November 2021

China looks at the Mediterranean Region
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In November, one of the most interesting issues discussed by Chinese commentators is the conflict in Ethiopia and its impact on China. Beyond that, the articles published by Chinese media touched upon the developments in several countries of the wider Mediterranean region, from Turkey to Italy, from Iran to Tunisia.

The conflict in Ethiopia between the Ethiopian central government and the Tigray People's Liberation Front has finally made it into Chinese media. This seems to be a reaction to American accusation of human rights abuses against the Ethiopian government. While the Chinese government quickly took the side of Ethiopian authorities, as exemplified by the visit made by State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi after the Eighth Ministerial Conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, Chinese scholars unanimously emphasize the role of the United States in the Ethiopian conflict, though they disagree on the drivers of American actions. Zhou Yuyuan, a researcher at the Shanghai Institute of International Studies, expressed a neutral assessment about the role of the United States. [1] According to him, “external forces,” which include the United States, European countries, and the African Union, are pushing for the two sides to negotiate an end to the conflict. In contrast, Li Xinggang, a scholar at Zhejiang University, made a very different argument in an article he penned for the Xinmin Evening News. [2] Although he acknowledges that the conflict has roots in ethnic tensions and Ethiopian domestic politics, Li wrote that the situation has worsened to a large extent because of American sanctions against Ethiopia. In particular, even though Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali actually promoted good relations with the United States, he argues that Washington wants to punish Ethiopia for keeping close economic ties with China. Li implicitly accuses the United States of trying to force Ethiopia to take a side in the rivalry with China. An article published by the Global Times points out that many in China are becoming concerned with the safety of Chinese companies and workers in Ethiopia, thereby making “whether and how we need to mediate this conflict and how to protect China's interests have become an issue that must be considered.” [3] Both Zhou and Li were quoted suggesting that China should play a constructive role, possibly through the United Nations. Using different words, another scholar based at Zhejiang University, Shen Shiwei wrote in the Global Times that China should be careful and stay out of the Ethiopian conflict because that is a disaster largely worsened by the West. [4] Shen seems implying that the West wants China to intervene either to solve a problem that they caused, or to entangle China in a thorny diplomatic and political issue.

Chinese media, the Southern Weekly to be precise, published an article on neighboring Sudan, highlighting the precarious situation of the Chinese companies and nationals still in the country. [5] About 1000 Chinese are located in or nearby Khartoum, mainly engaged in trade, construction, mining, and oil extraction. Deng Yanting, a scholar with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), and Jiang Hengkun, an expert at Zhejiang University, expressed their doubts about the future of Sudanese policies. Though the military allowed Abdalla Hamdok to be reinstated, the crisis is far from over and it will take a long time for Sudan to find stability, the two experts declared.

Jiang’s and Deng’s assessments of the situation in Sudan largely mirror the way other Chinese experts described the problems that plague the Middle East and North Africa more broadly. In general, while there is a somewhat cautious optimism about the long-term trends in the region, Chinese experts are also acutely aware of the enormous economic and/or social challenges that many countries must overcome. Liu Zhongmin, a senior scholar at Shanghai International Studies University (SISU), published a long article in The Paper in which he refers to Tunisia, Algeria, and Iraq to highlight the role of religion, the legacy of colonialism, and the influence of external forces in making it difficult for countries in the region to find balance in their domestic institutions, as well as foreign policy. [6] For example, Liu argues that the Arab Spring made the democratic aspiration of the people clear while also failing to produce clear ideas and plans about how achieve that result without the interference of other countries. The relationship between religious and secular forces remains tumultuous; ethnic divisions are still largely unresolved; the economy of many countries remains fragile. This last point was emphasized also by SISU’s Zhao Jun during an interview on Egypt with China Business Network. [7] Meanwhile, Liu Chang, an expert with the China Institute of International Studies, noticed how positive developments have taken place in the relations between Arab/Gulf countries and Iran and Turkey, and Israel. [8] The intensity of the conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and Libya has also decreased. According to him, these developments were caused by four factors: a regional consensus on the priority of economic development, the rise of a more pragmatic nationalism beyond traditional regional divisions, the exploration of new ways to coexists despite differences, and, finally, the American attempts to promote reconciliation so to free diplomatic resources that can be invested in Asia.

However, not everyone agrees on this last point. For example, Tang Jianduan, a scholar at SISU, wrote in the Shanghai Observer that the United States will not leave neither the Middle East, nor Africa, and this is especially true now because many in Washington fear that China or Russia will take its leading place. [9] These concerns are seen as the reason behind the ambiguous American approach to the relations with Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. [10] More broadly, Chinese scholars see competition with the United States becoming an increasingly more important factor in China’s relations with the countries in the wider Mediterranean region, as exemplified in the comments of Zhao Junjie, a researcher at CASS, about Italy’s decision to veto Zhejiang Jingsheng Mechanical’s attempt to set up a joint venture with the Hong Kong arm of Applied Materials to buy the United States-based group's screen printing equipment business in Italy. [11] Zhao told the Global Times that Chinese companies should be ready to face these kind of situations as other countries, influenced by the United States, use security concerns as an excuse to block Chinese companies.

