January 7, 2019

March 2019

China looks at the Mediterranean Region
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A number of important events took place in March, from the resignation of Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algeria to the Turkish local elections, the decision of the American President Donald Trump to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and Italy signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with China in order to cooperate on the Belt and Road Initiative. Yet, Chinese media and pundits remained largely silent about the former two issues and preferred to focus on the latter two.

A number of eminent Chinese scholars have examined President Trump’s decision by looking at it from different perspectives. According to Sun Degang, the brilliant Deputy Director of the Middle East Studies Institute of Shanghai International Studies University (SISU), this move is about balancing against Iran. After all, Sun told a journalist of the People’s Daily, the United States has a long history of balancing through its regional allies. As the tensions between Washington and Tehran continue rising, Trump’s decision is extreme for its political meaning but not totally unexpected.[1] This is an argument that seems to be widely shared by Chinese scholars, such as Wang Jin from the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), who made similar remarks in the case of Trump’s threat to veto a resolution passed by the American Congress in early March to terminate support for the Saudi Arabia-led coalition in the war in Yemen.[2]

Li Weijian, a Senior Research Fellow with the Shanghai Institute of International Studies and Vice President of the Chinese Association of Middle East Studies (SIIS), said the move of the American President further shows how radical American policy toward the Middle East has become under Trump. Indeed, the Director of the Middle East Studies Institute of SISU, Liu Zhongmin, argued that this is all part of the “Deal of the Century” vision for Middle East peace, which was announced in 2018. Liu, similarly to Tian Wenlin of the CICIR, also believes that the two most likely effects of recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights will be the total shattering of any hope of reaching a peace agreement between Israel and Syria, the general worsening of the situation in the Arab country, and a new wave of violence against Israel.[3] According to reports published by Reuters, Trump made such an important decision after a brief talk with the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, son-in-law Jared Kushner, and a few other advisors. Reportedly, Friedman was extremely surprised by Trump’s openness to the idea. Yet, Yao Yao, a Professor at the China Foreign Affairs University, argued that it would be wrong to think that Trump acted without strategy. Indeed, while he aimed at strengthening the position of Benjamin Netanyahu in the just-concluded elections in Israel, Trump also wanted to score points domestically with an eye to the 2020 presidential elections.[4]

The longest analysis was penned by Niu Xinchun, the Director of the Institute of Middle East Studies of CICIR.[5] According to him, Trump’s decision marks an important moment in the post-WWII era as annexation of foreign lands by military means is, once again, accepted. Given strong support from voters of the Republican Party, Trump was able to act without any political cost at home and, at the same time, he probably helped Netanyahu in a significant way. However, Niu argues, both the United States and Israel will pay a significant price in the future as the regional situation becomes further poisoned and Russia, Turkey, and Iran further consolidate their positions in Syria.

Europeans, too, were criticized by Chinese media, for having wasted a potentially historical opportunity to find a consensus with the Arab League to promote regional development at the first summit of European Union and Arab League leaders, held in Egypt on 24 and 25 February.[6] According to Peng Shuyi of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), this could have benefitted both European and Arab countries. At the same time, if the two sides were able to reach a consensus on regional issues, it could have provided a meaningful response to American disdain for multilateralism. Yet, Peng argues, even the lowest-hanging fruits where not reaped because of disagreement between the two sides over how to solve the problem of refugees and different points of view among the Europeans.

It is against this background that Pan Guang, a Middle East expert at SIIS, surprisingly wrote in favor of improving Sino-American coordination in the region.[7] To begin with, both China and the United States want a stable Iraq. While the US forces have been engaging the terrorists of the so-called Islamic State, China will continue to invest in the country, thereby helping to strengthen its economy. As for Egypt and Lebanon, while both countries are important strategic partners of the United States, China, too, has growing interests there. According to Pan, the situation is more difficult in the case of the Israeli–Palestinian peace process and the division within the Gulf Cooperation Council. Yet, both countries have an interest in a solution to those problems and China. Meanwhile, China’s desire for regional stability was evident in the cautiously optimistic comments by Wu Yihong of the Taihe Institute, Liu Zhongmin, and Ma Xiaolin of Beijing Foreign Studies University on the potential return of Syria to the Arab League.[8] Their assessment that such event was likely to happen at the Arab League summit of March 31 (which did not happen) was probably motivated by their hope that it could have helped to further stabilize the government in Damascus and contribute to the search for a political solution to the civil war there.

As for Turkey, the earliest commentary on the local elections that were held on March 31 was published by the Shanghai Observer, whose journalist interviewed two scholars from local universities.[9] Both Yang Chen, the Director of the Turkish Studies Center at Shanghai University, and Li Zhaoxian, the Director of the China Academy of the Middle East at Ningxia University, agree with many foreign commentators in describing Erdogan’s victory as a Pyrrhic victory. Not only did he lose the largest cities in the country, but the contradictions within Turkish society (political power and democracy, religious and secular forces, official and popular Islam) are becoming more acute. Only the absence of a valid alternative, despite the economic slowdown, makes possible for Erdogan to secure his position without many problems.

