January 7, 2019

September 2018

The Mediterranean Region looks at China
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As the relations between China and the United States continue to worsen, public opinion in the Mediterranean region continues to grow increasingly fragmented and diversified. While the narrative surrounding China’s role in the region and its foreign and economic policies has become very clear in countries such as Iran and Israel, there are also growing tensions and uncertainties in other Mediterranean countries regarding how to approach China and evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of closer cooperation with it.

We start with Israel. Previous issues of the ChinaMed Bulletin reported on voices within the Israeli media opposing, or at least cautioning against, what is perceived to be an overly-friendly approach to China by the Israeli government. In response to these warming of relations, the Chinese government is preparing to send Vice President Wang Qishan to visit Israel at the end of October. Unsurprisingly, criticism against the government revolves around the fate of the Port of Haifa and the Shanghai International Port Group (SIPG) taking over as operator of the port for 25 years beginning in 2021. One of the most direct attacks against allowing the Chinese company, which won a regular tender in 2015, to handle the port was put forth by Ofer Israeli, a Research Fellow at the National Security Studies Center at the University of Haifa.[1] He is also a Lecturer at the Israel Defense Forces Academy. According to him, the presence of SIPG creates three different dangers for Israel: losing control of a vital logistic hub within its borders, falling victim to Chinese espionage and the potential transfer of sensitive information about Israeli logistic infrastructures and warship movements to countries like Iran and Syria, and the undermining of its strategic relations with the United States. Yet, hs is aware that both the short and long-term repercussions of cancelling the agreement could cause serious damage to its relations with China. Building upon commentary given by Shaul Horev, an Israel Defense Forces reservist Brigadier General who is the current Director of the Research Center for Maritime Policy and Strategy at the University of Haifa, Amos Harel wrote an article with a similar tone for the Haaretz.[2] Journalist Amitai Ziv also reported on an unofficial ban coming from the Israel Security Agency against the use of Russian and, especially, Chinese telecommunication equipment and software.[3] Indeed, no Chinese company was involved in the construction of Israel’s 3G and 4G networks. Chinese companies are also encountering cultural problems, such as the case of the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC) in the city of Bnei Brak, located just east of Tel Aviv. CCECC, in partnership with the Israeli construction company Danya Cebus, is building the Red Line of the Greater Tel Aviv Metropolitan Mass Transit System that will run from Petah Tikva through Bnei Brak, Ramat Gan, Tel Aviv and Jaffa to Bat Yam. Both the Ultra-Orthodox press and the Council of Torah Sages recently have started to encourage local residents to protest against Chinese workers working during Shabbat. Reportedly, the Chinese embassy has even considered sending a diplomat to oversee the situation.[4]

Meanwhile, the Islamic Republic News Agency reported on the meeting between the Head of Iran's Foreign Policy Strategic Council, Kamal Kharrazi, and Song Tao, the Head of the International Liaison Department of the Communist Party of China. The two officials met in Shanghai, where Kharrazi was on visit. During the meeting, they discussed three important subjects. First, the plan to develop Chabahar port in southeastern Iran and to link it to the Pakistani port of Gwadar. Kharrazi mentioned the possibility of using the plan as the basis to extend cooperation on the reconstruction of Syria. Second, the development of the network of pipelines and logistic facilities for the transportation of Iranian oil both eastward and westward. Third, continuing to promote the trade of oil and preserving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Unsurprisingly, they both agreed on the necessity to preserve the nuclear agreement.[5] Iranian media are heavily reporting on China’s positive role in supporting Iran both economically and diplomatically against “US economic terrorism.” Turkish media continues to emphasize the favorable ties between Ankara and Beijing, and how a positive political environment is leading to the creation of new economic opportunities.[6]

The situation seems more uncertain in Southern Europe and North Africa. The general theme that emerges from the articles published in countries on the southern and northern shores of the Mediterranean Sea is the presence of concerns regarding the political and diplomatic implications of stronger economic cooperation with China and, at the same time, high expectations for the economic opportunities that it could bring. For example, the Italian Professor Carlo Pelanda wrote that some people within the Italian government have been clearly influenced by China. Yet according to Pelanda, Italy has been able to carefully balance its relationship with both Washington and Beijing in a way that other countries, like Germany, have not.[7] This can be seen in the continued American support for Italy’s leading role in Libya despite initiatives launched by the Italian Ministry of Economic Development, led by Deputy Premier Di Maio, to attract Chinese investments and boost cooperation in developing countries.

In North Africa (and Africa in general), Ibrahim Nassir, a scholar at the Ankara Center for Crisis and Policy Studies, argued that many countries want to maintain good diplomatic and economic relations with the United States and Europe, but they are also aware that western countries are unlikely to offer the same economic support as China is currently providing.[8] Moreover, it is clear that there are also regional rivalries that play an important part in how countries like Algeria and Morocco approach China. According to TSA Algérie, Algeria is quickly catching up with Morocco in the run for Chinese investments. This is due to the fact that “Beijing multiplied the investments in Morocco, however, it maintains privileged historic relations with Alger.”[9]  At the same time, Djazairess, another Algerian media outlet, published an article on a report prepared in March by the French Senate regarding China’s growing economic presence in both Algeria and Morocco, and the possibility that China is also interested in growing political influence in addition to its business activities.[10] The tone of the article is not critical. However, it raises questions about a relatively old document regarding the risks of working with China instead of with traditional European partners. It is especially worth noting that this article came just several days after Algeria and China signed a Memorandum of Understanding for the Belt and Road Initiative. After all, Algerian media have already been very critical of the presence of Chinese companies and workers in the country. Yet, they have adopted a rather neutral tone in talking about the conditions of Uyghurs in China. Outside Algeria, Abdullah Jodah, a commentator for Al Jazeera and Rai al-Yaoum, went even further by writing that Uyghurs should stop causing instability, and countries in the Middle East should focus more of its attention to actions taken by the West rather than to that Uyghur issue.[11]

