September 2020

China looks at the Mediterranean Region
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The commentaries published by Chinese media in September were not particularly insightful as they mostly repeated themes in the Chinese narrative about the region that we have already identified in the past. Most of them focused on the impact of the normalization of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain in the Middle East–especially on the future of the Palestinian issue and Iran. The flow of refugees toward Europe and the future of Lebanon, too, were among the topics of discussion of Chinese commentators.

The key argument that emerges from Chinese media is that the normalization of Israel’s ties with the UAE, Bahrain, and possibly more Arab countries in the future is not necessarily a positive development for regional peace. In contrast to August, no one seems to be thinking that this development is still better than no development at all. Chinese commentators point to several interconnected reasons for that. [1] Firstly, the United States is not interested anymore in supporting peace in the region. As Ding Long emphasizes, one cannot deny that the United States made an essential contribution to regional stability. [2] Although they did not do so selflessly and they were not always successful, American policymakers spared no effort in mediating between rivals and tried to find solutions that could satisfy everyone. Sticking to a two-state solution for the Israeli–Palestinian conflict was a clear example of this. However, this is not the case anymore and, therefore, American actions are mostly meant to help Donald Trump in his bid for reelection at every cost. Secondly, the normalization of Israel’s ties with Arab countries is taking place at the expense of the Palestinians, and this is made possible by the fact that Arab rulers themselves are less interested in that issue than they had been in the past. The marginalization of the Palestinian issue has been denounced by Chinese scholars for a long time. Yet, it is interesting to read Fan Hongda’s suggestion that it might be better to give up trying to find a solution for the moment and focus on other issues. [3] Of course, this might well be his personal opinion, and China, in any case, has always played a marginal role in this issue. However, it might also signal an important change in China’s narrative about Palestine and, perhaps, its diplomatic priorities in the region. Finally, the improvement of the relations between Israel and Arab countries is not seen as something that they are pursuing in the name of regional peace but, rather, as part of the intensification of the struggle between Arab countries and Israel, on one side, and Iran and Turkey, on the other. As confirmed by an article written by Gu Zhenglong, the opinion of Chinese scholars regarding Turkish foreign policy is hardly a positive one. Although the writings of Chinese analysts do not give any insight into Chinese preferences, it is clear that Turkey’s activism in the eastern Mediterranean is seen as an important source of instability. [4] In comparison, it is clear in their words that regional balancing against Iran is seen as something that goes against Chinese interests and, consequently, China’s understanding of regional peace.

While Turkish foreign policy is perceived as a new element in the equation of Mediterranean politics, the United States remains as the main culprit for numerous problems in the region. In particular, Dong Yifan, a scholar at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, argues that European countries are under significant pressure due to the second wave of Covid-19 and the flow of refugees from North Africa and the Middle East that has been caused by American interventionism in the region. [5] In the future, he argues, the development of the European Union might be seriously undermined by this crisis. While such an argument is not original, it is interesting to notice that it does not mention the fact that various European countries played an active role in supporting American foreign policy. This omission may be due to the general tendency in Chinese media, especially today, to portray European countries in a relatively favorable way as, somehow, like China, victims of American unilateralism. This might also explain why Chinese analysts remain relatively neutral in describing France’s role in Lebanon, without overplaying the colonial past that links them. [6] Although some of them pointed out that France might not be capable of solving Lebanon’s problems, they argue that Lebanon alone is unlikely to find a solution to its profound social and economic crisis.

[1] Lin Yan et al., 国际观察:阿联酋后是巴林 阿拉伯国家与以建交凸显中东之变 [International affairs commentary: Bahrain after the UAE, the establishment of diplomatic relations between Arab countries and Israel highlights the changes in the Middle East], Xinhua, September 12, 2020, link; Chen Jing, Měiguó cuòhé yǐsèliè bālín guānxì zhèngcháng huà, bù huì gěi zhōngdōng dài lái zhēnzhèng hépíng [美国撮合以色列巴林关系正常化,不会给中东带来真正和平], The Beijing News, September 13, 2020, link; Qian Xiaoyan, Měi yī lǐngdǎo rén liánhéguó “gé kōng jiāohuǒ”, zhuānjiā chēng xīn yī lún zhìcái zuòxiù chéngfèn dà 美伊领导人联合国“隔空交火”,专家称新一轮制裁作秀成分大 [U.S. and Iranian leaders "exchange fire" at the United Nations, experts say the new round of sanctions is just for show], China Business Network, September 23, 2020, link.

[2] Ding Long, Dīng lóng: Huáshèngdùn tōu huànle “zhōngdōng hépíng” gàiniàn 丁隆: 华盛顿偷换了“中东和平”概念 [Ding Long: Washington has changed the meaning of “peace in the Middle East”], Global Times, September 2, 2020, link.

[3] Fan Hongda, Cóng bālín yǐsèliè jiànjiāo kàn zhòng dōng hépíng zhī lù 从巴林以色列建交看中东和平之路 [The establishment of diplomatic relations between Bahrain and Israel, the road to peace in the Middle East], Shanghai Observer, September 13, 2020, link.  

[4] Gu Zhenglong, Gùzhènglóng: Tǔ'ěrqí rèzhōng yú qūyù wéijī bèihòu yǒu gè dàguó mèng 顾正龙:土耳其热衷于区域危机背后有个大国梦 [Gu Zhenglong: Turkey is fond of regional crises as it dreams of great power], Cfisnet, September 17, 2020, link; Zhang Lin, Dōng dìzhōnghǎi de huǒyàowèi 东地中海的火药味 [The powder keg in the eastern Mediterranean], Globe, September 7, 2020, link.

[5] Dong Yifan, Nànmín wéijī yǔ èr cì yìqíng “gòngzhèn”, ōuméng “tài nánle” 难民危机与二次疫情“共振”,欧盟“太难了” [The refugee crisis and the second wave of Covid-19 “join forces”, it is too tough for the European Union], The Beijing News, September 27, 2020, link.

[6] Xie Lian, Dà bàozhà hòu líbānèn gāng rènmìng xīn zǒnglǐ, mǎkè lóng èr fǎng bèilǔtè 大爆炸后黎巴嫩刚任命新总理,马克龙二访贝鲁特 [Lebanon has just appointed a new prime minister after the explosion and Macron visits Beirut for the second time], The Beijing News, September 1, 2020, link.

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