March 2023

China looks at the Mediterranean Region
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Unsurprisingly, the tripartite statement issued by China, Iran and Saudi Arabia on March 10 dominated discussions in China on the wider Mediterranean, with analysts debating its implications for the region, Beijing’s foreign policy, as well as the possible economic opportunities for Chinese companies.

In interviews and articles across Chinese media, numerous Chinese scholars strongly endorsed for the recent Saudi-Iranian rapprochement as well as China’s role in realizing it. For example, Wen Shaobiao, a researcher at the Middle East Research Institute of Shanghai International Studies University (SISU), told the Global Times that “China's successful mediation diplomacy will not only turn two regional powers into friends, but will also lead to the restructuring of relations between the region’s two rival camps, and have a positive spillover effect on other regional hotspots, such as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and help with the de-escalation and resolution of the civil wars in Yemen, Syria and Libya.” [1] According to Dong Manyuan, a Middle East expert at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs-affiliated Chinese Institute of International Studies, the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement will inspire developing countries and remind them that “they should control their own security destiny, development destiny and governance destiny, and take their future destiny in their own hands, instead of relying on foreign forces." [2]

Beyond the Middle East, some believe that this recent development also has implications for the war in Ukraine. For example, Tsinghua University National Strategy Institute’s Qian Feng went as far as to argue that it shows that reconciliation is possible even between bitter enemies and, thus, gives hope to finding a possible resolution to the Russo-Ukrainian war. [3] Niu Xinchun, an important expert at the Chinese Institute of Contemporary International Relations, told China Youth Daily that "the most important lesson from the dialogue in Beijing is that no major power should be hastily isolated. […] Just as excluding Iran won't solve the problems of the Middle East, excluding Russia won't solve the Ukraine problem. The United States can dislike Russia, but excluding Russia from the debate on European security certainly won't work." [4]

Some Chinese commentators also see economic opportunities on the horizon. In an article for the Global Times, [5] Wang Jin, a scholar at Northwest University in Xi’an, was quoted stating that “there is a strong complementarity between China's Belt and Road Initiative and the economic visions of the Arab Gulf states and Iran.” Wu Bingbing, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at Peking University, also told the Global Times that Chinese enterprises “have their own advantages and characteristics for investment and cooperation in this region.” Their activities in Iran and Saudi Arabia, and the region more broadly, are expected to greatly benefit from the improvement in the relations between Iran and Arab countries.

It is only Israel that Chinese commentators see as being negatively impacted by the warming relations between Riyadh and Tehran. Although not elaborating much, Ding Long stated that “the increased unity within the Islamic world is not good news for Israel.” [6] Prime Minister Netanyahu faces the choice between “saving the State of Israel or preserving the ruling coalition,” wrote Wang Shuming of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences,  noting that a provocative foreign policy move might be the only way to distract public opinion. [7]

Against this background, Chinese experts celebrated China’s role. Ding Long even wrote that it was symbolic of a paradigm shift in China’s Middle East policy. [8] On the one hand, Ding argued that China has finally managed to translate its national power into “diplomatic soft power,” something that, according to him, Beijing has in the past not managed to achieve. On the other hand, “China's vision for global development and security has taken root in the Middle East, making it a qualified mediator trusted by all parties to the Middle East conflict.” While writing in somewhat grandiose terms, Fan Hongda, another scholar at SISU, similarly argued that “the successful mediation between Saudi Arabia and Iran will, to a certain extent, change the perception of China in the Middle East as a country that only or mainly focuses on economic issues and neglects security issues.” [9] More broadly, Zhu Yongbiao, a scholar at Lanzhou University, believes that henceforth the international community can continue to expect China to play an active role in promoting the resolution of other international conflicts and disputes. [10] Wang Jin told The Observer’s Xiong Chaoran that this experience and others in the future will help China contribute more to regional stability. [11]

That said, no Chinese commentator, including Fudan University’s Sun Degang in an interview for the People’s Daily, [12] failed to note that many countries in the region, Saudi Arabia and Iran being no exception, are prioritizing domestic economic development and consolidation. Sun went on to state that “the Russia-Ukraine conflict is a wake-up call to Middle East countries that resorting to war and force will only lead to Middle Eastern countries becoming pawns and sacrificial lambs in the competition between major powers. Middle Eastern countries must stand for their own national interests, adhere to strategic autonomy, seek common ground while reserving differences, stop the bleeding soon, and instead promote security through cooperation and peace through development.” [13]

At the same time, there is also clear awareness that not every problem has been solved. SISU’s Fan Hongda wrote it the most clearly: “The Saudi-Iranian rapprochement agreement reached under the auspices of China is indeed a welcome development. But the agreement is only a good starting point; the next question is whether the process of normalizing Saudi-Iranian relations will progress smoothly. This is true not only for Saudi Arabia and Iran, but also for China. As some international observers have noted, it is one thing for China to host the talks, but it is another to play a role in implementing the resulting agreement, and it remains a challenge to see what assurances China will provide if one of the parties does not respect the agreement reached. [14] Liu Zhongmin and Sun Degang made similar statements in an article published by the Shanghai-based The Paper.  As Sun put it: “the resumption of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran is the first step in a long march of ten thousand miles.” [15]

