March 2022

China looks at the Mediterranean Region
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As the war in Ukraine drags on, we continue to see its effects also in the Chinese commentaries on the situation in the wider Mediterranean region. While the war is perceived as a factor that might delay the evolution of the regional political landscape, it is difficult not to notice a certain degree of optimism in Chinese analyses: for them the region, especially the Middle East, is slowly but steadily moving away from the United States.

Among the authors of the articles reviewed this month, Liu Zhongmin, a senior scholar at the Shanghai International Studies University (SISU), is the one who stated such an assessment in the clearest terms. [1] According to Liu, what is happening is the closing of a cycle that begun with the Arab Spring in 2011, when the tensions between Sunni and Shiite countries and between those in favor and those against the Muslim Brotherhood reached their peak. He argues that there have been major signs of improvement since 2021, such as the easing of tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia and between Turkey and Egypt, which have “led to the appearance of a positive, albeit fragile, rationality among the major powers in the Middle East. In turn, this is conducive to the formation of a regional order based on rationality in the Middle East.” He foresees that this trend will continue in 2022, although he clearly points out that what we are witnessing is a de-escalation rather than a true resolution of the conflicts of interest between the countries of the region.

Against this background, Liu and others, such as Shanghai Institutes for International Studies’ Li Weijian, told journalists of the Liberation Daily, the official newspaper of the Shanghai Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, that it is not surprising that the recent American attempts to rally Middle Eastern countries to condemn Russia over the war in Ukraine have failed, in particular that of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken who visited the region in late March. [2] “The unilateral domination of the United States in the Middle East in the past was more through the creation of security threats, forcing regional countries to see the United States as a backer, but this approach did not bring security to the region,” stated Li. The cooling of the tensions among regional powers has proceeded in parallel with the emergence of a more multipolar system at the international level and, therefore, Liu believes that the era of American domination of the region is over.

Zou Zhiqiang, an expert at Fudan University, made a similar argument in an article that he published in the Guangming Daily. [3] He wrote that one should not read too much into the fact that many countries in the Middle East voted against Russia at the United Nations as, according to him, no state in the region has really changed its approach towards Russia. Furthermore, he doubts that additional American pressure will change this situation. As Li Weijian told the Xinmin Evening Newspaper, the relationship with Russia is a very important one for many Middle Eastern countries and, therefore, will not be influenced by the United States. [4]

Nonetheless, Chinese commentators believe that the war in Ukraine is likely to cause a delay in the evolution of key regional issues like the restoration of the Iranian nuclear deal and the end of Syrian isolation. Han Jianwei, a professor at SISU, is straightforward in pointing out that negotiations with Iran have been hijacked by the confrontation between the United States and Russia. [5] Noting that Russia has played a minor role in the negotiations, Han implicitly argues that Russian requests that the United States exempt Russian-Iranian trade from sanctions are the main threat to the conclusion of a deal. Writing for Xinhua’s Globe magazine, Liu Zhongmin argues that the relations between Iran and the United States are characterized by moments of acute tension and de-escalation. [6] Today, both sides need and/or want to find a solution to their problems, but American regional partners, especially Israel, oppose any agreement. Moreover, Liu argues that even if Iran and the United States sign a new agreement, it remains likely that their relations will not normalize. At the same time, the tensions between Russia and the United States are making all the actors directly and indirectly involved extremely cautious as they try to find the best way to balance their interests. Among them, Chinese commentators continue praising Qatar’s ascent, a product of its skillful diplomacy. [7] Similarly to the previous month, Turkey’s balancing act vis-à-vis both Russia and the United States is also an object of discussion for Chinese scholars, which see the Ukrainian war as an opportunity for Turkey to shore up its position in the midst of great uncertainty. [8]

Regarding Syria, consensus on whether to allow Damascus to return to the Arab League after its suspension in 2011 remains elusive. Chinese scholar Sun Ying argues that Syria is in a precarious situation. [9] On the one hand, in recent months several Arab countries, including Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates have begun to engage with the Syrian government despite strong opposition. On the other hand, the Syrian government controls only a part of the country and the economy has been crippled by years of war. The lifting of American sanctions would go a long way to change this situation but tensions between Russia and the United States make such a development extremely unlikely.

