September 2019

The Mediterranean Region looks at China
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This issue of the ChinaMed Observer presents to you some extremely interesting commentaries from Syria and Iran that offer a unique perspective into how the debate on China has been developing in those two countries. The other articles that the researchers of the ChinaMed team have discovered this month continue to highlight some of the patterns that we have already identified in the past issues—from concerns regarding having Chinese companies involved in the construction of strategic infrastructure in Israel and Italy to the desire to strengthen economic cooperation with China among North African and Middle Eastern countries.

One of the two articles published by Al-Watan—owned by the cousin of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Rami Makhlouf—contains important statements made by Bouthaina Shaaban, the political and media adviser to President al-Assad. [1] Among them, there are two interconnected elements that are well worth noting. First, as she declared, “we must learn from the Chinese experience and the way the Chinese people have been able to overcome the colonial past and become the second most powerful economy in the world.” Syria can do so with China’s help, which, Shaaban argues, regards the Arab country with great interest, especially under the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative. Second, China’s success shows that Western imperialism can be defeated and Syria should join this group of countries, which also includes Russia and Iran, to continue this fight. Against this background, the second article offers a more precise description of the Syrian understanding of the Sino-Syrian relations. [2] It goes without saying that the author is not shy in applauding China’s role as “positive and constructive.” Again, we can find two very interesting elements in the article. First, from a rhetorical point of view, the journalist borrows directly from the Chinese political dictionary by arguing that Syria can play an important role to help China to implement its “diplomacy in the service of socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era and provides a suitable external environment for the great renaissance of the Chinese nation.” This is the first time that we find regional media appropriating Chinese slogans to communicate with their domestic audience. Second, the journalist writes that Chinese economic help complements that from Iran and Russia in the realm of defense. Yet, that would require “the transition from economic cooperation to a real economic partnership between Syria and China, based on a social, cultural, security, military, and economic dimension.” Clearly, this has not happened despite the hopes expressed by the journalist. These articles further confirm the validity of the analysis of Sino-Syrian relations published recently by the ChinaMed Project and the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies.

Meanwhile, in Iran, Professor Mohsen Shariatinia of Shahid Beheshti University was asked to comment on an article published by the London-based publication Petroleum Economist. [3] The article, which has been largely debated and debunked by China-Iran watchers, alleged that China and Iran have an agreement for Chinese companies to invest up to USD 400 billion in Iran—mostly in its energy industry. Shariatinia, too, argued that there would be much more information available if such a deal was genuine. More in general, he pointed out that any argument about “Chinese colonization of Iran” can be easily proven wrong just by looking at the limited flow of Chinese capital into Iran since the United States withdrew from the nuclear agreement. Even those companies that remained in the country are facing significant challenges to push forward relatively small projects. Yet, despite the setbacks in economic cooperation, China remains an important partner in the context of the Iranian debate. An article published by Tasnim News Agency argues that Iran, Russia, and China should play a more active role in stabilizing Afghanistan after the Americans showed once more that they are not reliable actors. [4]

Much freer than Syrian and Iran in terms of external pressure, Iraq is going full steam ahead with the strengthening of the relations with China. The comments in Iraqi media about the visit of Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi leave no doubt about it. Yet, corruption and bad governance are clearly identified as the main obstacles. As the author of an article in the newspaper Al-Zaman points out, “here can be no longer justifications or acceptance for delays on the Iraqi side” to get closer to China. [5] The delegation led by the Prime Minister is the largest one in Iraq’s history and includes representatives from most Iraqi ministries and almost all provinces. Interestingly, the article that Professor Shariatinia labeled as unreliable was used to argue that other countries have already secured large Chinese investments and Iraq risks being late for that. In particular, the Iraqi leadership is called to show unity in the face of internal clashes of interest and external pressure. The other article published in the same newspaper, and written by its chief editor, is even more explicit and critical: Iraq’s China policy can succeed only if its politicians will act according to the plans by following the rules and not, as it is today, in order to use their position and influence to further their own interests and privileges. [6]

