made it more difficult to reach a political reconciliation in the country, at least to some extent.” While this comment is not a particular criticism of the Syrian leader, it adds credibility to the statement made by Ambassador Wu Sike in late 2019: China acted between late 2011 and early 2012 at the Security Council more to protect the principle of sovereignty and prevent another destabilizing intervention by Western powers, than to save al-Assad per se.

Uncertainty about change also surrounds the relations between Turkey and the European Union. In late May, the Slovenian Foreign Minister, Anže Logar, hosted his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu in Ljubljana, and stated his country’s support to strengthen the relations between Turkey and the European Union during the Slovenian presidency of the Union in the second half of 2021. Yet, Cui Hongjian, the director of the Institute of European Studies at the China Institute of International Studies, told to the People’s Daily that it is unlikely that there will be any real improvement between Ankara and Brussels. [11] The maritime dispute between Turkey and Greece in the Aegean Sea has already become a big source of distrust between Turkey and the European Union as a whole. On May 19, the European Parliament called on the European Commission to suspend the talks with Turkey to access the Union unless democratic reforms are carried out. Hence, Cui stated that real progress can be made only if both sides make significant efforts to improve the relations.

The decline of American influence, the decreasing importance of oil, rising secularism, and the change in the relations between Arab countries and Israel are bringing about important changes in the region, wrote CICIR’s leading expert Niu Xinchun, and China must avoid falling into two kinds of trap. [12] The first is great power competition. According to Niu, China and the United States have no clashing interests in that region and, in any case, the Americans are in a strong position to damage Chinese interests there, such as a stable flow of oil. Secondly, China must also resist the temptation to deploy troops in the region. Niu points out that some believe that China’s presence in the region is uncomplete and unbalanced due to the lack of military power. However, he believes that the military is not the right tool to deal with regional problems, especially because most of them were caused by external military interventions. Moreover, the American experience surely shows that the costs for acting militarily are enormous. Hence, Niu argues that China should focus on three tasks. Firstly, China should help set up a regional security mechanism, and take advantage of the positive momentum of the relations between Israel and Arab countries, and between Iran and Gulf countries. Secondly, China should use its experience of economic development to “help Arab countries to carry out political, economic and social reforms.” This is an imperative for many countries in the region in the post-Arab Spring era. Finally, China must continue opposing American hegemony and interventionism in the region. As Niu writes, “opposing these practices is not only conducive to peace and stability in the Middle East, but also in line with China's international political interests.”

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[1] Ding Long, Quánlì gēngtì bùshì yǐsèliè wàijiāo “zhuǎnzhédiǎn” 权力更替不是以色列外交“转折点” [The change of those in power is not a “turning point” for Israeli diplomacy], Global Times, June 16, 2021, link.

[2] Zhang Lei, 60:59 Jīngxiǎn tōngguò! Yǐsèliè xīn zǒnglǐ shì nèi tǎ ní yǎ hú de “túdì”?  60:59惊险通过!以色列新总理是内塔尼亚胡的“徒弟”?[60:59 an exciting approval! Will Israel’s new Prime Minister be “disciple” of Netanyahu?], The Beijing News, June 14, 2021, link; Qi Xu, 以色列反对派宣布联合组阁成功 内塔尼亚胡执政生涯或将结束 [The Israeli opposition announces the successful formation of a joint cabinet, Netanyahu's time in power may be over], Xinmin Evening News, June 3, 2021, link.

[3] Niu Song, Xīn bā yǐ chōngtú ēn chóu lù 新巴以冲突恩仇录 [The chronicle of the new conflict between Israeli and Palestinians], Globe, June 11, 2021, link.

[4] Tian Wenlin, Zhōngdōng zhèngzhì sīcháo bǎoshǒu huà zhīhòu 中东政治思潮保守化之后 [After the conservative turn in Middle Eastern politics], Globe, June 6, 2021, link.

[5] Liu Zhongmin, Yuānyuānxiāngbào hé shíliǎo: Bā yǐ chōngtú tínghuǒ hòu de lěng sīkǎo 冤冤相报何时了:巴以冲突停火后的冷思考 [Endless revenge: Some thoughts on the ceasefire between Israeli and Palestinians], The Paper, June 2, 2021, link.

[6] Zhang Jidan, Qūcóng huáshèngdùn zài rénquán lǐshì huì shàng zhǐzé zhōngguó, yǐsèliè duì huá zhèngcè kāishǐ zhuǎnxiàng? 屈从华盛顿在人权理事会上指责中国,以色列对华政策开始转向? [Obeying to Washington to criticize China at the United Nations Human Rights Council, is this the beginning of the change in Israel’s China policy?], Global Times, June 25, 2021, link.

[7] Jin Liangxiang, Qiángyìng pài shàngtái, shì yīlǎng guónèi duì měiguó dǎyā de bàofù xìng fǎnyìng 强硬派上台,是伊朗国内对美国打压的报复性反应 [The hardliners come to power as result of American pressure on Iran], Xinhua, June 21, 2021, link.

[8] Yu Xiaoxuan, Zhōngdōng liǎng chǎng dàxuǎn luòxià wéimù, dìqū wèilái géjú zǒuxiàng rúhé? 中东两场大选落下帷幕,地区未来格局走向如何? [Two general elections took place in the Middle East, what is the future for the region?], The Paper, June 24, 2021, link.  

[9] Liu Lanyu, Yīlǎng zhèngtán shīyì rén 伊朗政坛失意人 [Disappointment in Iranian politics], Globe, June 24, 2021, link.

[10] Yan Wei, Bā shā ěr de mànmàn zǒngtǒng lù 巴沙尔的漫漫总统路 [Bashar al-Assad's long presidential journey], Globe, June 29, 2021, link.

[11] Jiang Jiaxin, Tǔ'ěrqí “rù ōu” xīnqíng réng hěn pòqiè 土耳其“入欧”心情仍很迫切 [Turkey remains eager to join the European Union], People’s Daily, June 12, 2021, link.

[12] Niu Xinchun, Zhōngdōng biànjú xià zhōngguó de jiànshè xìng zuòyòng 中东变局下中国的建设性作用 [China’s constructive role in a changing Middle East], Global Times, June 21, 2021, 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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