September 2021

China looks at the Mediterranean Region
Download PDF

In September, most of Chinese commentators focused on the progress for Iran to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the visit to Washington made by Naftali Bennett, and the Middle Eastern tour of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

The 21st meeting of the SCO Council of Heads of State took place on September 16-17 in Tajikistan's capital, Dushanbe. A critical item in the agenda was the launch of the procedures to admit Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Qatar as dialogue partners, as well as Iran as a full member state. This is a significant expansion of, as written by the Global Times, the “circles of friends” of the SCO in a critical part of the Mediterranean region. [1] Jing Xiaoyu, a scholar at the China Institute of International Studies in Beijing, commented saying that this westward expansion of the SCO is strong evidence of the appeal and attractiveness of the organization but it does not mean that the SCO will shift the focus of its activities toward the Middle East. [2]

The decision to move on with Iran’s accession to the organization is one of the main developments that took place during the meeting. It took 13 years for Iran to become a full member of the SCO, during which Iranian officials have often expressed their frustration for the slowness of the process. In an article for Xinhua, Zhao Huirong, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences that specializes in Central Asian affairs, discussed the reasons for this. [3] According to him, it was a crisis in the relations between 2015-2016 Iran and Tajikistan that prevented Iran from becoming a SCO full member after Tehran agreed to limit its nuclear program as part of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and, consequently, United Nations’ sanctions were lifted. The situation changed thanks to Russian pressure on Tajikistan as Iran has become an especially important partner for Moscow in the Middle East.

In his analysis, Zhao argues that “Iran's accession is conducive to strengthening exchanges, enhancing mutual trust, developing multilateral economic cooperation and promoting the resolution of regional security issues among SCO countries.” As to the challenges that this development might bring, he refers to the need for more negotiations to reach an agreement as the number of members increases. Though he writes that the SCO is not turning into an anti-American alliance, Zhao seems to be aware of the fact that Iran’s accession is unlikely to decrease the tensions with Washington. Indeed, other Chinese scholars emphasize the fact that domestic politics in Iran and the United States makes it impossible for Iranian and American policymakers to make those concessions necessary for the JCPOA to be restored. [4]

Against this background, Chinese observers have also been looking at American moves in the aftermath of the withdrawal from Afghanistan. They do not believe that a new, diplomacy-centered American policy in the Middle East will gain much support from the partners in the Gulf. [5] At the same time, the relationship between the United States and Israel is also still undergoing an adjustment phase that will last for a few more years. [6] On the one hand, the Biden administration has not made it clear what its approach to the Middle East is, though it is evident that the region is not a priority as it used to be. On the other hand, both Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and President Joe Biden are meant to stay in power for a shorter period of time than what U.S. presidents and Israeli prime ministers usually do. This means that they cannot do more than ensuring that the relationship between their countries remains stable. In this uncertain context, however, there is a consensus among Chinese experts that Qatar has staged an incredible comeback after the 2017 diplomatic crisis with many of its neighbors. In particular, declared Fudan University’s Zou Zhiqianq, Qatar has proven to be an irreplaceable diplomatic actor thanks to the role that it played between the United States and the Taliban. [7]

[1] Zhang Jiye, Shàng hé zǔzhī “péngyǒu quān” bùduàn tàzhǎn 上合组织“朋友圈”不断拓展 [The “circles” of friends of the SCO], Global Times, September 18, 2021, link.

[2] Jing Xiaoyu, Shàng hé zǔzhī èrshí nián shuāng fēng huì, zhōngguó zhǔdòng dān qǐ gēng dà shǐmìng 上合组织二十年双峰会,中国主动担起更大使命 [SCO 20-year double summit, China takes on a larger mission], China.com, September 19, 2021, link.

[3] Zhao Huirong, Huánqiú shēn yī dù |13 nián, yīlǎng zhōngyú qiāo kāile shàng hé de dàmén 环球深壹度|13年,伊朗终于敲开了上合的大门 [After 13 years Iran has finally opened the door of the SCO], Xinhua, September 23, 2021, link.

[4] Wang Shoubao and Gao Wencheng, 伊核谈判能否重启面临挑战 [The Iranian nuclear deal faces significant challenges], Xinhua, September 13, 2021, link; Huang Yanlin, Bù línkěn jǐnggào, lái xī qiángyìng yī hé tánpàn biànshù jǐhé? 布林肯警告、莱希强硬 伊核谈判变数几何?[Blinken sends a warning, Raisi hardens his position: What are the variables in the Iranian deal?], Knews, September 9, 2021, http://www.kankanews.com/a/2021-09-09/0039877089.shtml.

[5] Liao Qin, Měiguó guówùqīng, fáng zhǎng wèihé jǐnjí chūfǎng duōguó 美国国务卿、防长为何紧急出访多国 [The U.S. Secreatary of State and Defense Secretary hastily visit many countries], Jiefang Daily, September 7, 2021, link.

[6] Niu Song, Bèi nèi tè fǎng měi, néng fǒu “chóng sù” měi yǐ guānxì 贝内特访美,能否“重塑”美以关系 [Bennet visits the United States, can he “restart” the relations between Israel and the United States?], Xinmin Evening News, September 2, 2021, link.

[7] Qian Xiaoyan, Xiǎoguó dà wàijiāo: Tǎlìbān jiēguǎn āfùhàn hòu, kǎtǎ'ěr rènàole qǐlái 小国大外交:塔利班接管阿富汗后,卡塔尔热闹了起来 [Small country, big diplomacy: Qatar comes alive after the Taliban took Afghanistan], China Business Network, September 9, 2021, link.

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-No Derivatives 4.0 International License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/ or send a letter to Creative Commons, PO Box 1866, Mountain View, CA 94042, USA.
With the support of
Published with the support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation pursuant to art. 23-bis of Presidential Decree 18/1967. The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation.
Published with the support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation pursuant to art. 23-bis of Presidential Decree 18/1967. The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation.
Privacy Policy
Cookie Policy