November 2022

China looks at the Mediterranean Region
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With the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, the 27-year natural gas deal signed by Beijing and Doha, and the preparations for President Xi Jinping’s early December trip to Saudi Arabia, it is not surprising that the Middle East dominates this issue of the ChinaMed Observer.

Confirming what we wrote in the past, Qatar continues to be praised by Chinese commentators. Zou Zhiqiang, a scholar at Fudan University, defined Doha’s actions as a “soft power-driven defense and security policy” and as a “unique survival strategy for Qatar in the complex and volatile regional situation, and as a way to exert greater international influence, just like it has managed to do by hosting the Asian Games, Asian Cup and other events and by previously establishing Al Jazeera.” [1] The warming relations with Saudi Arabia and the expansion of ties with Israel are just some of the most visible and important achievements of Qatar’s savvy foreign policy. Other Chinese scholars, such as Wang Jin, even argued that the bribery allegations surrounding Qatar’s bid to host the FIFA World Cup do not matter as the country’s desire to win it was truly “sincere.” [2]

That said, Wang and Niu Song, a scholar at Shanghai International Studies University (SISU), stated in another article that one should not overstate the Qatari’s success, especially regarding relations with Saudi Arabia. What we see now, Niu argued, is only a temporary phase. Doha’s resolve not to accommodate Riyadh’s goals has stood firm and, therefore, one should expect more diplomatic crises in the future. [3] In comparison, Chinese scholars asserted that the critical statements made by Western leaders about human rights in the Middle Eastern country are mostly pro forma. The energy ties between Qatar and Western countries are strengthening, meaning that all the rhetoric, they argue, is just noise.

This is also the starting point of how the 27-year natural gas deal signed by Beijing and Doha was analyzed in China. Niu Song affirmed that Qatar, as a small country, pursues a balanced diplomacy and good relations with all main regional and extra-regional powers. [4] Therefore, “it cannot be assumed that Qatar prioritizes its relations with China.” At the same time, however, Chinese commentators asserted that China is a special partner for Qatar. Indeed, Niu also argued that “Qatar’s development needs a country that can support it regarding construction. While the US is more about bringing conflict and war to the Middle East, Europe prefers energy cooperation with the region. Therefore, Qatar has still to rely on China to build infrastructure and promote its modernization.” Talking with the Nanfang Daily, Niu Song went one step further stating that “In contrast to the West's ‘coercive’ diplomacy, China has been solidly promoting multi-sectoral cooperation with Qatar and other Middle Eastern countries without attaching political conditions. For Qatar, China’s philosophy and practice of ‘development for security’ has a strong influence. The achievements of China's pragmatic cooperation with Qatar and other Middle Eastern countries are evident to all.” [5] Fudan University’s Sun Degang described Sino-Qatari relations as “a model of ‘South-South cooperation’ and that will have a radiating effect in the GCC countries and the whole Middle East.” [6]

However, these developments also have risks. For example, Liu Zhongmin, vice president of the Middle East Society of China and professor at SISU’s Middle East Institute, told the Jiefang Daily that “the long-term agreement signed by China is something that the West cannot provide Qatar. It will be seen as an example by other Middle Eastern countries. In response, the US may take advantage of security issues and other issues to once again pressure Qatar on China.” [7] In general, this is part of what Chinese scholars often define as the playbook of the US’ failing Middle East policy. Not only do the United States and Arab countries have different values, but they also increasingly disagree on more practical priorities related to national defense and economic development, wrote Ding Long in the Global Times. [8] American policymakers are accused of failing to notice the emergence of a “new Gulf.” Ding also stated that “Nationalism has emerged in Gulf states as an alternative ideology to pan-Islamism. Gulf states have seen a significant rise in strategic and diplomatic autonomy and are not willing to keep a low profile. On issues such as the Russia-Ukraine conflict and oil production, they define their positions and policies according to their national interests. Gulf leaders have even personally intervened in the Russia-Ukraine conflict in an effort to expand their role in the international arena. […] The United States is still looking at Gulf countries with the same old eyes, expecting them to remain ‘silent oil kingdoms.’ […] The United States will continue to suffer setbacks if it fails to adjust its position towards the Gulf states and face up to the new realities of their relations.” Bao Chengzhang, an associate researcher at SISU’s Middle East Research Institute, and Li Shijun, a visiting researcher at the China-Arab Research Center on Reform and Development, made a similar argument regarding the relations between Washington and Riyadh. [9]

The United States’ decreasing influence was also noted by Gu Ning, a scholar at Xinjiang University, as contributing to create a positive environment for the end of the war in Syria, despite the fact that many significant challenges remain. [10] Gu also defined the Astana Process as “viable.” These comments are in contrast with those of other senior Chinese scholars that have argued in the past that Western countries are part of the solution to the Syrian problem. In November, there have also been rumors about China possibly joining the just-mentioned Astana Process, but no Chinese commentator or journalist has written anything about it. Only Liu Zhongmin declared to Sputnik that he does not believe that China will join that initiative because Beijing “is not strongly associated with the Syrian crisis from neither a geopolitical nor a diplomatic perspective.”

