June 2022

The Mediterranean Region looks at China
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In June, our search through the media outlets of the wider Mediterranean region uncovered a rich debate over the expansion of China’s economic and political influence stemming from some important events that occurred during the month, such as the first China-Horn of Africa Peace, Governance and Development Conference, held in Addis Ababa on June 21-22, and the 14th BRICS Summit, chaired by China on June 23. Moreover, observers from Southern Europe and the MENA region continue to address the repercussions of the war in Ukraine and the stalled nuclear talks with Iran when assessing their countries’ relations with Beijing.

As reported by Hamdi Bashir, a scholar of African affairs writing for the Emirati Policy Center (EPC), the China-Horn of Africa peace conference, which falls within the framework of China’s Global Security Initiative (GSI), is the first step Beijing has taken to play a more decisive role in the field of global security, although no specific issue has been addressed except for the development of the Ethiopia-Djibouti and Mombasa-Nairobi railways in the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). [1] However, Bashir interestingly interpreted a statement by Chinese special envoy Xue Bing regarding China’s contribution to peacekeeping missions as China being ready “to also use military force to protect its investments in the region” while taking practical steps to demonstrate its ability to play a mediator role in the disputes in the Horn of Africa. It is here that Beijing is expected to face more challenges, as the representatives of Eritrea and Somaliland’s absence from the conference could indicate that China is having difficulties convincing “the conflicting parties to agree to negotiate.” In fact, Somaliland is witnessing some growing tensions with Beijing over the issue of Taiwan and the “One China” policy. At the same time, the reason behind Eritrea’s absence would lay in its escalating disputes with Ethiopia, China’s major partner in the region.

In this context, Mohamed Abdel Karim Ahmed, another expert in African affairs, claimed that the conference did not meet the required level of regional representation to comprehensively address the concerns of many of the countries involved, such as Sudan, Somalia, and Kenya, whose trade relations with the Asian power have decreased considerably over the past few years in favor of trade with actors such as Japan and the United States. [2] Moreover, Abdel Karim Ahmed suggested that the convening of the conference, together with the possible militarization of the Chinese policy in the region, could, “at least superficially”, embody “a change in its position of ‘non-interference’ in serious conflicts.”

Concerns over a stronger Chinese role in regional crises were also present in European media, especially with regard to the Russia-Ukraine war. Federico Rampini, a renowned Italian journalist with Il Corriere della Sera, considers China’s alleged support for Russia as the “dissolution of the illusion that China wanted to have a prominent role in the mediation of a ceasefire” and an effort to “revise the world order, designed – predominantly – under American leadership, and to replace it with a new order tailored to their imperial interests.” [3] According to the journalist, in this scenario the European Union would have no option other than to “strengthen Atlantic solidarity,” as it would not be able to implement the policies of rearmament and political unity needed to become a “fourth force” between the United States, Russia, and China. Writing in the same newspaper, Federico Fubini wondered whether European countries “are moving from dependence on Russia to a more subtle dependence on China” as industrial strategic sectors like raw materials processing for semi-conductors, photovoltaic technology, and 5G infrastructure are dominated by Chinese companies. [4] Moreover, if we specifically take into account China’s presence in the Mediterranean, the Italian Ministry of Defense indicated in a new ministerial directive titled the “Security and Defense Strategy for the Mediterranean” that Beijing has been consistently pursuing a strategy of economic penetration in the wider Mediterranean region following the vacuum of power created by US disengagement from the area. [5] The guideline clearly states that this approach, which also has “a growing military dimension,” could harm Italian national interests. This is the first time that China has been explicitly mentioned in an official document as a potential threat in the Mediterranean.

In Spain the debate seems more complex, as we found two opposing points of view on China and Russia’s intent to subvert the international system. An article published by the daily newspaper El País supported US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s position on Beijing being the only actor with enough “will, power and means” to change the international order. [6] This would thus justify China’s ambivalent stance on the war in Ukraine, as it can take advantage of “the destruction caused by Putin.” On the contrary, a note authored by the director of the Observatory of Chinese Politics, Xulio Rios, claimed that, although China has indeed become a relevant country, its expansion is mainly based on economic power, rather than military capability. Therefore, it cannot pose such a threat. [7] Instead, the “West” should be more worried about the deterioration of its own governance system and be aware of the fact that it is necessary to “find formulas for inclusive adaptation” and “shared governance”.

For what concerns global governance, French media focused on “China’s ambitions” for the 14th BRICS Summit that include “federating the global South” to “counterbalance the tendency of Western countries to form a small clique within the G7.” [8] According to Le Monde, this is not possible given the differences among the BRICS countries, such as the border dispute between China and India, differing positions over the Ukrainian crisis, and the fact that several countries have been invited to the G7 Summit of June 28 in Germany. Nonetheless, the newspaper reported the view of Nadège Rolland, an expert with the National Bureau of Asian Research in Foreign Affairs, saying that China is already achieving significant economic (through the BRI) and political success, as many Global South countries have become “disappointed with the liberal democratic model promoted by the United States.” Thus, Beijing could try to use this influence to promote both its GSI and the internationalization of its currency to become able to face potential Western sanctions.

