October 2019

China looks at the Mediterranean Region
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In the context of the relations between China and the wider Mediterranean region, Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring was the most debated topic by Chinese scholars and commentators in October.

Operation Peace Spring began on October 9, shortly after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had a phone call with United States President Donald Trump about plans for a military operation against Syrian Democratic Forces-held areas to the East of the Euphrates river. On October 22, after President Erdogan met with the US Vice President Michael Pence on October 17 and Russian President Vladimir Putin a few days later, a “safe zone” was created and expanded along the border between Turkey and Syria. Chinese commentators see this development as an important step forward for Turkey and Russia to achieve their own strategic goal. In particular, the agreement reached by Turkey and Russia is understood as an upgrade of the one already approved by Turkey and the US as it expands the “safe zone” and gives Turkey more room for maneuvering there. Indeed, Fudan University’s Sun Degang argues that the establishment of the “safe zone” is a victory for Turkish diplomacy. [1] Li Weijian, a scholar from the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies and Vice President of the Chinese Association for Middle Eastern Studies, also stated that Turkey did not cease military operations due to external pressure. [2] Rather, it did so because it was able to seize the opportunity to achieve its main goal: pushing the Kurd forces far from the Syrian-Turkish border through diplomatic means. Yet, both Sun and Li are quick to point out that the “safe zone” does not bring peace in Syria any closer.

In comparison, US President Donald Trump’s boasting of the killing of the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was seen as a failed attempt to distract American and international public opinion from the withdrawal of American forces from Syria. Chinese commentators, such as Sun Chengwei of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations and Bao Chengzhang of Shanghai International Studies University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, argue that the successful raid against al-Baghdadi further support President Trump’s strategy of disengagement from the Middle East as he can “sell” it to his supporters at home. [3] Thus, they do not expect any significant change in the downward trajectory of the US in the Middle East. This is also because Russian President Putin, meanwhile, conducted a high-profile visit to Saudi Arabia that was seen by Chinese scholars as further evidence that a shift of power was taking place in the region. [4] According to them, Russia is using its role in Syria to further divide the US and its allies.

Against this background, it is not surprising that the assessment about the regional situation put forward by Chinese experts during the 9th Beijing Xiangshan Forum was not positive. [5] The Deputy Director-General of the Institute of West-Asian and African Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), Wang Lincong, pointed out that “both traditional and non-traditional security threats are growing, influencing each other and creating a ‘compounded security problem’.” The Director of the Institute of European Studies of CASS, Huang Ping, argued that restoring order in the region will take a long time and great powers have a special responsibility to do that. This is what, he and other academics, claimed that China is doing by sticking to the five principles of peaceful coexistence and continuing to promote dialogue.

However, China is also doing something else. The People’s Daily reported that a delegation of ten scholars from the Chinese Academy of Governance went to Algeria to provide training to seventy local officials of different levels for the first time. [6] This is part of the close cooperation that China and Algeria are conducting in order to improve the governance capability of the Algerian state. Shi Hexing, the Director of the Politics and Law Department of the Academy, declared that his institution has already hosted 165 high-level Algerian officials. During the workshop in Algeria, the Chinese scholars gave lectures on Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, China’s opening up and reform era, Chinese governance, and the Belt and Road Initiative’s connection with African development.

We close with a few comments made by Zang Yuyou, a scholar at the Northwestern University’s Middle East Studies Institute, about Tunisia's new President Kais Saied. [7] According to Zhang, the Tunisian people were tired of the political establishment, whose ineffectiveness has caused long-lasting economic stagnation. The political infighting in the aftermath of the Arab Spring has further worsened the situation. Zhang argues that Saied enjoys great popularity. However, his powers as President are limited when it comes to tackling the main problems of the countries. This is why, Zhang claims, Saied will have to work hard to avoid the “Balkanization” of the Tunisian political landscape so that an effective government will be able to address the economic issues that undermine the life of many citizens.

[1] Zheng Siyuan and Shi Yang, Tǔ é qiāodìng “ānquán qū” suìle shéi de yuan 土俄敲定“安全区”遂了谁的愿 [Whose desires are satisfied by the “safe zone” set up by Russia and Turkey], Xinhua, October 23, 2019, http://www.xinhuanet.com/2019-10/23/c_1125142475.htm.

[2] Tǔ'ěrqí huì cóng xùlìyǎ shōu shǒu ma? 土耳其会从叙利亚收手吗? [Could Turkey pull back from Syria?], People’s Daily, October 19, 2019, https://wap.peopleola.com/guoji/20191019/52c663017b3ffd91.html.

[3] Bāgédá dí zhī sǐ:“Gāodiào” xuānchuán nán yǎn “dīdiào” xiànshí [The death of Baghdadi: "high-profile" propaganda can hardly hide the "low-key" reality], Xinhua, October 27, 2019, http://www.xinhuanet.com/world/2019-10/27/c_1125159221.htm.

[4] Liu Chen and Liu Pinran, Pǔjīng fǎng shātè yǒu xuánjī zhōngdōng géjú jiāsù yǎnbiàn 普京访沙特有玄机 中东格局加速演变 [Putin’s visit to Saudi Arabia has a secret as the region transforms quickly], Xinhua, October 14, 2019, http://www.xinhuanet.com/2019-10/14/c_1125103033.htm.

[5] Zhang Liulu, Zhōngdōng chǔyú yī zhàn yǐlái “zuì wú xù de júmiàn” 中东处于一战以来“最无序的局面”能否平息动荡 [The Middle East is the most chaotic region since WW1], People’s Daily, October 22, 2019, https://news.sina.com.cn/w/2019-10-22/doc-iicezzrr4077096.shtml.

[6] Zhōngguó guójiā xíngzhèng xuéyuàn zhùlì ā'ěrjílìyǎ péixùn zhànlüè réncái 中国国家行政学院助力阿尔及利亚培训战略人才 [Chinese Academy of Governance helps Algeria to train strategic talents], People’s Daily, October 24, 2019, http://world.people.com.cn/n1/2019/1024/c1002-31418908.html.

[7] Yu Xiatong, Méi jīngyàn, méi míngqì, bù jíhuì, túnísī zhèngzhì sùrén sài yì dé de zǒngtǒng zhī lù 没经验、没名气、不集会,突尼斯政治素人赛义德的总统之路 [No experience, no fame, no base: the path of Tunisia’s Saied], The Paper, October 16, 2019, https://www.thepaper.cn/newsDetail_forward_4675050.

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