May 2022

China looks at the Mediterranean Region
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Chinese experts and commentators have focused on three main issues in May: the growing risk of a food crisis in the Middle East and North Africa as a consequence of the war in Ukraine, the relationship between Turkey and NATO, and Iran’s role in the changing relationship between Israel and some Arab countries.

“The year 2022 will be a disastrous year for Sudan. There are many issues, such as food shortage, that need to be addressed urgently. However, the Sudanese authorities have no solution for the time being.” This is the concluding line of an article published by Xinhua’s Globe magazine on the situation in Sudan. [1] Gu Zhenglong, a senior scholar affiliated with Shanghai International Studies University (SISU), the Xinhua World Affairs Research Centre, and the China Foundation for International Studies, also wrote about the mounting economic and food crisis that Sudan and other countries in the southern and eastern parts of the wider Mediterranean region are facing due to the conflict in Ukraine. [2] Drawing from a report published by the Future for Advanced Research and Studies in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Gu argues that “Russia’s intervention” has caused three interrelated problems. The first is hyperinflation, in particular skyrocketing fuel and food prices, which Sudan, Yemen and Syria are particularly vulnerable to . The second problem is the growing pressure on government budgets as the leaders of many countries plan to increase subsidies to their populations . Finally, social instability might increase, thereby making it difficult for countries, like Libya, to benefit from rising oil prices. Gu also highlights a fourth, indirect problem caused by the war: European countries cutting back their financing for international aid as they have redirected or are going to redirect money towards increased defense spending. Hence, he concludes saying that “although the conflict offers opportunities, such as increased government oil revenues, whatever the final outcome of this conflict, countries suffering social and economic problems in the Middle East will inevitably suffer huge economic losses.”

The region is also troubled by the difficulties emerging from, on the one hand, the developing relations between Israel and many Arab countries and, on the other hand, the growing isolation of Iran. Liu Zhongmin, a senior scholar at SISU with a regular column on Middle Eastern affairs in the newspaper The Paper, wrote that there are two issues that seriously risk spoiling warming Israeli-Arab relations. [3] The first is the uncertainty surrounding the future of the negotiations to revive the Iranian nuclear deal because of the “deep contradictions” between the United States, Israel and Iran. According to Liu, this is the main problem that must be addressed before any real change can take place in the region. The second problem is that the détente between Israel and some Arab countries is largely aimed at containing Iran, rather than any real common vision. Moreover, this is happening at the cost of the marginalization of the Palestinian issue and the “aberration” of the intensification of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which, Liu writes, is “undoubtedly a great irony to the détente in international relations in the Middle East.” In other words, Liu argues that the improvement of the relations between Israel and some Arab countries is a Pyrrhic victory as it has made other key regional issues far worse. Sun Degang, a scholar at Fudan University, made a similar argument in the People’s Daily as well. [4]

As European countries scramble to reduce their dependence on Russian oil and gas, Chinese commentators argue that one of reasons why they find themselves in this situation is the American refusal to find an agreement with Iran which prevents much-needed oil from reaching European consumers. [5] Moreover, Liu Zhongmin adds that the United States has withdrawn its support from the construction of a new pipeline to carry Israeli natural gas to Europe, thereby making the situation even worse.

Against this background, the People’s Daily published a very harsh editorial under the pseudonym of Zhong Sheng against the decision made by the Biden administration to keep the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) on a terrorist blacklist despite Iran clarifying that removing the IRGC from the list is a key precondition for reaching an agreement. [6] While the arguments made in the article are not new—the United States is the main culprit of the current deadlock and it is up to Washington to figure out a way to sell the revival of the nuclear deal domestically—the author, interestingly, references China’s support for the deal under the umbrella of Xi Jinping’s latest foreign policy concept: the Global Security Initiative.

Unlike when referring to the United States, Chinese commentators have adopted a much softer tone with Turkey and the UAE. With regard to the former, the Turkish threat to delay or veto Sweden and Finland’s accession to NATO is just the latest opportunity for Chinese commentators to repeat the same assessment of Turkish foreign policy that has been very common over the past few years: that although Turkey is needed by Western countries and plays a crucial role in the region, Ankara managed to isolate itself through a more assertive diplomacy without, however, having the necessary resources to sustain it. [7] As to the latter, Chinese commentators expect the UAE, officially under the new leadership Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, to “continue to play a relatively prudent role in international relations in the Middle East, adopting a limited and constructive approach to hotspot issues in the region in order to create the best possible regional environment for the country's development.” [8] This is despite the fact that the UAE, together with Israel, plays an important role in lobbying the United States against any compromise with Iran.

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[1] Wang Bingfei, Sūdān liángshí wéijī nán mì chūlù 苏丹粮食危机难觅出路 [There is no way out from Sudan’s food crisis], Globe, June 3, 2022, link.
[2] Gu Zhenglong, Gùzhènglóng: Wūkèlán chōngtú shǐ zhōngdōng guójiā jīngjì miànlín shuāngchóng wéijī 顾正龙:乌克兰冲突使中东国家经济面临双重危机 [Gu Zhenglong: The conflict in Ukraine has caused Middle East economies to face a double crisis], Cfisnet, May 5, 2022, link.

[3] Liu Zhongmin, Zhōngdōng ruì píng |shǎole yīlǎng de zhōngdōng guójì guānxì huǎnhé, cuìruò ér nán chíjiǔ 中东睿评|少了伊朗的中东国际关系缓和,脆弱而难持久 [Middle East Review|Without Iran, the de-escalation in Middle East is fragile and unsustainable], The Paper, May 12, 2022, link.

[4] Jia Pingfan, “Yǐng zǐ zhànzhēng” lóngzhào yǐsèliè hé yīlǎng “影子战争”笼罩以色列和伊朗 [The “shadow war” between Iran and Israel], People’s Daily, May 31, 2022, link.

[5] Liu Zhongmin, Liúzhōngmín: Ōuzhōu néngyuán kùnjìng gēnyuán zài měiguó 刘中民:欧洲能源困境根源在美国 [Liu Zhongmin: The root of Europe’s energy problems is in the United States], Global Times, May 20, 2022, link.

[6] Zhong Sheng, Dǎpò yī hé tánpàn jiāngjú, měiguó yīng jiūzhèng cuòwù zhèngcè 打破伊核谈判僵局,美国应纠正错误政策 [The United States should correct its wrong policy to break the deadlock in Iran nuclear negotiations], People’s Daily, May 9, 2022, link.

[7] Liu Zhongmin, Zhōngdōng ruì píng |fǎnduì fēnlán, ruìdiǎn jiārù běiyuē, āi ěr duō ān dì hěn huà rènzhēn de ma 中东睿评|反对芬兰、瑞典加入北约,埃尔多安的狠话认真的吗 [Middle East Review | Opposing Finland and Sweden to join NATO, are Erdogan's harsh words serious?], The Paper, June 1, 2022, link.

[8] Niu Song, “Diàoyàn wàijiāo” bèihòu de āliánqiú yǔ dàguó guānxì zhī biàn “吊唁外交”背后的阿联酋与大国关系之变 [The changes in the relationship between the UAE and major powers behind the "condolence diplomacy"], Workers’ Daily, May 20, 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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