March 2021

China looks at the Mediterranean Region
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March was an eventful month, especially for China’s diplomacy in the Middle East and North Africa. The main driver was the March 24-30 tour that brought the State Council and Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi to Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Oman. Importantly, Wang also signed the much-discussed 25-year strategic cooperation agreement with Iran during his visit to Tehran. Chinese analysts also published comments on the blocking of the Suez Canal by a giant container ship, and what the lessons for China are.

The most interesting article on Wang Yi’s Middle Eastern tour was penned by Xiao Lu, who is simply described as an “observer of international affairs,” in the People’s Daily. [1] According to Liu, it is possible to identify four main highlights in Wang’s trip, and all of them clearly show how China is welcome in the region as a result of its being different from the Western powers. The first highlight is that all the countries visited by Wang Yi showed support for China’s Five-point Initiative on Achieving Security and Stability in the Middle East. The second key takeaway is that Middle Eastern countries have resisted the Western narrative regarding the uncertainties related to the use of Chinese vaccines. The third highlight is the Middle Eastern support for the policies of the Chinese government toward the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Finally, regional divisions do not prevent China from preserving positive and friendly relations with all the main powers there. With this, Liu’s article summarizes virtually all the commentaries published by Chinese media that, generally speaking, highlight China’s benign intentions in the region compared to the United States, European countries, and Russia. [2]

Against this background, it is interesting to see what concrete follow-up measures Wang Yi listed once back in Beijing. [3] The first measure that he mentioned was China’s intention to push for a “comprehensive review” of the Palestinian issue at the United Nations Security Council in May this year, when the country will hold the Council presidency. China will confirm its support for a “two-state” solution, as well as organize a conference on such an issue “in due course.” Secondly, China will continue to participate actively in the negotiations over the Iranian nuclear deal, standing with Iran and Russia. This, according to Wang, is part of a broader effort at the regional level that will also include a Gulf security forum. The forum might start as a track 2 or track 1.5 event, and will initially deal with “easy issues,” like maritime security and the protection of oil supplies, in order to build trust to tackle more difficult problems later. The third leg of China’s diplomatic push revolves around the fight against Covid-19 in order to restart the economies of the Middle East and ensure the smooth development of China’s main cooperation projects with those countries. Finally, China also plans to organize a China-Arab reform and development forum, a Middle East security forum, boost dialogues over governance issues, and deepen anti-terrorism and deradicalization cooperation. Interestingly, Syria was not mentioned among the key issues that Chinese diplomacy will prioritize. This could be because the situation in that country continues to be seen as desperate. [4]

It is against this background that now we look at how Chinese commentators discussed the signing of the 25-year strategic cooperation agreement between China and Iran. All the scholars interviewed by The Paper spared no effort in downplaying the strategic importance of the agreement, often quoting the spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Zhao Lijian, to emphasize that it provides only a broad framework for Sino-Iranian relations but not commitment. [5] Yet, Sun Degang, a scholar at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies of Fudan University, is explicit in saying that “the comprehensive cooperation plan between China and Iran is a strategic choice made from a global perspective, especially in response to the current attempts made by the United States and the West to undermine the global order." He also stated that “the China-Iran comprehensive cooperation plan added new meaning to China's partner diplomacy in the Middle East while, at the same time, it has not broken through China's principle of "partnership and non-alignment.” According to Yao Jinxiang, a research assistant at the China Institute of International Studies, the agreement with Iran will contribute to regional stability, and to pushing the negotiations over the Iranian nuclear issue back on track.

It will be interesting to see whether other countries in the region will see this thing in the same way. There are also those who are concerned about the risks associated with the implementation of the agreement. For example, Ma Xiaolin, the director of the Institute for Studies on the Mediterranean Rim at Zhejiang International Studies University, listed three interrelated key issues during an interview with DW News that was reposted on Chinese media and social media. [6] The first concerns the risks for Chinese companies caused by American sanctions. He mentioned that Chinese investment in Iran will reach USD 400 billion as a result of the agreement, though the origin of this information is dubious at the very least. Nonetheless, there is no reason to doubt his words about the fact that many Chinese companies are unwilling to risk being targeted by American sanctions. He doubts that China would be able to do much in that case. The second concern is about the fact that in Iran there are many that support the agreement but many that oppose it as well. Iranian public opinion and politics are changeable. Therefore, while it is clear that the Iranian government has much to gain from the agreement, the risks for China are significant. Finally, Ma is concerned about whether the diplomatic value of the agreement in the context of the turbulent Sino-American relations is enough to justify the possibility to annoy other partners in the region.