Other interesting news come from North Africa. In Morocco, local media are developing a narrative similar to one that we have already identified in the case of Egypt: to put the emphasis on the role of gateway to the African market for Chinese products. Several experts from the Policy Center for the New South discussed how the Sino-Moroccan cooperation can progress by fully leveraging Chinese capital and Morocco’s geographical position and potential for economic development. [7] Morocco might be trying to gain the ground lost to other neighboring countries in terms of cooperation with China. According to our data, it is Algeria and Egypt that have attracted most of the Chinese investments in North Africa. Algeria, which is facing a difficult political and economic situation after Abdelaziz Bouteflika stepped down and oil revenues declined, might also turn to China for new loans instead of engaging with other international financial institutions. According to a local analyst interviewed by the journalist of Ultra Algeria, the decision made by the Algerian government to make new debt, as well as, relaxing investment rules is one of the few that can be done with the support of different actors with different interests. [8] 

Turkey and Gulf countries, too, are actively engaged in courting China. For example, while President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared that his government is still trying to support the interests of the Uyghur minority in China, [9] Turkey is following in the steps of Greece and other southern European countries by offering a passport to those individuals that invest consistent sums of money in the country. Chinese investors have already purchased properties for approximately millions of Dollars in Turkey. [10] At the same time, the Omani and Emirati diplomats have been reported to express great support for economic engagement with China. Abdullah Saleh Al Saadi, the Omani ambassador to China, released a long interview explaining how the relations with China are proceeding smoothly and how his government is ensuring that common projects do not meet obstacles. [11] As to the UAE, Nabila Alshamsi, the Consul General in Hong Kong, announced that a new office will be established in Dubai to oversee the implementation of Belt and Road Initiative-related projects in the region. [12] This is an important development but, unfortunately, the journalist of Albayan, did not include further information about the specific role and affiliation of that new institution.

The situation differs significantly in the more “Western” parts of the region, where the debate is dominated by questions regarding the political and security implications of cooperating with China, especially in the telecommunication sector. Ynet, an Israeli news and general-content website, published a strongly worded article highlighting all the risks that comes with what is called “Chinese intrusion” in Israel. [13] According to Assaf Orion, a retired Israeli brigadier general, however, Israel will continue to deepen cooperation with China. One of the reasons is that the security establishment is meeting significant obstacles in influencing the government, in comparison to those that are interested in Chinese investment. [14] Similarly, the situation in Italy is changing with the new government formed by the Five Star Movement and the Democratic Party. Indeed, the first meeting of the new cabinet approved the use of the special powers in supply deals for fifth-generation telecommunication services. Nonetheless, the debate about China in the Southern European countries remains less fragmented in Israel. In particular, it is important to look at one article published by the newspaper Il Manifesto that was penned by Alberto Bradanini, former Italian Ambassador to Beijing and former Consul in Hong Kong. [15] Bradanini’s article is one of the few those published by Italian media article that goes beyond the usual issues of the dangers of Chinese telecommunication technology and the necessity to export more to China. Instead, Bradanini highlights the fact that the moves of the previous government, for example signing the Memorandum of Understanding with China on the Belt and Road Initiative, are not well thought out and it is necessary to improve the ways for experts and scholars to help the new government to devise a new, pragmatic China policy that could bring real benefits to the country. Meanwhile, in Greece, the media reports a far less contentious situation as the shipping giant company COSCO has bought its first cruise ship, which is seen as an important development that can further boost the Greek tourism industry. [16]

[1] Silva Razzouk, Akkadat an li-Surya makanat khassa fī qulub al-shaʿb al-sini. Shaʿban li-l-Watan: “Yajibu an nataʿallama min tajrubatihum” أكدت أن لسورية مكانة خاصة في قلوب الشعب الصيني … شعبان لـ«الوطن»: يجب أن نتعلم من تجربتهم [Syria has a special place in the hearts of the Chinese people. Shaaban to al-Watan: “We must learn from their experience”], Al-Watan, September 25, 2019, http://alwatan.sy/archives/213581.

