January 7, 2019

November 2018

The Mediterranean Region looks at China
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The articles published by Mediterranean media in November do not reveal significant evolution in the patterns that previous issues of the ChinaMed Bulletin have highlighted. From this point of view, it is however fascinating to observe how the media in different countries tend to create their own narrative on China that mostly reflects what they hope rather than the actual changes in their relations with China. As pointed out in previous research conducted by researchers both affiliated and non-affiliated with the ChinaMed program, the issue seems to lie in the inconsistent perception that many countries have of China: is it the next superpower? Is it a threat or a potential ally in regional disputes?

It is against this background that, while Chinese media and commentators in November were more or less explicit in saying that Iran can be sacrificed in order to avoid further tensions with the United States as long as China’s energy security is not seriously threatened, that the Islamic Republic News Agency continues to minimize or ignore the impact of the newly reinstated sanctions on the Sino-Iranian relationship.[1] In one article, the Deputy Director of the Islamic Culture and Relations Organization even declared that “although they are not neighbors and lay thousands of kilometers apart, their [China and Iran] relations are warmer than that of two neighbors.” The fact that some terrorists ruined the name of Islam with their acts, according to him, has not undermined some of the religious affinities that exist between the two societies. On the energy side, the IRNA emphasized the fact that Chinese national oil companies, and CNPC in particular, did still have a “great passion” for Iran’s oil, as demonstrated by CNPC’s taking over from Total as the operator of Phase 11 project at South Pars. Unfortunately, it took only ten days for CNPC to suspend its investment under American pressure, thereby confirming the argument of the more realistic Chinese commentators. South Pars is the world’s largest gas field and CNPC’s investment freeze is a blow to Tehran’s efforts to maintain financing for its energy projects. For the moment, the Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh has not yet confirmed that CNPC has withdrawn from the project, but has said that that it would be a breach of contract.

A similar gap perception gap can be found in an article published by the Palestinian daily Donia Al-Watan.[2] The article praised China’s position over the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, framing it as almost unequivocally in favor of the latter. Interestingly, while the journalist mentioned the visit in October of the Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan, he/she did not write that Wang also visited. There is little need to elaborate on the vastly superior attractiveness of the Israeli market and technology over the diplomatic difficulties of trying to revive the peace process between the two sides. Yet, it seems that Israel, its government at least, has committed a mistake in assessing the implications of closer relations with China. Indeed, although Israeli media have been warning for a long time about the risk of irritating Washington if the government continued to pursue deeper economic relations with Beijing, the Haaretz reported the surprise of Israeli officials when their American counterparts manifested their disappointment with the current situation.[3] Israeli officials told to the newspaper that the Americans not only were extremely critical of the growing economic ties between China and Israel as they feared that China could gain access to critical intelligence, but also asked to the Israeli government to reconsider some of the projects where Chinese companies are involved. Apparently, they made an implicit reference to the Port of Haifa, which will be operated by Shanghai International Port Group for the next 25 years.

Regional commentators appear to have a more realistic vision of Chinese preferences when their country is not involved. The comments on China’s attitude toward the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, indeed, show that some are aware that China has little interest in substituting the United States and/or playing a high-profile role in thorny regional issues unless its interests are seriously threatened. A commentary published by Al Jazeera makes the case that Beijing will not offer any substantial support to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia regardless of how troubled the Saudi-American relations could get, which is an unlikely scenario given President Trump’s clear intention to not let the murder interfere with the sale of weapons to the Arab country.[4] China wants Saudi oil, not Saudi problems. Another article published by Rai al-Youm also argued that it is not surprising that Beijing kept a low profile on this issue.[5] After all, the journalist points out, Beijing has always strived to build an image of neutrality in the region. Moreover, he added, China’s own problems with the Muslim population within its border and the diplomatic principle of non-interference make taking a position over the death of Khashoggi rather pointless. Interestingly, this article like the other before shows a certain understanding of China’s refusal to include human rights in its dialogue with the region since war and violence were the main products of the West’s interest in that topic. Regional commentators somehow appreciate what is perceived as China’s more honest behavior.

[1] Ravabete Chin o Iran Garmtar az do hamsayeh ast روابط چین و ایران گرمتر از دو همسایه است [Relations between China and Iran are warmer than between two neighbors], Islamic Republic News Agency, 28 November 2018, http://www.irna.ir/fa/News/83115412; Eshtiaqe Chiniha baraye sarmayegozari dar energiye iran اشتیاق چینی ها برای سرمایه گذاری در انرژی ایران [China's Passion for Investing in Iranian Energy Sector], Islamic Republic News Agency, 28 November 2018, http://www.irna.ir/fa/News/83115372.

[2] Alalaqat alsiniya alfelastaniya ala madar thalathin aman muqif sabit berouya jadida العلاقات الصينية الفلسطينية على مدار ثلاثين عاما...موقف ثابت برؤية جديدة [30 years of Sino-Palestinianrelations, consistent position with a new vision], Donya Al-Watan, 21 November 2018, https://www.alwatanvoice.com/arabic/news/2018/11/21/1193869.html.  

[3] Amos Harel and Amir Tibon, Be-Artzout Habrit modagim mikishrey Israel ve-Sin: “Trump Yizaam keseyisma et ze בארה"ב מודאגים מקשרי ישראל וסין: "טראמפ יזעם כשישמע על זה" [US officials concerned about Israel-China relations: "Trump will be furious when he hears about it"], Haaretz, 9 November 2018, https://www.haaretz.co.il/news/politics/.premium-1.6636212.

[4] Hisam Musalali, Min amerika ila alsin hal tastatiea alsaudiya tabdil hulafauha من-أميركا-إلى-الصين-هل-تستطيع-السعودية-تبديل-حلفائها [From America to China…Can Saudi Arabia change its allies?], Al Jazeera, 10 November 2018, http://blogs.aljazeera.net/blogs/2018/11/10/%D9%85%D9%86-%D8%A3%D9%85%D9%8A%D8%B1%D9%83%D8%A7-%D8%A5%D9%84%D9%89-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B5%D9%8A%D9%86-%D9%87%D9%84-%D8%AA%D8%B3%D8%AA%D8%B7%D9%8A%D8%B9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B3%D8%B9%D9%88%D8%AF%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D8%AA%D8%A8%D8%AF%D9%8A%D9%84-%D8%AD%D9%84%D9%81%D8%A7%D8%A6%D9%87%D8%A7.

[5] Tariq Lisawi, Muqif alsin min qaziya maqtal khashoggi, va albadail almutaha lilnidam alsiasi alsaudi lilkhuruj min alazma موقف الصين من قضية مقتل “خاشقجي”.. والبدائل المتاحة للنظام السياسي السعودي للخروج من الأزمة [China's position on Khashoggi's death and the alternatives available to Saudi Arabia to get out of the crisis], Rai al-Youm, 24 November 2018, https://www.raialyoum.com/index.php/%D9%85%D9%88%D9%82%D9%81-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B5%D9%8A%D9%86-%D9%85%D9%86-%D9%82%D8%B6%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D9%85%D9%82%D8%AA%D9%84-%D8%AE%D8%A7%D8%B4%D9%82%D8%AC%D9%8A-%D9%88%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A8%D8%AF%D8%A7/.

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