Yet, the regional situation remains complex, and regional actors are not blameless. Liu Zhongmin, for example, clearly identified Israel, Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia’s frequent and often illegal use of military force as a serious problem. [11] Liu argued that a mix of factors have made resorting to military power a habit in the region. They include the historical legacy of colonialism, border disputes, ethnic and religious contradictions, as well as the fact that the targets of their military operations are mostly radical ethnic and religious non-state actors. The lack of punishment for their actions, for example Israel that enjoys the protection of the United States, is also contributing to making a “Hobbesian culture of violence the mainstream strategic culture in the Middle East.” With Benjamin Netanyahu likely to return to leading the Israeli government – a clear manifestation of the rightward turn in Israeli politics – Chinese scholars think that the situation will not improve in the future. [12]

We close this issue of the ChinaMed Observer with some words on Italy, though they are about Rome’s role in Europe, rather than in the wider Mediterranean region. Xin Hua, the director of the European Studies Center at SISU, wrote in the Global Times that Italy, together with Poland, has the potential to become a “third pole” within the European Union, balancing against France and Germany and implicitly acting as a proxy of the United States against European integration. [13]

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[1] Qian Xiaoyan, Shìjièbēi jīngjì zhàng jǐhé? Kǎtǎ'ěr xīwàng tōngguò “tǐyù wàijiāo” zhāngxiǎn ruǎn shílì 世界杯经济账几何?卡塔尔希望通过“体育外交”彰显软实力 [What is the economic calculus behind the World Cup? What does Qatar hope to achieve through its “sport diplomacy”?], China Business Network, November 21, 2022, link.

[2] Niu Song, Wang Jin, and Wang Kaiwen, Xīfāng gěi kǎtǎ'ěr zhǎochá, bèihòu dǎ shénme suànpán? 西方给卡塔尔找茬,背后打什么算盘?[Why is the West complaining about Qatar?], Guancha, November 24, 2022, link.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ling Xi, Zhōng kǎ hézuò jiāng dài lái zěnyàng de fúshè xiàoyìng? 中卡合作将带来怎样的辐射效应?[What will be the outcome of China-Qatar cooperation?], Nangfang Daily, November 27, 2022, link.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Qiu Wenhan, Bù línkěn fǎng kǎtǎ'ěr, bù dāndān wèi kàn qiú 布林肯访卡塔尔,不单单为看球 [Blinken goes to Qatar and it is not only about football], Jiefang Daily, November 23, 2022, link.

[8] Ding Long, Dīng lóng: Měiguó de jiù sīwéi zài “xīn hǎiwān” wán bù zhuǎnle 丁隆:美国的旧思维在“新海湾”玩不转了 [Ding Long: The US’ old thinking does not work anymore in the “new Gulf”], Global Times, November 14, 2022, link.

[9] Wang Haizhou, Shātè wàijiāo xīn dòngxiàng tǐxiàn zhànlüè zìzhǔ yìtú 沙特外交新动向体现战略自主意图 [Saudi Arabia’s new foreign policy embodies its ambitions of strategic autonomy], Xinhua, November 3, 2022, link.

[10] Gu Ning, Xùlìyǎ qián lù duō jiān dòngdàng nán píng 叙利亚前路多艰动荡难平 [The road ahead for Syria is difficult and turbulent], People’s Liberation Army Daily, November 9, 2022, link.

[11] Liu Zhongmin, Zhōngdōng ruì píng |bǎituō fēidiǎn xíng bàolì de ānquán wánjí, zhōngdōng guójiā xūyào shénme? 中东睿评|摆脱非典型暴力的安全顽疾,中东国家需要什么?[Middle East Insight|What do Middle Eastern countries need to do to stop the chronic use of force?], The Paper, November 28, 2022, link.

[12] Ling Xi, Nèi tǎ ní yǎ hú zài huò zǔgé quán yǐsèliè zhèngtán “cháng qīng shù” wèihé yìlì bù dǎo? 内塔尼亚胡再获组阁权 以色列政坛“常青树”为何屹立不倒?[Netanyahu won the right to form a government again. Why can the “evergreen tree” of Israeli politics not be cut down?], Nanfang Daily, November 13, 2022, link.

[13] Xin Hua, 忻华:波兰和意大利会成欧洲第三极吗 [Xin Hua: Can Poland and Italy become the third pole in the European Union?], Global Times, November 29, 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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