[2] Mazen Jabbour, Surya wa-l-ummat al-siniyya سورية والأمة الصينية [Syria and the Chinese nation], Al-Watan, September 25, 2019, http://alwatan.sy/archives/213612.

[3] Aya Iran be mostaʿmare-ye Cin tabdil khwāhad shod?! آیا ایران به مستعمره چین تبدیل خواهد شد؟! [Will Iran become a Chinese colony?!], Tabnak News Agency, September 15, 2019, https://www.tabnak.ir/fa/news/924236/%D8%A2%DB%8C%D8%A7-%D8%A7%DB%8C%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%86-%D8%A8%D9%87-%D9%85%D8%B3%D8%AA%D8%B9%D9%85%D8%B1%D9%87-%DA%86%DB%8C%D9%86-%D8%AA%D8%A8%D8%AF%DB%8C%D9%84-%D8%AE%D9%88%D8%A7%D9%87%D8%AF-%D8%B4%D8%AF.

[4] Sayyed Hussam Rezavi, Yaddasht | Iran, Cin va Rusye; mothallath-e hampeymānān qabel-e etteka bara-ye solh-e Afghanestan یادداشت| ایران، چین و روسیه؛ مثلث هم‌پیمانان قابل‌اتکا برای صلح افغانستان [Notes| Iran, China and Russia; the triangle of reliable allies for Afghan peace], Tasnim News Agency, September 15, 2019, https://tn.ai/2098114.

[5] Jassem Murad, Al-ʿIraq wa-l-Sin fursat al-tahawwul العراق والصين فرصة التحول [Iraq and China are the chance for change], Al-Zaman, 25 September 2019, https://www.azzaman.com/%d8%a7%d9%84%d8%b9%d8%b1%d8%a7%d9%82-%d9%88%d8%a7%d9%84%d8%b5%d9%8a%d9%86-%d9%81%d8%b1%d8%b5%d8%a9-%d8%a7%d9%84%d8%aa%d8%ad%d9%88%d9%84-%d8%ac%d8%a7%d8%b3%d9%85-%d9%85%d8%b1%d8%a7%d8%af/.

[6] Fateh ʿAbd al-Salam, Laysa hakedhā nadhhabu ilā-l-Sīn ليس هكذا نذهب الى الصين [It’s not like this that we go to China], Al-Zaman, September 23, 2019, https://www.azzaman.com/%d9%84%d9%8a%d8%b3-%d9%87%d9%83%d8%b0%d8%a7-%d9%86%d8%b0%d9%87%d8%a8-%d8%a7%d9%84%d9%89-%d8%a7%d9%84%d8%b5%d9%8a%d9%86/.

[7] Abd al-Rahim al-Asri, Markaz tafkyir yastaerid al-taeawun al-thulathi bayin al-maghrib wa al-Siyn wa 'ifriqia مركز تفكير يستعرض التعاون الثلاثي بين المغرب والصين وإفريقيا [A think tank explores the tripartite cooperation between Morocco, China and Africa], Hespress, September 19, 2019, https://www.hespress.com/economie/444842.html.

