March 2021

The Mediterranean Region looks at China
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Unsurprisingly, among the noteworthy events that took place this month, the media of the wider Mediterranean region focused on the visit of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to the Middle East in late March. Although there are concerns over the impact on the region from the rising competition between China and the United States, China remains welcome there. At the same time, however, tensions rise between China and Turkey and European countries over new and old issues related to Chinese investment and the situation in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Interestingly, we have also found news regarding recent developments in the security relations between Ethiopia and China prompted by the Tigray crisis of November 2020.

We start our review with the signing of the Iran-China 25-year cooperation document on March 26, during Wang Yi’s visit to Tehran. The document, which has been extensively analyzed by experts in Sino-Iranian relations, consists of a general roadmap for the strengthening of the relations between the two countries in different fields, such as industry and trade, infrastructure, military cooperation, and finance. Although some ambiguities persist due to the fact that the official text of the agreement has not been published yet, most Iranian media close to the political establishment expressed high hopes for the future development of the Sino-Iranian partnership. For instance, the Institute for Production Management Strategic Studies of Imam Sadiq University analyzed the possible implications of the agreement in the oil and energy industry, foreign trade, the automotive industry, the financial sector, and the field of technology and innovation. [1] What is important to note is that the authors of this study stress clearly that there need to be a clear and thorough strategy that takes into consideration “both domestic and foreign factors” for Iran to achieve substantial benefits from the implementation of future contracts within the framework of this cooperation agreement. According to the study,  special attention should be given to the development of the country’s free-trade zones, which should be able to attract numerous foreign investments in trade and finance, and technology and knowledge-transfer mechanisms between Iran and China.

In an interview with Mehr News Agency, the former Iranian ambassador to Russia and China, Mehdi Safari, stated that, if implemented, this agreement could be an excellent opportunity to enhance Iran’s economy, especially the transportation sector. [2] But, more importantly, he stressed that, “the signing of this document can be a message to the world that Iran is not solely looking for cooperation with the West through the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).” According to him, however, the partnership between Iran and China is not an alternative to the JCPOA. In fact, Iranian media continue to discuss the status of the negotiations for the revival of that treaty. In an article published by the economic newspaper Donya-ye Eqtesad, Mustafa Gowharifar analyzed the behaviors of the key players in the nuclear talks. [3] According to him, China, despite its overall positive approach to Iran, exemplified by the signing of the cooperation agreement and its stance in the Security Council of the United Nations, might push Iran to make some concessions and will cooperate with it only to the extent in which it does not undermine China’s own national interests. Gowharifar also stated that the only possible path for Iran is to follow a “rational and balanced diplomacy” in order to not only achieve the maximum gain from the negotiations, but also to maintain the country’s independence vis-à-vis both the West and the East.

The signing of the Iran-China 25-year cooperation agreement had a great impact also on the media of the other countries in the region. For example, ʿAbd-Allah al-Sayyid al-Hashemi, writing for the Emirati newspaper al-Ittihad, considers this partnership as another result of the tense Sino-American relations, and wonders whether Tehran will be able to carry out a pragmatic strategy, or if it will submit to Chinese power. Nonetheless, he welcomes a greater Chinese presence in the region because China is a strong ally of Middle Eastern countries, although, he argues, they should follow a shared vision, based on “unity of strategic and ideological interests,” in order to prevent the region from becoming the stage of conflict between world powers. [4] The same newspaper wrote positively about China’s call for the international community to play a positive role in the region, through “mutual respect for the characteristics of the single countries, resolving the Palestinian issue on the basis of a ‘two-state solution’, preventing nuclear proliferation, holding a multilateral dialogue on the security of the Gulf region in China, and accelerating the pace of cooperation.” [5]

Media outlets in Lebanon and Israel, too, link the conclusion of this document to the wider US-China competition, but are much more concerned about a possible consolidation of the Iran-China relations. From the pages of Israel Ha-yum, Daniel Schueftan reads this event as a direct threat to Israel’s security because such “an agreement largely neutralizes the American economic pressure lever, greatly strengthens the Iranian bargaining position, and may herald a renewed momentum of Iranian hegemonic efforts in the region.” [6] Similarly, in an article for the Lebanese al-Jomhuria, Tony ʿIssa suggests that this agreement will have military, economic, and political repercussions on the whole region. Iran will have the chance to sell its oil more easily and to integrate itself better in the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, thereby forcing US allies in the region that have strong connections to China to review their approach regarding the two powers. [7]

