October 2020

The Mediterranean Region looks at China
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October’s articles and commentaries coming from the media published in the wider Mediterranean region were extremely interesting as they suggest that China might meet rising challenges in its attempt to maintain good relations with every country and avoid being drawn into one of the many regional hotspots. Against this background, it is even more interesting to note that, perhaps, it is in Iran–the country that is seen by many as China’s main partner in the region–where there is significant skepticism about China’s capability and intention to play an important role.

Indeed, Iranian media published a series of articles that, much like those published in the past, contain statements by Iranian scholars that emphasize that Iran should be careful in negotiating with China. Donya-ye Eqtesad published an interview with Mohsen Shariatinia, a professor at Shahid Beheshti University, Rahman Qahremanpour, a senior expert of geopolitical issues, and Seyed Reza Mirtaher, an expert on strategic issues. [1] Mirtaher stressed that, considering the increasing pressure of American sanctions aiming to isolate Iran and minimize its oil exports, a 25-year strategic partnership with China is extremely important as it could open its door to the world’s second-largest economy: China. According to Shariatinia, if the 25-year strategic partnership will be finalized and become operational, it is unlikely that it will have an impact on Iran’s economy in the short term. In the medium/long-term, much of its success will depend on how willing the Chinese government will be to take the risk of supporting the presence of Chinese companies in Iran. Qahremanpour stated that an important variable to consider is whether Iranian officials will be able to negotiate the agreement with China in an effective way. They must be aware of the fact that China will not make any concession and, as previous initiatives with Iran and other countries in the region show, it will stick to the agreement as long as it is beneficial and will simultaneously pursue cooperation with other countries. The same newspaper also published another article written by Shariatinia, who emphasized that Iranians should keep their expectations low as even the conclusion of the negotiations between Iran and China is unlikely to produce any significant change as long as Iran’s external environment does not improve. [2] He was also skeptical of China’s recent proposal to launch a multilateral dialogue platform to ease the regional tensions. [3] As he bluntly explained, China undoubtedly lacks the political clout to convince countries like Saudi Arabia to sit at the same table with Iran. The news about some sort of military or security cooperation between China and Gulf countries should not be overread as they hardly mean that a real shift in regional alliances and partnerships away from the United States is underway.

In comparison, articles published in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Qatar depict a very different picture. For example, a report published by the Doha-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies argues that “China's plan for economic hegemony over the Mediterranean corresponds to the hidden ambitions of this rising Asian power to find a strategic and military foothold in the region.” [4] Therefore, the report concludes that “China is not only striving to secure its economic interests and protect its commercial fleets, but it also aims to expand its presence and influence in various regional points of geopolitical and strategic importance, including the Mediterranean.” At the same time, the Kuwaiti newspaper Alqabas published an analysis of Sino-Iranian cooperation that warns its readers to see the strengthening of the relations between Beijing and Tehran as a contributor to intensifying tensions. [5] A large economy and the seat in the United Nations Security Council gives “China unprecedented power to defend its interests. The China-Iran Axis, supported by Russia and Syria and Hezbollah, will clash with the US and its allies in the region, thereby bringing disruption to the Gulf.” [6] At the same time, the Saudi newspaper Al Watan published an article offering a depiction of a somehow less threatening, but not less capable, China. [7] According to the author, Fahd Arishi, the Sino-Iranian 25-year cooperation plan will empower Iran. Actually, China will be able to restrain Iran in order to protect its interests and good relations in the region. Nonetheless, the author warns that China might also use its influence over Iran to put pressure on Gulf countries during bilateral negotiations. Another article published in the Okaz also points out that Saudi Arabia needs to better protect itself against the “flood” of Chinese products that are low quality and threaten local Saudi producers. [8]

Against this background, it is interesting to read an article published by Al-Araby Al-Jadeed on the dispute between Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. [9] The article reports that Egypt has contacted both Russia and China, looking for diplomatic support against Ethiopia. This is not surprising as China is an important economic partner of the three countries involved. In the past, we also found articles in Egyptian media that alluded to China’s potential role in the dispute. This time, Egyptian sources told to the newspaper that Cairo received a strongly negative answer from both Beijing and Moscow. Both China and Russia communicated their strong opposition to any hostile action against Ethiopia, stressing that Egypt should make a greater effort with Ethiopia instead of escalating the conflict in the region. It would have been highly unusual for China to react in a different way to Egypt’s request. Nonetheless, this article further confirms that diplomatic challenges are growing for China as countries in the region hope to win its support against each other.

We conclude noticing how the relations with China continues to be a contentious issue in many countries of the region. Despite the fact that the well-entrenched diffidence towards Chinese investments has pushed many policymakers to create new institutional and legal tools to limit the scope of Chinese involvement in the critical infrastructure of their countries, the debate on economic engagement with China is far from over. For example, in Italy many have questioned how much the government should align itself with the United States and greatly limit the cooperation with China. [10]

[1] Saʿide Sadat-Fehri, Donya-ye Eqtesad dar goft-o-gu ba saheb-nazaran bar resi kard: shart-e mowfaqiyyat-e tavafoq ba Cin «دنیای اقتصاد» در گفت و گو با صاحب نظران بررسی کرد : شرط موفقیت توافق با چین [An interview with experts: the condition for the success of the agreement with China], Donya-ye Eqtesad, October 7, 2020, link.

[2] Mohsen Shariʿati-Nia, Ayande-ye ravabet-e Iran va Cin آینده روابط ایران و چین [The future of Iran-China relations], Donya-ye Eqtesad, October 15, 2020, link.

[3] Mohammad-Hossein Loft-Elahi, Mohsen Shariʿati-Nia dar goft-o-gu ba Etemad: pishnehad-e khavar-miyane-i-e Cin ʿamali nist محسن شریعتی نیا در گفت و گو با «اعتماد» :پیشنهاد خاورمیانه ای چین عملی نیست [Mohsen Shariatinia in an interview with Etemad: the Chinese Middle-Eastern proposal is not practical], Etemad, October 14, 2020, link.

[4] Ahmad al-Morabti, Hal tamluku al-Sin istratijiya li-l-tawassuʿ al-ʿaskariyy fi-l-bahr al-mutawassit? هل تملك الصين استراتيجية للتوسع العسكري في البحر المتوسط؟ [Does China have a strategy of military expansion in the Mediterranean?], Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, September 28, 2020, link.

[5] Abdullah Bisharah, Sawt al-seen fe bahar al-khaleej صوت الصين… في بحر الخليج للمزيد [China’s voice in the Gulf], Alqabas, October 25, 2020, link.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Fahd ʿArishi, مستقبل علاقات الخليج بالصين في ضوء اتفاقها الإيراني, Mustaqbal ʿalaqat al-Khalij bi-l-Sin fi duʾ ittifaqiha al-irani, [The future of Gulf relations with China in light of its agreement with Iran], Al Watan, October 21, 2020, link.

[8] Husayn Shobokshi, Dardashat sinaʿiyya!, دردشة صناعية ! [AN industrial chat!], Okaz, October 22, 2020, link.

[9] Tahdhirat siniya wa rusiya li-misr min ‘amal ‘ada'i didda 'ithyubia تحذيرات صينية وروسية لمصر من عمل عدائي ضد إثيوبيا [Chinese and Russians warn Egypt not to act against Ethiopia], Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, October 26, 2020, link.

[10] Massimo Mucchetti, Quello che Pompeo e Rep. non capiscono alla voce “predatori cinesi” in Italia [What Pompeo and Rep. do not understand when they talk about “Chinese predators” in Italy], Il Foglio, October 22, 2020, link.

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