We close with one article on European engagement with Africa written by Ma Hanzhi, a scholar at the China Institute of International Studies. [10] Ma has noticed that European countries have tried to change their approach to Africa in recent years, shifting their focus from aid to investment. Moreover, there has been an attempt to develop a relationship with Africa as equals as made evident by the latest European Union-African Union summit held in February 2022. However, Ma points out that past European investment plans failed to deliver as, in reality, the Europeans did not commit new resources. Furthermore, political problems remain between the two sides. Ma concludes with a somewhat rare consideration in the context of the Chinese discourse on Africa: although the Europeans are motivated by geopolitical reasons and, in any case, will face problems in implementing their plans, this is a blessing for Africa as competition among great powers brings attention and resources that can benefit the continent.

[1] Liu Zhongmin, Zhōngdōng ruì píng | zhōngdōng dìqū dàguó guānxì huǎnhé de xūshí biǎo lǐ 中东睿评|中东地区大国关系缓和的虚实表里[Middle East Insights | The may aspects of the détente among Middle Eastern great powers], The Paper, March 21, 2022, link.

[2] Qiu Wenhan, Bù línkěn kāiqǐ zhōngdōngxíng, yǒu nǎxiē “zhòngtóuxì” 布林肯开启中东行,有哪些“重头戏” [Blinken goes to the Middle East, what are the highlights?], Liberation Daily, March 28, 2022, link.

[3] Zou Zhiqiang, Měiguó nàn yǐ pīncòu yīgè“zhōngdōng fǎn é liánméng” 美国难以拼凑一个“中东反俄联盟” [It will be difficult for the United States to create a Middle Eastern alliance against Russia], Guangming Daily, March 10, 2022, link.

[4] Wang Ruoxian, Mìjí zàofǎng zhōngdōng duōguó, měiguó guówùqīng bù línkěn wèihé ér qù? 密集造访中东多国,美国国务卿布林肯为何而去?[Many visits in the Middle East, why did Blinken go?], Xinmin Evening Newspaper, March 29, 2022, link.

[5] Qian Xiaoyan, Tuī shēng yóujià! Yī héxiéyì línmén yī jiǎo zài tiān biànshù, é měi bóyì jiājù 推升油价!伊核协议临门一脚再添变数,俄美博弈加剧 [The price of oil goes up! The conclusion of the Iranian nuclear deal is notfar but there is much uncertainty and the tensions between Russia and the United States worsen], China Business Network, March 8, 2022, link.

[6] Liu Zhongmin, Yī hé xiéyì nán jiě yī hé nántí 伊核协议难解伊核难题 [The Iranian agreement will not solve the Iranian problem], Globe, March 17, 2022, link.

[7] Qian Xiaoyan, Duōguó shàngmén “zhǎo qì”! Kǎtǎ'ěr rúhé jǐn xiǎn xiǎoguó dà wàijiāo 多国上门“找气”!卡塔尔如何尽显小国大外交 [Many countries come looking for natural gas! Qatar showcases its small country’s big diplomacy], China Business Network, March 22, 2022, link.

[8] Liu Zhongmin, Zhōngdōng ruì píng|guǎnkòng hēihǎi hǎixiá: Tǔ'ěrqí zài é wū chōngtú zhōng de pínghéng shù 中东睿评|管控黑海海峡:土耳其在俄乌冲突中的平衡术 [Middle East Insights|Controlling the Black Sea Strait: Turkey's Act in the Russia-Ukraine Conflict], The Paper, March 11, 2022, link.

[9] Sun Ying, Xùlìyǎ “huíguī” ā méng lù nánxíng 叙利亚“回归”阿盟路难行 [Syria’s “return” to the Arab League remains difficult], Globe, March 3, 2022, link.

[10] Ma Hanzhi, Juézhú fēizhōu——ōuméng nénggěi fēizhōu dài lái shénme? 角逐非洲——欧盟能给非洲带来什么?[A race to Africa -- What can Europe bring to Africa?],Guangming Daily, March 4, 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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