[8] Omar Lashmout, Al-jazayir tattajah 'ilaa al-istidanat al-kharijia…al-eawdat 'ilaa 'imla'at Sunduq al-naqd al-dauwli?, الجزائر تتّجه إلى الاستدانة الخارجية.. العودة إلى إملاءات صندوق النقد الدولي؟, [Algeria is turning to foreign debt, back to the dictations of the International Monetary Fund?], Ultra Algeria, September 21, 2019, https://ultraalgeria.ultrasawt.com/%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AC%D8%B2%D8%A7%D8%A6%D8%B1-%D8%AA%D8%AA%D9%91%D8%AC%D9%87-%D8%A5%D9%84%D9%89-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A7%D8%B3%D8%AA%D8%AF%D8%A7%D9%86%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AE%D8%A7%D8%B1%D8%AC%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B9%D9%88%D8%AF%D8%A9-%D8%A5%D9%84%D9%89-%D8%A5%D9%85%D9%84%D8%A7%D8%A1%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%B5%D9%86%D8%AF%D9%88%D9%82-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%86%D9%82%D8%AF-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AF%D9%88%D9%84%D9%8A%D8%9F/%D8%B9%D9%85%D8%A7%D8%B1-%D9%84%D8%B4%D9%85%D9%88%D8%AA/%D8%A7%D9%82%D8%AA%D8%B5%D8%A7%D8%AF?fbclid=IwAR3uJl_nzUsWlNoA5ve_EZoVZ6MTRKU86q3VipXzwm-9HVOmzlYA5LXpEkY.

[9] Erdoğan'a ABD'de Doğu Türkistan sorusu [A question to Erdogan about East Turkestan in the United States], Yenicag Gazetesi, September 23, 2019, https://www.yenicaggazetesi.com.tr/erdogana-abdde-dogu-turkistan-sorusu-249946h.htm.

[10] Çinliler, İstanbul'dan 500 milyon liralık gayrimenkul alacak [Chinese will buy 500 million Lira of real-estate in Istanbul], Aksam Gazetesi, September 14, 2019, https://www.aksam.com.tr/ekonomi/cinliler-istanbuldan-c2500-milyon-liralik-gayrimenkul-alacak-c2/haber-1005385.

[11] Khalid Bin Rashid Al- ʿdawi, Safir Al-Saltanah lada Al-Sin li Oman: tataor Al-E’laqat Al-Tejariyah wa Al-Eqtisadiyah ma’a Al-Sin wa albadʾ fi Tanfith 3 mashare’ jadidah سفير السلطنة لدى الصين لـعمان : تطور العلاقات التجارية والاقتصادية مع الصين والبدء في تنفيذ 3 مشاريع جديدة [Omani Ambassador to China: Omani-Chinese trade and economic relations are developing and three new projects are underway.], Oman Daily, September 7, 2019, https://www.omandaily.om/?p=727293.

[12] Abdu al-hay Muhammed, Al-Hizam wa Al-tariq” todashin maktaban iqilimiyan fi Dubai nihayat 2019 «الحزام والطريق» تدشن مكتباً إقليمياً في دبي نهاية 2019 [A new regional office in Dubai for the Belt and Road Initiative to be opened at the end of 2019], Albayan, September 15, 2019, https://www.albayan.ae/economy/local-market/2019-09-15-1.3649245.

[13] Harel Menashri, Chamesh heaarot al ha-chadira ha-Sinit le-Israel 5 הערות על הסכנה שבחדירה הסינית לישראל [Five points on the dangers of Chinese intrusion into Israel], Ynet, September 24, 2019, https://www.ynet.co.il/Ext/Comp/ArticleLayout/CdaArticlePrintPreview/0,2506,L-5595824,00.html.

[14] Amos Harel, Sini sh-ole be-yuker סיני שעולה ביוקר [Chinese which is expensive], Haaretz, August 30, 2019, https://www.haaretz.co.il/news/politics/.premium-1.7768400?lts=1569851612652.

[15] Alberto Bradanini, Italia, Cina e via della seta: serve coraggio e pianificazione [Italy, China, and the Silk Road: Courage and planning are necessary], Il Manifesto, September 17, 2019, https://ilmanifesto.it/italia-cina-via-della-seta-memorandum/.

[16] Antonis Tsimplakis, Eisodos tis cosco se ploioktisia kai diaxeirisi krouazieroploion Είσοδος της Cosco σε πλοιοκτησία και διαχείριση κρουαζιερόπλοιων [COSCO's entry into cruise ship ownership and management], Naftemporiki, September 14, 2019, https://www.naftemporiki.gr/finance/story/1515560/eisodos-tis-cosco-se-ploioktisia-kai-diaxeirisi-krouazieroploion.

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