Ding Long best explained the Chinese perception of the challenges ahead writing that it is necessary “to note that the two countries have complicated conflicts and many issues and differences to be resolve, and that the United States will still encourage Arab countries and Israel to join forces to contain Iran, so we need to guard against the possibility of relations reverting to how they were before the resumption of diplomatic relations.” [16] From Dong Mangyuan to Zhu Weilie, Ding Long, and Niu Xinchun, Chinese scholars are especially worried about the possible actions of the United States. On the contrary, they expect China to continue remaining involved in the dialogue with the Saudis and the Iranians to ensure the continuation of the rapprochement between them. China is “a trusted intermediary between Saudi Arabia and Iran and the two countries' largest trading partner,” Niu Xinchun wrote. Moreover, he told China Youth Daily that China is still needed as a reliable third party to ensure smooth communication between the two sides and avoid miscalculations, in the absence of fully established diplomatic channels between Saudi Arabia and Iran. [17]

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[1] Zhao Juehui and Liu Xin, Zhòng bàng jiě jú! Zhè liǎng gè zhōngdōng guójiā zài zhōngguó wòshǒu yìwèizhe shénme? 重磅解局!这两个中东国家在中国握手意味着什么?[Important development! What does it mean for these two Middle Eastern countries to shake hands in China?], Global Times, March 11, 2023, link.

[2] Bo Wenwen, Zhōngdōng yuánhé xiānqǐ “héjiě cháo”? 中东缘何掀起“和解潮”?[Why has a “wave of reconciliation” begun in the Middle East?], Chinanews, March 30, 2023, link.

[3] Fu Yumei, Néng ràng zhōngdōng “sǐduìtóu” wòshǒu de, wèishéme shì zhōngguó 能让中东“死对头”握手的,为什么是中国 [Why is it that China can make the "deadly rivals" in the Middle East shake hands?], Global Characters, March 11, 2023, link.

[4] Hu Wenli, Zhōngdōng wèntí zhuānjiā niú xīnchūn: Tuīdòng shā yī fùjiāo de zhōngguó fāng'àn, wéi wūkèlán wéijī zhǐmíng fāngxiàng 中东问题专家牛新春:推动沙伊复交的中国方案,为乌克兰危机指明方向 [Middle East expert Niu Xinchun: China’s plan to promote the resumption of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iraq will point the way to solve the Ukraine crisis], China Youth Daily, March 16, 2023, link.

[5] Huang Peizhao, Gong Jueyuan, and Wang Dong, Zhōngdōng “héjiě cháo” huì dài lái nǎxiē xīn shāngjī? 中东“和解潮”会带来哪些新商机? [What new business opportunities will the "tide of reconciliation" in the Middle East bring?], Global Times, March 25, 2023, link.

[6] Huang Peizhao, Chen Zishuai,Chen Kang, Tao Danfang, and Liu Yupeng, Tú fā! Nèi tǎ ní yǎ hú zhēn de tuīchíle 突发!内塔尼亚胡真的推迟了 [Sudden event! Netanyahu really decided to postpone], Global Times, March 28, 2023, link.

[7] Wang Shuming, Xiànzhèng wéijī, bā yǐ chōngtú, yǔ měi jǔyǔ: Yǐsèliè xīn zhèngfǔ hái néng chēng duōjiǔ 宪政危机、巴以冲突、与美龃龉:以色列新政府还能撑多久 [A constitutional crisis, the Palestine-Israel conflict, and discord with the US: How long can Israel's new government last?], The Paper, March 15, 2023, link.

[8] Ding Long, Shā yī liǎng guó běijīng fùjiāo: Lǐniàn zhǐyǐn yǔ xíngdòng pèihé xià zhōngguó wàijiāo de fànshì zhuǎnhuàn 沙伊两国北京复交:理念指引与行动配合下中国外交的范式转换 [The Beijing rapprochement of Iran and Saudi Arabia: The paradigmatic shift of Chinese diplomacy guided by concepts and implemented by coordinated actions], The Paper, March 11, 2023, link.

[9] Fan Hongda, Běijīng huānyíng nǐmen 北京欢迎你们 [Beijing welcomes you], News China, March 10, 2023, link.

[10] Zhao and Liu, Zhòng bàng jiě jú!

[11] Xiong Chaoran, Shātè yīlǎng zài běijīng wòshǒu yán hé,“měiguó bàn bùchéng, zhōngguó què zuò dàole” 沙特伊朗在北京握手言和,“美国办不成,中国却做到了” [Saudi Arabia and Iran shake hands in Beijing and make peace - "The United States can't do it, but China has done it"], The Observer, March 11, 2023, link.

[12] Zhang Hong, 一个新中东正在形成: 和解与对抗交织 机遇与挑战并存 [A new Middle East is taking shape: Reconciliation and confrontation are intertwined, opportunities and challenges coexist], People’s Daily, April 1, 2023, link.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Fan, Běijīng huānyíng nǐmen.

[15] Zhu Zhengyong and Yu Xiaoqing, 沙特伊朗“北京和解”:和平的胜利与中国角色的彰显 [The “Beijing peace” of Saudi Arabia and Iran: The victory of peace and the demonstration of China’s role], The Paper, March 11, 2023, link.

[16] Ding, Shā yī liǎng guó běijīng fùjiāo.

[17] Hu, Zhōngdōng wèntí zhuānjiā niú xīnchūn.

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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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