The possibility of a change in global governance drew attention also in Iran. For Donya-ye Eqtesad, the flourishing of “middle powers” and organizations such as the BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization could give Iran many opportunities to diversify and improve its foreign policy position, especially at the regional level, and strengthen its economy. [9] However, some analysts suggested that Tehran should try to establish its own organizations to avoid relying exclusively on Eastern powers since both aforementioned groups are “heavily influenced by China and Russia.”

Although, surprisingly, few assessments of Chinese engagement with Tehran could be found in Iranian media this month, other countries of the region continue to carefully monitor the development of Sino-Iranian relations and their impact on the regional balance of power. In this context, the EPC published a note reviewing the status of the Iran-China 25-year comprehensive agreement document one year after its signing. [10] According to the note, regardless of what Iranian high-level officials say about future Chinese investment in the oil industry, no practical steps have been taken, or even announced, to implement any project in this framework. Nonetheless, there are some indications that this agreement is about to bear fruit for both parties at the economic and political levels, as for example there has been a 30% increase in Iranian oil exports to China in the first quarter of 2022 compared to the previous year. In any case, the 25-year agreement continues to be object of discussion. A Syrian journalist writing for the Iraqi platform al-Hall pointed out that the agreement, and the cooperation in the telecommunications and intelligence fields between the two countries that it entails, is one of the causes behind the most recent halt in the nuclear talks. According to him, this cooperation is the reason behind the introduction of the “Iran China Accountability Act” on June 1 by a group of US Republican Senators that requires Tehran to reduce its financial and security relations with Beijing. [11] It is noteworthy to mention here that Ismail Haniyeh, head of the Hamas political bureau, during a conference on Palestine’s future political scenarios, emphasized the need to tie “strategic alliances” with “large and balanced countries such as China and Russia, as well as Islamic Iran and all countries facing the Israeli-American policy in the region.” [12]

The cooperation in the intelligence and telecommunications fields between Beijing and Tehran is of great concern also for Israel because it is perceived as a direct threat to Tel Aviv’s national security and thus complicates Israel’s already ambivalent view on China. [13] In fact, at least two minor incidents have been reported that could indicate some rising tensions between the two countries. The first is the threat by Chinese diplomats to sever ties with the Israel after the Jerusalem Post published an interview with the Taiwanese Minister for Foreign Affairs in which he expressed concerns over a possible Chinese invasion. [14] Then, Urbanix Group, a corporation which includes infrastructure and real estate companies from Israel and two Chinese firms, submitted a petition to the state (that was then denied) after the corporation was disqualified from a tender, despite having offered the lowest bid. [15] Urbanix Group claimed that the reason behind its disqualification and the negative response of the state to its petitions is American pressure pushing Israel to limit Chinese companies’ access to national infrastructure projects. The Walla newspaper in fact reported that Israel had some security meetings, “some of them with the participation of senior NATO officials, before its decision to disqualify the group.” The issue of the US pressuring Israel to reduce its cooperation with China has been a central issue in the Israeli debate over the past months.

On the other hand, other countries in the Middle East seem keen to attract more Chinese investments. For example, Orhan Turan, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Turkish Industry and Business Association, stressed the strategic importance for both Turkiye and China to increase cooperation in the context of the BRI’s “middle corridor,” especially given the impossibility to operate along the north corridor due to the war in Ukraine. [16] Moreover, the Lebanese al-Mayadeen praised the efforts of the caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati and the Minister of Communications Johnny Corm to attract Chinese investment in the telecommunications sector to solve the worsening electricity crisis in the country, though some Lebanese factions continue to fear that rapprochement with China could cause a severe American reaction. [17]

However, the EPC suggested that the current Chinese economic slowdown might have long-lasting consequences on the Middle East, “directly related to the volume of trade exchange with the countries of the region and the future of the BRI projects, including direct investments, loans, and financing packages.” [18] In particular, the EPC predicted that oil-exporting countries might achieve a high-rate of economic growth this year (4.4%), due to rising crude oil prices, and could benefit from the Chinese slowdown in the short-term, but that this growth is likely to decline in the long-term, as the major oil exporters in the region, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, also need to maintain their non-oil trade volume with China.

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[1] Hamdi Bashir, Al-mubadarat al-siniya li-l-wisata fi munazaʿat al-qarn al-afriqi: hal hiya qabila li-l-najjah? المبادرة الصينية للوساطة في منازعات القرن الأفريقي: هل هي قابلةٌ للنجاح؟ [The Chinese initiative to mediate conflicts in the Horn of Africa: can it succeed?], EPC, June 28, 2022, link.