Against this background, the Emirati Policy Center investigated the conflictual relation between China and the United States and the implications for the region. [8] According to the analysts, the Biden administration will follow a hard-line policy towards China that will put a lot of pressure on the neutral countries of the region. Although the new American administration’s policy towards the Middle East seems to be confined to ending the war in Yemen and returning to the nuclear talks with Iran, the United States and China have competing interests in the region, such as oil and energy supplies, technological and security cooperation, and the management of strategic ports, that might push them to clash against each other. Therefore, the analysts foresee that the Middle Eastern countries will “need to balance relations with major powers,” and, with regards to the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), “they should use economic and investment relations with China to pressure the United States to increase their commitment to the region and support to the Gulf.” Indeed, this is what seems to be already happening. The Omani newspaper al-Shabiba highlighted the importance of Sino-Omani partnership, exemplified by the developments in the strategic port of Duqm, which, upon completion, will extend upon 11 hectares for a total investment of 11.7 billion dollars. [9] Talking with Al-Arabiya, the expert on international trade, Dr. Fawaz al-Amali, considered this opportunity as “one of the best news over the past ten years.” Thanks to the agreement, the trade volume between China and GCC would significantly increase, with China’s oil imports from these countries covering 60% of its oil needs in 2030. [10] Al-Alami also stressed that, through such an agreement, the Gulf countries would not only improve their relationship with China, but also gain access to important economic groupings such as the ASEAN Group.

Yet, tensions and criticism exist. This situation presents itself in similar fashion also for what concerns Greek ports, as we mentioned already in the previous issues of the ChinaMed Observer, where Sino-American competition is also becoming an important factor. As Panagiotis Sotiris points out, the Greek government is struggling to preserve the balance between the Chinese investment in the country’s infrastructure and the American interests in maintaining and developing its own activities in Hellenic ports. [12] In the meantime, the conflict  between the Piraeus Port Authority and the Chinese state-owned company COSCO deepens. New environmental problems and the lack of a joint investment and planning strategy between the parties has made an already difficult situation more tense. [12]

At the same time. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu expressed his country’s keenness to elevate the two countries’ relations to a comprehensive strategic partnership; President Erdogan reiterated the country’s support for China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity during Wang Yi’s visit to the country. [13] However, Meral Akşener, the leader of the Iyi Party, called the Turkish Grand National Assembly to “define China's practices against Uyghur Turks as a ‘genocide’.” [14] The issue of human rights violations in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region is also the reason for the disruption of relations between China and the European Union, which, following Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom, imposed sanctions on a number of Chinese officials. China responded in the same way, sanctioning European personalities in turn, among which include European MPs, institutions, and companies. [15] According to Arnaud Leconte, professor of Economics at the Centre International de Formation Européenne and LUISS School of Governance, some political group in the European Parliament might push for rethinking the implementation of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investments, which was concluded in December 2020, because of these tensions. [16] Leconte stressed that the fate of this agreement, that needs to be ratified by the European Parliament before coming into effect in 2022, is already very uncertain: the absence of clear protection mechanisms for investment and Beijing’s ambiguous approach to the alleged issues of forced labor and sustainability, together with the lack of cohesion on the European side, might cause a complete reversal in the European approach to the issue.

However, Chinese engagement in the wider Mediterranean region continues. In this regard, we signal that, on March 6, the Chinese Ambassador to Ethiopia, Zhao Zhiyuan, and Demelash Gabriemel, the Commissioner-General of the Ethiopian Federal Police signed a memorandum of understanding that established “a protection mechanism for the security of major projects within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative in Ethiopia.” [17] This agreement is expected to enhance the security of Chinese investments in the African country. This is an extremely interesting development after the Tigray crisis, during which about 600 Chinese nationals were evacuated from that region as the Ethiopian National Defense Forces clashed with the Tigray People's Liberation Front.

[1] ʿAli Azaraʾyin,  ʿAli Maʿsumi, ʿAli Jowdatvand, ʿAli Peymani, ʿAli Javan Jaʿfari, Barresi-e jameʿ-e qarardad-e 25-sale-e Iran va Cin بررسی جامع قرارداد 25 ساله ایران-چین [Comprehensive analysis of the Iran-China 25-year deal], Daftar-e motaleʿat-e rahbardi-e rowneq-e towlid (IPMSS), March 24, 2021, link.

[2] Sanad-e Iran va Cin jaygozin-e barjam nist/ bayad sanad-ra zudtar emza mikardim سند ایران وچین جایگزین برجام نیست/باید سند را زودتر امضا می‌کردیم [The Iran-China document is not a substitute for the JCPOA/ we should have signed the document sooner], Mehr News Agency, March 29, 2021, link.

