May 2020

China looks at the Mediterranean Region
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The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic in the region largely continues to dominate the discussion on the wider Mediterranean region among Chinese journalist and commentators (click here to read the February, March, and April issues of the ChinaMed Observer). Besides the articles that promote China’s health diplomacy, [1] we have also found interesting commentaries regarding Turkey, Jordan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. The situation in the Balkans is among the topics covered by this issue of the ChinaMed Observer.

As discussed in the previous months, Chinese commentators are fully aware that many countries in the Middle East and North Africa are struggling to both implement effective measures against the novel coronavirus, as well as to deal with the economic damages caused by partial and total quarantine measures. [2] Also similar to the reports published in April, Turkey is being singled out for having the highest number of reported cases of Covid-19, according to a junior scholar at Shanghai International Studies University (SISU), due to the lack of compliance of Turkish citizens with anti-pandemic regulations and Erdogan’s decision to avoid imposing excessively strict quarantine measures. [3] Although Turkish testing capabilities are constantly expanding, the author of the article argues that the situation is not under control yet and it is unlikely to improve in the short term.

Differently from Turkey, Jordan was praised by Zhang Yuan, a specialist on Middle Eastern affairs at SISU. [4] The government devised and implemented strict measures that successfully contained the spread of the new coronavirus. Those efforts helped to reinvigorate public trust in the government after a long period of unrest. Moreover, Zhang highlights the fact that the Jordanian leadership has called for not abandoning globalization, as Western countries have done according to him. Although he does not mention China, Zhang’s praise seems to describe Jordanian actions as in line with, and thus somehow supporting, those of the Chinese government in contrast to the actions of those of other countries. Truth be told, Jordanian media have published positive articles regarding China’s domestic and international strategy against Covid-19 over the past few months (here and here), though there is the awareness that the country has to decrease its economic dependence on China (click here to see more data on the Sino-Jordanian economic relations).

Wu Bingbing, one of China’s top experts of Middle Eastern affairs, contributed as well to the discussion regarding how the pandemic is shaping the situation in the region. [5] In the previous months, Chinese commentators have made very cautious judgments about Iran’s situation, pointing out that the government in Tehran is pressed by public opinion and the United States, and, therefore, its position in the region is likely to suffer. Though he does not dispute the fact that Iran is going through a difficult moment, Wu, instead, highlights how the government has not lost the initiative in its domestic and foreign policy. While many thought the pandemic was going to be the straw that broke the camel's back, Wu writes that Iranian society is more united today with the government. The American and Saudi policies have failed. Hence, Wu concludes, “the strategic configuration of the Middle East remains favorable to Iran.”

Recent events in Saudi Arabia are indeed contributing to buttressing Iran’s position. Specifically, tensions between the United States and Saudi Arabia have reached a boiling point with the American decision to remove two batteries of Patriot antimissile systems from the Gulf country. [6] However, Wang Guobing, a lecturer at the Xi'an International Studies University, reports to The Paper that the American move is most likely due to the necessity to redeploy them in Asia. [7] While the relations between Iran and the United States will not improve, the drastic fall of oil prices are putting the Saudi budget under stress and much of Saudi actions in the short-term will depend on the evolution of the oil market. Zou Zhiqiang, a scholar at SISU, anticipates that the economic problems are not enough to undermine internal stability and the Saudi government has the resources to stimulate the economy further if necessary. [8]

We close this issue of the ChinaMed Observer with the review of an article published in Xinhua’s Globe on the situation in the Western Balkans. [9] The author is Kong Tianping, a specialist on this subject affiliated with the Chinese Academy of Military Science. Kong emphasize how the Covid-19 has not worked as a catalyst for the many political issues that are still unresolved in the region. To begin with, the European Union has failed to take any decisive action despite the awareness of many of its member states for the necessity to strengthen the relations with the countries there. Albania and Northern Macedonia’s accession process remains in a limbo. At the same time, Kong mentions Russia as an increasingly influential actor, providing anti-pandemic assistance as well as pushing against NATO expansion there. Moreover, not only attempts to find a solution to Kosovo’s status have failed, thereby increasing political uncertainty, but the countries in the Balkan peninsula have also not been able to emulate those in Eastern Europe in terms of economic development. Economic fragility cannot but further aggravate the social and political tensions within and among the countries there. Unfortunately, Kong does not make a single reference to China’s role, despite its growing presence.

