November 2020

China looks at the Mediterranean Region
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The killing of the Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the future of American foreign policy toward the Middle East under President Biden, and the tensions between France and the Muslim world are the three key topics of Chinese commentaries in November.

The first reactions to the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh are unanimous: Iran’s enemies want to provoke Iran with the hope of eliminating any chance that the leaders in Tehran and Biden’s White House might find a way to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). [1] Former ambassador to Iran Hua Liming added that the killing of such a highly guarded figure like Fakhrizadeh is indicative of the growing weaknesses of Iran’s security services. [2] Unsurprisingly, the expression of concerns for regional stability were not coupled by any clear criticism against Israel, which was identified by Iran as the most likely instigator behind the murder.

Much of what will happen depends on if and how American policy toward the Middle East will change. Fan Hongda of the Shanghai International Studies University (SISU) published an article about this topic in the Shanghai Observer. [3] According to him, US policy could change in four different aspects. First, relations between Washington and Teheran will relax a bit as both look at the JCPOA as crucial for their interests. Second, the United States will return to try to balance between the interests of Israel and those of Arab countries. However, Fan clarifies that Israel will maintain its special role and, according to him, the appointment of Antony Blinken–born to Jewish parents–to head the Department of State will ensure this. Interestingly, another scholar from Fudan University, too, identified the Jewish ancestry of the American representative in the Middle East–Jared Kushner in this case–as a deciding factor of how the United States would approach the region. [4] Third, tensions between the United States and Turkey are likely to increase as Ankara’s activism runs against American interests. Fourth, Fan contends that the efforts of the Trump administration to contain China’s influence in the region will not cease with Biden.

Of course, Iran is not the only country that is waiting to know more about the future of American policy. As reports emerge about the meeting between the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Chinese scholars interpret this event as a clear indication that Israel wants to force the hand of the Biden administration. [5] Yet, they also argue that the Saudi discomfort with making this meeting public indicates that it is unlikely that the Israeli-Saudi partnership will produce any result, such as the normalization of the relations between the two countries, before Biden’s inauguration.

Meanwhile, tensions between France and the Arab world, especially Turkey, have increased in the aftermath of the remarks made by the French President Emmanuel Macron about Islam in October. Chinese scholars have put forward two partially overlapping interpretations. On the one hand, wrote Peng Shuyi of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, [6] there is an evident lack of mutual understanding between France and Muslim countries. These tensions cannot but add pressure on French counterterrorism efforts at home. On the other hand, commented Luo Ailing, a researcher at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, there is also a conflict of hard interests at the root of the worsening of the situation. [7] France and Turkey have found themselves on different fronts in many of the crises going on in the Mediterranean region. Both have ambitious leaders. Turkish and French public opinion are extremely sensitive to religious issues, especially those related to Islam, though for opposite reasons. Regardless of their origin, the tense relations between France and the Islamic world are not going away any time soon.

It is difficult to say how China will react to these developments. In a recent conference held in Fudan University, Yang Guang, China, Dean of the Institute for International and Area Studies of Tsinghua University and President of the Chinese Associations of Middle East Studies, emphasized that the Middle East will remain central to Chinese diplomacy for its role in Chinese energy imports, as well as serving as a region of great importance for the evolution of relations among great powers. [8] That was not the only conference on Middle Eastern affairs held in Shanghai in November. Indeed, on November 26, SISU hosted Chinese and Arab scholars and diplomats for a conference on Sino-Arab cooperation. [9] Clearly, Chinese observers are paying close attention to what is happening in the region.

[1] Qian Xiaoyan, “Hédàn zhī fù” déhēilán yùcì yīlǎng qiángyā nùhuǒ děng báigōng yì zhǔ “核弹之父”德黑兰遇刺 伊朗强压怒火等白宫易主 [“Father of the nuclear bomb” killed, an angry Iran waits for change in the White House], China Business Network, December 1, 2020, link.

[2] Luo Tian, Zhuānfǎng gǔn zhōngguó qián zhù yīlǎng dàshǐ huá límíng: Shǒuxí hé kēxuéjiā zāo ànshā, yīlǎng huò jiāng “lǐzhì dì bàofù” 专访丨中国前驻伊朗大使华黎明:首席核科学家遭暗杀,伊朗或将“理智地报复” [Special interview丨Former ambassador to Iran Hua Liming: Top nuclear scientist killed, Iran “takes revenge smartly”], Red Star News, November 28, 2020, link.

[3] Fan Hongda, Guānchájiā |měiguó zhèngfǔ gēngdié, zhōngdōng zhèngcè huì zěnme biàn? 观察家|美国政府更迭,中东政策会怎么变?[Observer丨Change of the US government, how will its Middle Eastern policy change?], Shanghai Observer, November 26, 2020, link.

[4] Chen Juan, Měiguó zhōngdōng “jiāoyì” mùhòu tuīshǒu 美国中东“交易”幕后推手 [The force behind America’s “deal” in the Middle East], Globe, November 5, 2020, link.

[5] Zhang Wuwei and Hu Zhenqing, Shātè wángchú hé nèi tǎ ní yǎ hú dàodǐ jiàn méi jiànmiàn? Bèihòu hái yǒu měiguó cuòhé yǔ bùjú 沙特王储和内塔尼亚胡到底见没见面?背后还有美国撮合与布局 [Have the Saudi Crown Prince and Netanyahu met or not? The influence of the situation in the United States], The Paper, November 25, 2020, link; Měi méi: Yǐ guānyuán chēng wèilái liǎng gè yuè gāodù mǐngǎn,“yào wèi měiguó dǎ yīlǎng zuò zhǔnbèi” 美媒:以官员称未来两个月高度敏感,“要为美国打伊朗做准备” [US media: Israeli official says that the next two months will be extremely delicate], The Paper, November 26, 2020, link.

[6] Peng Shuyi, Mǎkè lóng, fǎnkǒng yǔ zōngjiào mànhuà fēngbō 马克龙、反恐与宗教漫画风波 [Macron, antiterrorism, and the storm of religious cartoons], Globe, November 20, 2020, link.

[7] Luo Ailing, Huánqiú lùntán gǔn shí gé wǔ nián, wèishéme yòu shì fàguó? 环球论坛丨时隔五年,为什么又是法国? [Global Forum丨After five years, why is it France again?], Xinmin Evening News, November 5, 2020, link.

[8] Wang Nan, Měiguó zhōngdōng zhèngcè qiánzhān yǔ xīn shíqí zhōngguó zhōngdōng wàijiāo” yántǎo huì jǔxíng “美国中东政策前瞻与新时期中国中东外交”研讨会举行 [The conference “Outlook on American policy toward the Middle East and China’s diplomacy in the Middle East in the new era], People’s Daily, November 23, 2020, link.

[9] Zhōng ā gǎigé fāzhǎn zhuānjiā shìpín huì chénggōng jǔbàn 中阿改革发展专家视频会成功举办 [Chinese and Arab reform and development experts succesfully hold online conference], Shanghai International Studies University, November 27, 2020, link.

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