While important developments in Chinese diplomacy were taking place, the Suez Canal was blocked for almost a week by the megaship Ever Given. Chinese financial analysts paid close attention to that event, though they argued that the effects on the global economy will be limited. [7] Experts interviewed by the Global Times about the impact of that event on China, pointed out the necessity to consider alternative routes, such as through the Arctic, and means of transportation, like the railway connection between China and Europe. [8] According to Niu Song, a researcher at the Shanghai International Studies University, the accident showed the fragility of the global value chains, as well as the centrality of Egypt in them.  It is necessary to think about emergency plans, he concluded. [9]

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[1] Xiao Lu, Guójì guānchá: Zhōngguó hé zhōngdōng guójiā guānxì de sì dà liàngdiǎn 国际观察:中国和中东国家关系的四大亮点 [International Observer: The four highlights of the relations between China and Middle Eastern countries], People’s Daily, March 31, 2021, link.

[2] Liu Zhongmin, Liúzhōngmín: Zhōngguó zhōngdōng wàijiāo méiyǒu dìyuán zhèngzhì túmóu 刘中民:中国中东外交没有地缘政治图谋 [Liu Zhongmin: China’s Middle Eastern diplomacy does not have malign geopolitical goals], Global Times, March 31, 2021, link; Pòjiù tí, jiě xīn tí, dú dǒng zhōngguó wàizhǎng zhōngdōng liù guó de “sān wéi zhī lǚ” 破旧题、解新题,读懂中国外长中东六国的“三为之旅” [Breaking old problems and solving new ones, understanding the three goals of the trip made by the foreign minister in the Middle East], Chinanews, March 31, 2021, link.

[3] Wáng yì guówù wěiyuán jiān wàizhǎng zài jiéshù fǎngwèn zhōngdōng liù guó hòu jiēshòu méitǐ cǎifǎng 王毅国务委员兼外长在结束访问中东六国后接受媒体采访 [State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi is interviewed by the media after concluding the visit to six countries in the Middle East],, March 31, 2021, link.

[4] Jia Pingfan, Shí niánle, xùlìyǎ hépíng lù zài héfāng? 十年了, 叙利亚和平路在何方? [Ten years have passed, what is the road to peace in Syria?], People’s Daily, March 20, 2021, link.

[5] Yu Xiaoxuan, Zhōng yī qiānshǔ quánmiàn hézuò jìhuà: Wú liànghuà zhǐbiāo, “jiébàn bù jiéméng” 中伊签署全面合作计划:无量化指标, “结伴不结盟” [China and Iran signed a comprehensive cooperation plan: no quantitative indicators, "partnership and non-alignment”], The Paper, March 30, 2021, link.

[6] Duìhuà |yǔ yīlǎng kǔnbǎng de sān dà fēngxiǎn běijīng zhēn de xiǎng hǎole ma? 对话|与伊朗捆绑的三大风险 北京真的想好了吗? [Dialogue|The three risks of being tied up to Tehran, has Beijing thought enough about this?], DW News, April 1, 2021, link.

[7] Qi Qi, Sūyīshì yùnhé “dǔ chuán”, duì shāngpǐn shìchǎng yǐngxiǎng yǒuxiàn 苏伊士运河“堵船”,对商品市场影响有限 [Limited impact of the “traffic jam” in the Suez Canal on the commodity market], China Business Network, March 29, 2021, link.

[8] Sūyīshì “sāi chuán” duì zhōngguó yǒu hé jǐngshì? 苏伊士“塞船”对中国有何警示? [What are the warnings for China from the Ever Given in the Suez Canal?], Global Times, March 31, 2021, link.

[9] Niu Song, Sūyīshì yùnhé yī “jiàn” fēng hóu gěi quánqiú màoyì qiāo jǐngzhōng, jù'é péicháng shéi lái “mǎidān”? 苏伊士运河一“舰”封喉给全球贸易敲警钟,巨额赔偿谁来“买单”?[The ship in the Suez Canal was a wake-up call for global trade, who will pay for it?], Beijing Daily, March 31, 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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