[1] For example: Tang Zhichao, Xiéshǒu kàng yì, gòng jiàn zhōng ā mìngyùn gòngtóngtǐ 携手抗疫,共建中阿命运共同体 [Hand in hand, China and Arab countries build a community of common destiny], Guangming Daily, May 20, 2020, link.

[2] Qian Xiaoyan, Zhànluàn diéjiā yìqíng ràng zhōngdōng xuěshàngjiāshuāng, zuì bù wěndìng dìqū kàng yì qiānchāwànbié 战乱叠加疫情让中东雪上加霜,最不稳定地区抗疫千差万别 [The pandemic has worsened the situation in the Middle East: the most unstable countries are adopting a variety of measures to fight the new coronavirus], Yicai, May 5, 2020, link.

[3] Wen Yuehan, Quánqiú zhàn yì·guānchá gǔn tǔ'ěrqí yìqíng: Réng cún fēngxiǎn hé tiǎozhàn, xíngshì jiānnán xiàng hǎo 全球战疫·观察丨土耳其疫情:仍存风险和挑战,形势艰难向好 [Global pandemic observer丨Turkey’s situation: Risks and challenges remain, the situation will hardlly improve], The Paper, May 3, 2020, link.

[4] Zhang Yuan, Zhōngdōng yì shì gǔn yuēdàn hūyù “zài quánqiú huà” bèihòu: Xiǎoguó kàng yì de nánchu hé yīkào 中东疫势丨约旦呼吁“再全球化”背后:小国抗疫的难处和依靠 [Pandemic in the Middle East丨Behing Jordan’s call of the “re-globalization”: The challenges and strong points of small countries in the fight against the new coronavirus], The Paper, May 9, 2020, link.

[5] Wu Bingbing, Zhōngdōng zhuàng︱yìqíng xià de yīlǎng shībàile ma? 中东状︱疫情下的伊朗失败了吗? [The situation in the Middle East︱Is Iran the loser in the pandemic?], The Paper, May 6, 2020, link.

[6] Yan Yu, Měiguó xuējiǎn zhùjūn shī yā shātè 美国削减驻军施压沙特 [Cuts in the American military presence put pressure on Saudi Arabia], People’s Daily, May  14, 2020, link.

[7] Yu Xiaoxuan, Gěi yīlǎng sònglǐ? Tuìchū yī hé xiéyì liǎng zhōunián zhī jì měiguó chè zǒu shātè “àiguó zhě” 给伊朗送礼?退出伊核协议两周年之际美国撤走沙特“爱国者” [A gift to Iran? The American decision to remove the Patriot systems from Saudi Arabia on the anniversary of the withdrawal from the Iranian deal], The Paper, May 10, 2020, link.

[8] Qi Dezhi, Zēngzhí shuì dà zēng, zàntíng fāfàng bǔtiē, shātè túrán cǎiqǔ jīliè jǔcuò yìngduì cáizhèng wéijī 增值税大增、暂停发放补贴,沙特突然采取激烈举措应对财政危机 [An increase of the VAT and suspension of subsidies, Saudi Arabia suddenly takes drastic measures to deal with the financial crisis], Yicai, May 12, 2020, link.

[9] Kong Tianping, Xī bā'ěrgàn yòu féng dìyuán zhèngzhì mǐngǎn qī 西巴尔干又逢地缘政治敏感期 [The Western Balkans are again in a politically sensitive period], Globe, May 22, 2020, link.

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