[2] Mohamed Abdel Karim Ahmed, Al-qarn al-afriqi al-kabir: ma‘mal al-diblumasiyat al-siniya «القرن الأفريقيّ الكبير»: معمل «الدبلوماسيّة» الصينيّة [The Greater Horn of Africa: the factory of Chinese diplomacy], al-Akhbar, June 27, 2022, link.

[3] Federico Rampini, La Cina che non fa da mediatore spinge l’Europa verso gli Usa [China does not play the mediator role and pushes Europe towards the US], Il Corriere della Sera, June 17, 2022, link.

[4] Federico Fubini, Energie e materie prime: stiamo passando dalla dipendenza verso la Russia a quella verso la Cina? [Energy and raw materials: are we moving from dependence on Russia to dependence on China?], Il Corriere della Sera, June 13, 2022, link.

[5] Emanuele Rossi, La Cina nel Mediterraneo, tra difesa e affari. Il punto di Ghiselli [China in the Mediterranean, defense and business. Ghiselli’s point], Formiche, June 9, 2022, link.

[6] Lluís Bassets, China es el peligro [China is the danger], El País, June 5, 2022, link.

[7] Xulio Ríos, China no es el peligro [China is not the danger], Público, June 7, 2022, link.

[8] La Chine tente de fédérer le Sud pour « dépasser la petite clique » du G7, [China is trying to federate the South to 'overtake the small clique' of G7], Le Monde, June 21, 2022, link.

[9] Nezam-e jahani faqat Cin va Rusiye nist نظام جهانی فقط چین و روسیه نیست [The international order is not only China and Russia], Donya-ye Eqtesad, June 28, 2022, link.

[10] ʿAlaqat Iran wa-l-Sin baʿd murur ʿam ʿala tawqiʿ al-ittifaqiyat al-istratijiya علاقات إيران والصين بعد مرور عام على توقيع الاتفاقية الاستراتيجية [Iran-China relations one year after the signing of the strategic agreement], EPC, June 7, 2022, link.

[11] Ramiz al-Humsi, Ma ʿalaqat al-Sin bi-iqaf al-ittifaq al-nawawi maʿa Iran ? ما علاقة الصين بإيقاف الاتفاق النووي مع إيران؟ [What is China’s relation with the halt of the nuclear agreement with Iran ?], al-Hall, June 2, 2022, link.

[12] Haniyeh yadʿu li-tabanni 4 mutaghayyirat li-banaʾ al-ruʾyat al-istratijiya wa-l-infitah ʿala al-duwal al-wazana mithl al-Sin wa-Rusiya wa-Iran هنية يدعو لتبني4 متغيرات لبناء الرؤية الاستراتيجية والانفتاح على الدول الوازنة مثل الصين وروسيا وإيران [Haniyeh calls for the adoption of four principles to build the strategic vision and open to balanced countries such as China, Russia and Iran], al-Quds al-Arabi, June 19, 2022, link.

[13] Eyal Pinko, HaYi’um MeHaMizrakh: Kakh Shituf Pe’ula Modiyini Ben Sin LeYiran Mashpi’a Al HaEzor | Parshanut האיום מהמזרח: כך שיתוף פעולה מודיעיני בין סין לאיראן משפיע על האזור | פרשנות [The threat from the East: how intelligence cooperation between China and Iran affects the region | Commentary], Maariv, June 4, 2022, link.

[14] Shani Romani, LeAkhar HaReayon Yim Sar HaHutz Shel Taiwan: HaYim Anu BeFitkho Shel Mashber Yim Sin? לאחר הריאיון עם שר החוץ של טייוואן: האם אנו בפתחו של משבר עם סין? [After an Interview with the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Taiwan: are we on the verge of a crisis with China?], Maariv, May 31, 2022, link.

[15] Tguvat HaMedina BeMikhraz HaRakevet HaKala Meyida: HaSinim Lo Retsuyim BeYisrael, תגובת המדינה במכרז הרכבת הקלה מעידה: הסינים לא רצויים בישראל [What the state’s response in the light train tender issue demonstrates: the Chinese are not welcome in Israel], Wallah, June 1, 2022, link.

[15] TÜSİAD ve Çin Büyükelçisi'nden ortak vurgu: İpek Yolu'na yatırım yapalım [Joint push by the Turkish Industry and Business Association and the Chinese ambassador: let's invest in the Silk Road], Aydinlik Gazetesi, July 26, 2022, link.

[16] Tamara Berro, Lubnan yatlabu musaʿadat al-Sin… hal badaʾa yattajihu nahwaha? لبنان يطلب مساعدة الصّين.. هل بدأ يتّجه نحوها؟ [Lebanon is asking for China’s help…has it begun to turn toward it?], al-Mayadeen, June 18, 2022, link.

[17] Tubatuʾ al-iqtisad al-sini fi 2022 wa-tabiʿatuhu al-ʿalamiya تباطؤ الاقتصاد الصيني في 2022 وتبعاته العالمية [The Chinese economic slowdown in 2022 and its global consequences], EPC, June 28, 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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