[1] Ofer Israeli, Namal Sini be-Haifa – sacana astrategit ve-bitchonit נמל סיני בחיפה - סכנה אסטרטגית וביטחונית [Chinese port in Haifa - a strategic and security danger], TheMarker, 26 September 2018, https://www.themarker.com/opinion/.premium-1.6510935.

[2] Amos Harel, Mitachat la-aaf shel maarechet habitachon  - Sin mistaletet al chufey Israel [Under the nose of the defense establishment, China is taking over the shores of Israel], Haaretz, 14 September 2018, https://www.haaretz.co.il/news/politics/1.6470734.

[3] Amitai Ziv, “Hashabak lu yesasher et ze”: Hasor al chevrot haticshoret me-Sin ve-Rusia sherutzut luful be-Israel "השב"כ לא יאשר": הסוד על חברות התקשורת מסין ורוסיה שרוצות לפעול בישראל ["The GSS will not approve": The secret about media companies from China and Russia who want to operate in Israel], TheMarker, 26 September 2018, https://www.themarker.com/technation/.premium-1.6509569.

[4] Amitai Gazit, Shagriros Cin biksha li-sloach natzig lehafganat ha-Charedim neged avodot haracevet be-sahabat שגרירות סין ביקשה לשלוח נציג להפגנת החרדים נגד עבודות הרכבת הקלה בשבת [The Chinese Embassy asked to send a representative to oversee the ultra-Orthodox demonstration against the light rail work during the Sabbath], Calcalist, 18 September 2018, https://www.calcalist.co.il/Ext/Comp/ArticleLayout/CdaArticlePrint1280/0,16492,3746357,00.html.

[5] Chin o iran ba hamkariye yekdigar bar chaleshha ghalabe mikonand چین و ایران با همکاری یکدیگر بر چالش ها غلبه می کنند, [China and Iran will overcome challenges by cooperation], Islamic Republic News Agency, 15 September 2018, http://www.irna.ir/fa/News/83033325.

[6] Çin’in en büyük havayolu Türkiye’ye direkt uçacak [China’s biggest airline will operate direct fly to Turkey], Sozcu, 5 September 2018, https://www.sozcu.com.tr/2018/ekonomi/cinin-en-buyuk-havayolu-turkiyeye-direkt-ucacak-2609526/.

[7] Emanuele Rossi, Trump, la Cina e l’Italia. L’analisi di Pelanda sulla relazione a tre [Trump, China, and Italy. Pelanda’s analysis on the triangular relations], Formiche,  27 September 2018, https://formiche.net/2018/09/pelanda-cina-italia-stati-uniti/.

[8] Ibrahim Nassir, Alafariqa bein alkhiarain… alataae alsini am altaqatur alameriki الأفارقة بين خيارين.. “العطاء” الصيني أم “التقتر” الأمريكي [Africans have two options: the Chinese easy aids or the American rigeur], Rai al-Yaoum, 19 September 2018, https://www.raialyoum.com/index.php/%D8%A5%D8%A8%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%87%D9%8A%D9%85-%D9%86%D8%A7%D8%B5%D8%B1-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A3%D9%81%D8%A7%D8%B1%D9%82%D8%A9-%D8%A8%D9%8A%D9%86-%D8%AE%D9%8A%D8%A7%D8%B1%D9%8A%D9%86-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B9/.

[9] Chine – Afrique : l’Algérie adhère aux “Nouvelles routes de la Soie” [China-Africa : Algeria enters the New Silk Road], TSA Algérie, 4 September 2018, https://www.tsa-algerie.com/chine-afrique-lalgerie-adhere-aux-nouvelles-routes-de-la-soie/.

[10] Hassan Hawisha, Lihadihi alasbab indaajat fransa min indimam aljazair ila altariq alharir alsini لهذه الأسباب انزعجت فرنسا من انضمام الجزائر إلى طريق الحرير الصيني [For these reasons, France has been angered by Algeria's joining the Chinese Silk Road], Djazairess, 6 September 2018, https://www.djazairess.com/echorouk/1349698.

[11] Abdullah Jodah, Alsin va alhududiha alqarbiya, الصين وحدودها الغربية [China and its western borders], Rai al-Yaoum, 14 September 2018, https://www.raialyoum.com/index.php/%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AF%D9%83%D8%AA%D9%88%D8%B1-%D8%B9%D8%A8%D8%AF%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%84%D9%87-%D8%AC%D9%88%D8%AF%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B5%D9%8A%D9%86-%D9%88%D8%AD%D8%AF%D9%88%D8%AF%D9%87%D8%A7-%D8%A7%D9%84/.

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