October 2020

China looks at the Mediterranean Region
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Turkey, Iran, and Israel were the protagonists in Chinese commentaries on the wider Mediterranean region. As always, Chinese analysts remain rather pessimistic in their assessment of the situation as they look at the region characterized by a lack of unity among both Arabs and Europeans. Interestingly, the Global Times published an article written by Fan Hongda with insights into the discussion about how China’s approach to the region should evolve. As our readers should remember, Fan has written very interesting commentaries on Iran, with very straightforward statements regarding the problems plaguing Sino-Iranian relations. While it is difficult to say how much of his work represents the mainstream perspective, it is indeed noteworthy. We first review this month’s commentaries on Israel, Iran, and Turkey, and then we look at Fan’s piece.

The normalization of the diplomatic relations between Arab countries and Israel was the main topic of discussion, especially after the Israel–Sudan normalization agreement took place on October 23, 2020. In general, it is evident that the Chinese community of Middle East observers is united through seeing what is happening in negative terms. On the one hand, they see the normalization process as a tool deployed by the United States to further pressure Iran. On the other hand, the temporary ceasefire between Israel and Hamas will not bring any solution to the problem of the Palestinians. As Shu Meng, a scholar at the Shanghai International Studies University (SISU), wrote, the “sacrifice of Palestine will not bring peace in the Middle East.” [1] While Hamas needs to continue fighting Israel if it wants to remain influential, Israel has not shelved its plans to annex the West Bank. Hence, according to Shu, only the two-state solution can be the foundation for any long-lasting peace agreement. Against this background, experts consulted by the Shanghai Observer believe that it is possible to identify three distinct patterns in today’s Middle East. [2] First, the relations between Israel and Arab countries will continue to improve. Even if Israel might not be able to normalize the relations with the entire Arab world, this will remain an important trend in the long run because Arab unity is increasingly a thing of the past. At the same time, we can see that the main divide of today’s Middle East is between Muslim Arab countries and Muslim non-Arab countries. Finally, although the United States is less interested in the region than in the past, it will keep searching for ways to put pressure on Iran, even at the detriment of regional stability. Other analyses written by junior scholars based at the Institute for Studies on the Mediterranean Rim at Zhejiang International Studies University and at SISU confirm this interpretation of the United States taking advantage of the situation with a seriously fragmented Arab world and Israel. [3] Arab disunity also makes the threat to boycott French products not credible. [4] 

Chinese observers are also pessimistic in regards to the future of the relations between the United States and Iran. Scholars like Sun Degang and Jin Liangxiang celebrated the lifting of the United Nations arms embargo on Iran as a victory of multilateralism and, as they mention, also of China against American multilateralism. [5] However, as SISU’s Han Jianwei emphasized, a new round of American sweeping economic sanctions against Iran's oil sector means that there is still a long way before the end of the confrontation between Tehran and Washington. [6] Even if President-elect Biden announced Washington’s intention to rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the numerous sanctions imposed by the United States will not suddenly disappear, they will remain serious obstacles for the two countries’ negotiators.

Meanwhile, Chinese commentators also continue their sharp criticism of Turkey’s foreign policy, which they see as fueled by Erdogan’s attempt to distract public opinion from the worsening economic situation at home. Zou Zhiqiang, a researcher at SISU, told China Business Network that Turkey’s economy and foreign policy are intimately connected: the worsening economy fuels an overambitious foreign policy that negatively influences the economy by undermining Turkey’s relations with its traditional partners. [7] China Business Network’s journalist summarized Turkey’s situation as a “geopolitical crisis.” The S-400 air defense system symbolizes Turkey’s foreign policy failure. Li Yanan of the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations wrote that it is possible to identify three reasons for Turkey deciding to move forward with the purchase and, more recently, the test of the S-400. [8] First, Turkey’s security situation has significantly worsened because of the strengthening of the relations between its rivals–such as in the case of the United Arab Emirates sending F-16 fighters for joint drills with Greece. Second, the S-400 represents Turkey’s growing military power in Erdogan’s domestic narrative. Third, the S-400 is a bargaining chip that Turkey wants to use in its relations with both the United States and Russia. In particular, as Russia and Turkey increasingly find themselves in opposing camps in different regional disputes like Syria and Libya, the S-400 provides a platform for cooperation between the two countries that should weather potential tensions caused by other issues.

While it is implicit in the words of Chinese analysts that Turkey’s foreign policy ambitions are likely to remain unfulfilled, they see weaknesses also in the other players in the eastern Mediterranean chessboard. Yao Yiran, a scholar affiliated with the Institute for Studies on the Mediterranean Rim at Zhejiang International Studies University, wrote that it is possible to identify three different positions among European countries. [9] The first is that of Greece and France, which are in favor of a strong response to Turkey. The second is represented by Germany, which is reluctant to be involved in thorny maritime issues. Finally, there are “ambiguous” countries, like Italy, that are trying to adopt a balanced position by pursuing both the dialogue with Turkey and deploying military assets to that region of the Mediterranean.