We close this issue of the ChinaMed Observer by noticing that the Piraeus Port in Greece keeps being mentioned by Chinese media as a success story. Li Dawei, a senior expert at the Academy of Macroeconomic Research, described the Greek port as a “classic case” of the beneficial effects of the Belt and Road Initiative: the Chinese-invested/owned port greatly improved the connectivity and trade between China and Greece, as well as China and the countries between Greece and the European markets. [12] Yet, as we often mentioned in the past issues of the ChinaMed Observer, the situation in the Piraeus is perceived rather differently in Greece.

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[1] Wang Zhuoyi,“Tí rén zhèn” wǔzhuāng jìnbī āi sāi shǒudū xiàng liánbāng zhèngfǔ shī yā,wàijiè hūyù hétán  “提人阵”武装进逼埃塞首都向联邦政府施压,外界呼吁和谈 [The Tigray People's Liberation Front gets closer to the capital and puts pressure on the central government while the world calls for peace talks], The Paper, November 3, 2021, link.

[2] Li Xinggang, Huánqiú lùntán gǔn āisāi'ébǐyǎ nèiluàn bèihòu dì měiguó yīnyǐng 环球论坛丨埃塞俄比亚内乱背后的美国阴影 [Global Forum – The shadow of the United States behind the Ethiopian conflict], Xinmin Evening News, November 11, 2021, link.

[3] Bu Yidao, Bǔ yī dāo: Zhège dàguó dàole “shēngsǐ duìkàng” de guāntóu, zhōngguó jùdàlìyì miànlín wēixié! 补壹刀:这个大国到了“生死对抗”的关头,中国巨大利益面临威胁! [Bu Yidao: This great power reached a life-or-death moment, and Chinese interests face a great threat!], Global Times, November 26, 2021, link.

[4] Shen Shiwei, Shěn shīwěi: Āi sāiluàn jú, jǐngtì měi xīfāng yúlùn gǔzào hūyù zhōngguó jièrù 沈诗伟:埃塞乱局,警惕美西方舆论鼓噪呼吁中国介入 [Shen Shiwei: In Ethiopia, be aware of Western voices calling for China to intervene], Global Times, December 1, 2021, link.

[5] Gu Yuebing, Sūdān hépíng jìnchéng wèihé bùlǚ pánshān? 苏丹和平进程为何步履蹒跚? [Why is the peace process in Sudan faltering?], Southern Weekly, November 4, 2021, link.

[6] Liu Zhongmin, Dìqū júshì huǎnhé chōngmǎn biànshù, zhōngdōng zǒuchū bǎinián zhī kùn dào zǔ qiě zhǎng 地区局势缓和充满变数,中东走出百年之困道阻且长 [The improvement of the regional situation is full of uncertainties, the way out of long-term misery islong and difficult for the Middle East], The Paper, November 3, 2021, link.

[7] Qian Xiaoyan, Xiǎomài jiàgé biāoshēng yāng jí āijí “fúlì dà bǐng”: 2 Fēn qián yīkuài, zhǎng bù zhǎng jià ràng āi zhèngfǔ fànchóu 小麦价格飙升殃及埃及“福利大饼”:2分钱一块,涨不涨价让埃政府犯愁 [The increase of grain prices affect Egypt’s “welfare bread”: 2 cents per piece of bread and the uncertainty about the prices makes the Egyptian government worry], China Business Network, link.

[8] Liu Chang, Zhōngdōng “lěng hépíng” jiàgòu xīn xíngtài 中东“冷和平”架构新形态 [The new “cold peace” architecture of the Middle East], Globe, November 12, 2021, link.

[9] Tang Jianduan, Měiguó wèihé bù kěnéng chōushēn zhōngdōng 美国为何不可能抽身中东[Why can’t the United States pivot away from the Middle East?], Shanghai Observer, November 24, 2021, link.

[10] Ji Cheng and Qi Qi, Tǔ'ěrqí kǒng nán “zuǒyòuféngyuán” 土耳其恐难“左右逢源” [It will be difficult for Turkey to keep a balance], Globe, November 10, 2021, link; Rou Fei, É ā yù hézuò yánfā wǔdài zhànjī, dòngle shéi de dàngāo? 俄阿欲合作研发五代战机,动了谁的蛋糕? [Russia and the UAE want to cooperate on the 5th generation fighter. Whose interests do they threaten?], Southern Weekly, November 25, 2021, link.

[11] Ni Hao and Han Shuo, Yìdàlì zǒnglǐ rèn nèi dì sān cì fǒujué zhōng qǐ shōugòu àn, yòu ná bàndǎotǐ hángyè ānquán dāng jièkǒu 意大利总理任内第三次否决中企收购案,又拿半导体行业安全当借口 [Italy’s Prime Minister vetoes the third acquisition by a Chinese company by using security concerns as an excuse once again], Global Times, November 25, 2021, link.

[12] Li Dawei, Gòng jiàn “yīdài yīlù”, cùjìn gòngtóng fāzhǎn 共建“一带一路”,促进共同发展 [Jointly building the "Belt and Road" to promote common development], People’s Daily, November 30, 2021, link.

With the support of
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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