Finally, it is time to talk about Italy and the Belt and Road Initiative. In their comments, Chinese scholars recognize that Italy is not “just another country” joining China’s initiative, given its role in the European Union, the G7, and NATO. Yet, according to Zhang Jingwei, a scholar with the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China and the Charhar Institute, it is wrong to think about the decision of the Italian government as a move directed against the United States or other European countries.[10] Italy, he argues, simply acted out of its own economic interest. A similar argument was put forward by scholars from CASS, CICIR, and the Academy of China Council for the Promotion of International Trade.[11] They all stated that the Italian government and companies are attracted by China’s growing economy, which is made even more attractive by Italy’s own economic problems. The renovation and construction of Italian logistics infrastructure, especially the Port of Trieste with its free trade zone and the construction of a 5G network, are described as important areas of cooperation. Unsurprisingly, none of the experts mentioned here made any reference to the many critical voices among Italian journalists and politicians that animated the debate over the MOU in Italy. At the same time, Chinese pundits also avoided framing the invitation that the French President Macron extended to the German Chancellor Merkel and the President of the European Union Commission Junker as something negative and/or related to Italy signing the MOU with China. On the contrary, they argued that it was about intra-European competition to seize the opportunities offered by cooperation with China. Although the Greek government turned down COSCO’s proposal to expand the Port of Piraeus, the Greek port was mentioned once again as a case of successful cooperation between China and Europe.[12] Clearly, there is no intention to change the long-standing narrative on Sino-European relations as almost exclusively based on the complementarity between the poor performance of European economies and the large Chinese domestic market.

[1] Zhang Hong and Zhao Xueyu, Měiguó duì zhōngdōng tàidù gǎibiànle ma? 美国对中东态度改变了吗? [Has the American approach to the Middle East changed?], People’s Daily, 26 March 2019, http://world.people.com.cn/n1/2019/0326/c1002-30995640.html.

[2] Wang Jin, Wēixié dòngyòng fǒujué quán, tèlǎngpǔ wèi shātè zài chūshǒu 威胁动用否决权,特朗普为沙特再出手 [Threatening to veto, Trump moves once again to defend Saudi Arabia], China.com,  20 March 2019, http://opinion.china.com.cn/opinion_62_203062.html.

[3] Qi Jingwen, Liu Chen, Zhu Dongyang, and Liu Pinran, Gē lán gāodì zhēngyì zàiqǐ zhōngdōng dòngdàng huò zài jiājù戈兰高地争议再起 中东动荡或再加剧 [The dispute in the Golan Heights is heating up, the chaos in the Middle East intensifies], Xinhua, 22 March 2019, http://www.xinhuanet.com/world/2019-03/22/c_1124270984.htm.

[4] Zhang Hong and Zhao Xueyu, Has the American approach to the Middle East changed?.

[5] Niu Xinchun, Gēlán gāodì yìngshè chū měiguó de zìsī yǔ gōnglì 戈兰高地映射出美国的自私与功利 [The issue of the Golan Heights highlights the selfishness and utilitarianism of the United States], Global Times, 27 March 2018, http://opinion.huanqiu.com/hqpl/2019-03/14615936.html?agt=15425.

[6] Peng Shuyi, Ōu ā fēnghuì dì túpò, fēnqí hé záyīn 欧阿峰会的突破、分歧和杂音 [Breakthroughs, divisions, and noise at the EU-Arab League Summit], Globe, 27 March 2019, http://www.xinhuanet.com/globe/2019-03/27/c_137904792.htm.

[7] Pan Guang, Hé zé liǎng lì: Zhōng měi zài zhōngdōng hé āfùhàn de hézuò 合则两利:中美在中东和阿富汗的合作 [Joining forces for the common good: Sino-American cooperation in the Middle East and Afghanistan], Shanghai Observer, 13 March 2019, https://www.jfdaily.com/news/detail?id=138368.

[8] Chen Ying, Xùlìyǎ hé shí huíguī ālābó dà jiātíng? 叙利亚何时回归阿拉伯大家庭? [When will Syria rejoin the Arab family?], Xinhua, 16 March 2019, https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/SpTEDLcg6XZ1XqZstNmqfw?agt=111.

[9] An Zheng, Tǔ'ěrqí dìfāng xuǎnjǔ, āi ěr duō ān wèihé shīdiào dà chéngshì? 土耳其地方选举,埃尔多安为何失掉大城市? [Turkish local elections, why did Erdogan lose the large cities?], Shanghai Observer, 1 April 2019, https://www.jfdaily.com/news/detail?id=142367.

[10] Zhang Jingwei, Yìdàlì yuánhé dǐng zhù měiguó yālì cānyù “yīdài yīlù”? 意大利缘何顶住美国压力参与“一带一路”? [Why did Italy withstand the pressure from the United States and joined the Belt and Road Initiative?], China.com, 13 March 2019, http://opinion.china.com.cn/opinion_20_202520.html.

[11] Zhang Wenhui, Yìdàlì zhège guójiā wèishéme tiěle xīn yào jiārù zhōngguó “péngyǒu quān”? 意大利这个国家为什么铁了心要加入中国“朋友圈”?[Why was Italy so determined to join China’s “circle of friends”?], Sina.com, 21 March 2019, https://finance.sina.com.cn/world/gjcj/2019-03-21/doc-ihtxyzsk9407760.shtml.

[12] Yan Yu, Ōuzhōu zhēng xiāng dāchéng “zhōngguó hào” kuàichē 欧洲争相搭乘“中国号”快车 [Europeans compete to jump on the “China train”], People’s Daily, 30 March 2019, http://paper.people.com.cn/rmrbhwb/html/2019-03/30/content_1916602.htm.

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