Given the complex regional situation, Fan Hongda put forward a number of recommendations to Chinese policymakers. [10] First, China should pay greater attention to bilateral relations with the region’s countries than in the past. In particular, China should pragmatically launch new cooperation initiatives targeted to help its counterparts on a case-by-case basis to solve the social and economic problems that many of them are facing. Second, apparently against the consensus highlighted above, Fan suggests abandoning the “old conservative” position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and trusting that the citizens of every country in the region want peace. Third, China should continue to improve the relations with countries in the region, as much as it benefits for its own interests, and beyond the divisions that characterize the region. Finally, and this is the less innovative among the suggestions, China should be careful in avoiding situations where a potential regional partner is forced to choose between Beijing and Washington. It is evident that Fan is calling for a bolder approach to the region, and this is particularly clear in his third suggestion. Only time will tell if policymakers agree with his point of view.

[1] Shu Meng, “Xīshēng” bālèsītǎn, huàn bù lái zhōngdōng hépíng  “牺牲”巴勒斯坦,换不来中东和平 [The sacrifice of Palestine will not bring peace in the Middle East], PLA Daily, October 12, 2020, link.

[2] Li Lei, Fēnxī |sūdān yǐsèliè “jiā hǎoyǒu”, zhèngshì qǐdòng jīngjì hé shāngyè wǎnglái 分析|苏丹以色列“加好友”,正式启动经济和商业往来 [Analysis: Israel and Sudan become good friends and launch economic and commercial exchanges], Shanghai Observer, October 26, 2020, link.

[3] Wen Shaobiao, Yǐsèliè yǔ ālābó guójiā yuánhé zǒu jìn 以色列与阿拉伯国家缘何走近 [Why are Israel and the Arab countries getting closer to each other?], PLA Daily, October 26, 2020, link; Shan Yao, Yǐsèliè wàijiāo túwéi, xià yīgè shì shéi? 以色列外交突围,下一个是谁? [Israel’s diplomatic breakthrough, who is next?], Globe, October 8, 2020, link.

[4] Qian Xiaoyan, Zhōngdōng dìqū guójiā xiānqǐ fàguó chǎnpǐn dǐzhì cháo, zhuānjiā: Yǐngxiǎng yǒuxiàn 中东地区国家掀起法国产品抵制潮,专家:影响有限 [Middle Eastern countries launch the boycott of French products. The experts: it will have a limited effect], China Business Network, October 27, 2020, link.

[5] Zhang Hong, Zhè cì jiějìn duì yīlǎng yìwèizhe shénme? 这次解禁对伊朗意味着什么? [What does this lifting of the ban mean for Iran?], People’s Daily, October 25, 2020, link.

[6] Qian Xiaoyan, Fǎncháng! Tè lǎng pǔ zhèngfǔ pínpín zhìcái yīlǎng, zhuānjiā: Měiguó xiàn qíngxù huà bàofù 反常!特朗普政府频频制裁伊朗,专家:美国陷情绪化报复 [This is abnormal! The Trump administration imposes new sanctions on Iran. The experts: The United States is taking revenge in an irrational way], China Business Network, October 27, 2020, link.

[7] Qian Xiaoyan, Jièrù ōuyàfēi duō chǔ zhōubiān rèdiǎn chōngtú, tǔ'ěrqí lǐlā jīnnián biǎnzhí 35% 介入欧亚非多处周边热点冲突,土耳其里拉今年贬值35% [The Lira sinks by 35% as Turkey engages in several hotspots in Europe, Asia, and Africa], China Business Network, October 28, 2020, link.

[8] Li Yanan, Qǐyòng “S-400”: Tǔ'ěrqí de “dà màoxiǎn” yǔ “xiǎo suànpán” 启用“S-400”:土耳其的“大冒险”与“小算盘” [Testing the S-400: Turkey’s “big face” and small “abacus”], China.com, November 1, 2020, link.

[9] Yao Yiran, Dōng dìzhōnghǎi: Yóuqì yǔ zhàn yì 东地中海:油气与战意 [The Eastern Mediterranean Sea: Energy and Clouds of War], Globe, October 8, 2020, link.

[10] Fan Hongda, Fànhóngdá: Jījí yìngduì zhōngdōng wèilái xīn tújǐng 范鸿达:积极应对中东未来新图景 [Fan Hongda: To adapt actively to the new landscape of the Middle East], Global Times, October 21, 2020, link.

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