[3] Mustafa Gowharifar, Ruykard-e taqaboli-e Iran dar barjam رویکرد تقابلی ایران در برجام [Iran’s confrontational approach in the JCPOA], Donya-ye Eqtesad, March 1, 2021, link.

[4] ʿAbd-Allah al-Sayyid al-Hashemi, Al-taslim aw al-intihaziya? التسليم أم الانتهازية؟ [Submission or opportunism?], al-Ittihad, March 30, 2021, link.

[5] Al-Sin tatrahu mubadara li-tahqiq amn wa-istiqrar al-Sharq al-Awsat الصين تطرح مبادرة لتحقيق أمن واستقرار الشرق الأوسط [China proposes an initiative to achieve security and stability in the Middle East], al-Ittihad, March 26, 2021, link.

[6] Daniel Schueftan, Brit Iran-sin: ciba le-deaaga ברית איראן־סין: סיבה לדאגה [Iran-China alliance: cause for concern], Israel Ha-yum, March 28, 2021, link.

[7] Toni ʿIssa, Al-Sin “tahtallu” Iran wa-tuhasir Biden الصين «تحتلُّ» إيران وتحاصِر بايدن [China “occupies” Iran and besieges Biden], al-Jomhuria, March 30, 2021, link.

[8] Ahmad Abu Duh, Abʿad tanafus al-Wilayat al-Muttahida wa-l-Sin wa-taʿthiruhu ʿala al-Sharq al-Awsat أبعاد تنافُس الولايات المتحدة والصين وتأثيره على الشرق الأوسط [Sino-American Competition and its impact on the Middle East], Emirati Policy Center, March 17, 2021, link.

[9] Khalid ʻOraby, Hadhihi hiya al-shirakat al-haqiqiya… fa-daʿwna nakthuru minha هذه هي الشراكات الحقيقية.. فدعونا نكثر منها [These are real cooperation… let’s increase them], al-Shabiba, March 15, 2021, link.

[10] Ittifaq khaliji murtaqib min al-tinnin… madha baʿd al-19 milyar dular sanawiyan? اتفاق خليجي مرتقب مع التنين.. ماذا بعد الـ 19 مليار دولار سنوياً؟ [An expected agreement between the Gulf and the Dragon… what after the annual 19 billion dollars?], Al-Arabiya, March 24, 2021, link.

[11] Panagiotis Sotiris, O oikonomikos atagonismos ipa kai kinas metaferetai epi ellinikkou edafous Ο οικονομικός ανταγωνισμός ΗΠΑ και Κίνας μεταφέρεται επί ελληνικού εδάφους [The economic competition between the USA and China is transferred to Greek territory],  tanea.gr, March 5, 2021, link.

[12] Erevna EMP: I COSCO den leitourgei ws koinwnikos etairos ston peiraia ΕΡΕΥΝΑ ΕΜΠ: Η COSCO ΔΕΝ ΛΕΙΤΟΥΡΓΕΙ ΩΣ ΚΟΙΝΩΝΙΚΟΣ ΕΤΑΙΡΟΣ ΣΤΟΝ ΠΕΙΡΑΙΑ, [NTUA research: COSCO does not operate as a social partner in Piraeus], radar.gr, March 26, 2021, link.

[13] İlişkilerde hedef: Stratejik ortaklık, [Relationship goal: strategic partnership], Aydinlik Gazetesi, March 26, 2021, link.

[14] İYİ Parti lideri Akşener: TBMM, Uygur Türklerinin yaşadıkları soykırım olarak tanımalı, [Iyi Party leader Akşener: Turkish Grand National Assembly should recognize the genocide of Uyghur Turks], Euronews Turkey, March 1, 2021, link.

[15] Russia e Cina contro Usa e Ue: blocchi contrapposti sul caso dei musulmani uiguri, [Russia and China against US and UE: opposing blocs on the issue of Uyghur Muslims], AGI, March 23, 2021, link.

[16] Arnaud Leconte, Relazioni Unione europea-Cina, un accordo sugli investimenti non fa primavera [Relations between the European Union and China, an agreement, an agreement does not make spring], SkyTg24, March 29, 2021, link.

[17] -’ittifaq sini ’ithyubi bisha’n ’iqama ’alia himaya li-’amn al-mashru‘at اتفاق صيني إثيوبي بشأن إقامة آلية حماية لأمن المشروعات [Sino-Ethiopian agreement to establish a protection mechanism for enterprise security], Al-Mal News, 6 March 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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