September 2022

China looks at the Mediterranean Region
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In September, Chinese media did not publish many articles on the countries of the wider Mediterranean region, or on China’s relations with them. That said, those that were published reflect growing uncertainty regarding the situation in the region as a whole.

A common motif in Chinese media discourse that we have often highlighted in past issues of the ChinaMed Observer is Chinese commentators blaming Washington. The latest example comes from Cancao Xiaoxi which published a long article highlighting how American actions have brought instability to Iraq, Libya and Syria. [1] According to its authors, “the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, thereby destroying the country’s original political environment. Since then, under American leadership, Iraq has established a decentralized political system based on quotas, in which the president is a Kurd, and the prime minister and speaker of the parliament are a Shiite and a Sunni, respectively.” Ding Long, a professor at the Middle East Institute of Shanghai International Studies University, made a similar assertion in an article on Iraq published in the People’s Daily. [2] In both articles, the authors do not mention if and how some of the problems that plague Iraq today are a legacy of Saddam Hussein’s regime. An uninformed reader might well imagine that Saddam’s Iraq was a more stable and/or peaceful country.

Meanwhile, Chinese scholars point to rising food prices, climate change, and the French withdrawal from Mali as the main factors behind a brewing terrorist and refugee crises in the Sahel.  [3] The impact of these crises will likely be felt throughout the wider Mediterranean region, especially in Europe, where similar phenomena have contributed to the rise of right-wing politicians. This is part of the argument made by Zhao Junjie, an expert of European affairs at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, in an analysis published in the Global Times on the eve of Giorgia Meloni’s victory in the Italian elections. [4] Zhao believes that Meloni and other right-wing politicians in Europe will continue to use provocative rhetoric vis-à-vis the European Union, but that it is highly unlikely that any of them will actually attempt something like Brexit. He argues that while right-wing politicians will continue to grow in influence over the coming years, the countries where they will come to power (e.g., Italy) will probably not adopt radical foreign or domestic policies because these politicians lack government experience and technical knowledge and will be overloaded dealing with the extremely complex issues that their countries are currently facing.

Another scholar, Zhao Yongsheng of the University of International Business and Economics, made a similar case, warning that the victory of right-wing politicians does not mean that the majority of the public supports their policies. Rather, it means that they are dissatisfied with previous governments. [5] A group of scholars based at Fudan University shared this assessment: there might be tensions between Italy and the European Union, especially on issues like immigration, but one should not expect too much change. [6] Regarding relations with China, these scholars clearly identify Meloni’s rise to power as a negative factor. One of them, Jian Junbo, warns that the Chinese government should be ready for possible challenges. However, they were also cautious with their words as they do not believe that China will be a priority for the new Italian government.

Similarly, Chinese commentators also see instability when it comes to Turkey. Liu Zhongmin argues that Ankara’s foreign policy influence and ability to punch above its weight derives from its multiple identities and membership in various groups and international organizations. [7] However, its tense relations with its European neighbors, its unresolved issues with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, and its overstretched economic and military power prevent it from fulfilling its foreign policy ambitions and from drastically changing the status quo in the region. Fudan University’s Sun Degang highlighted the fact that although an escalation between Turkey and Greece is unlikely, tensions will probably rise as we get closer to 2023. That year, both countries will hold elections, and it will also be the 100th anniversary of the Treaty of Lausanne. [8]

It is against this background that Qin Tian, the Deputy Director of the Middle East Studies Center of the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, wrote about Iran’s upcoming full membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). [9] Qin argues that Iran has “readjusted its strategy from ‘neither East, nor West’ to ‘both West and East’,” though he does not explain clearly what that means. He only mentions how Iran’s economic and energy ties with East and Central Asia have been growing stronger in the past years. Qin also points to two ways in which Iran’s membership will shape the SCO. The first is that it will push the organization beyond its initial narrow focus on security and border issues in China’s Central Asian neighborhood, to a more “Eurasian perspective” allowing it to play a more active role in “Central Asia, South Asia and West Asia,” thereby propelling the SCO to evolve “in line with the ‘community of human destiny’ proposed by President Xi Jinping.” Secondly, Iran’s full membership will also “strengthen” and “showcase” the SCO’s spirit of independence as the organization will expand while still not including any Western country. “Iran pursuing a more mature strategy and balancing between the East and the West will strengthen the SCO's ‘strategic autonomy’ further,” wrote Qin.

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[1] Fan Shuaishuai, Wang Jian, and Pan Xiaojing, Měi zài zhōngdōng zhǒng xià huògēn bùduàn jié chū èguǒ 美在中东种下祸根不断结出恶果 [America's seeds of evil in the Middle East continue to bear fruit], Cankao Xiaoxi, September 8, 2022, link.

[2] Du Ke, Yīlākè zhī luàn, huògēn zài shéi? 伊拉克之乱,祸根在谁? [What is the root cause of the chaos in Iraq?], People’s Daily, September 6, 2022, link.

[3] Li Zhuoman, Sà hè lēi ānquán wéijī wàiyì fēngxiǎn jiā dà 萨赫勒安全危机外溢风险加大 [The risk of spillovers from the Sahel security crisis increases], People’s Daily, October 1, 2022, link.

[4] Zhao Junjie, Zhàojùnjié: Ōuzhōu yòuyì zhèngdǎng wèihé rìjiàn déshì 赵俊杰:欧洲右翼政党为何日渐得势 [Zhao Junjie: Why European right-wing parties are gaining ground], Global Times, September 15, 2022, link.

[5] Yin Miao, Ning Ning, Qing Mu, Wang Zhen, and Liu Yang, 极右翼政党掀“政治海啸”,欧洲何去何从?[The “political tsunami” of far-right political parties, where will Europe go?], Global Times, September 23, 2022, link.

[6] Jian Junbo, Peng Chongzhou, Yan Shaohua, Zhang Xiaotong, and Li Anfeng, 中欧观察|意大利极右翼政党将上台执政,欧洲右转之势难止? [Europe Observer|Italy's far-right party will come to power, will the right turn in Europe be hard to stop?], The Paper, September 30, 2022, link.

[7] Liu Zhongmin, Liúzhōngmín: Tǔ'ěrqí “duōyuán shēnfèn” de dé yǔ shī 刘中民:土耳其“多元身份”的得与失 [Liu Zhongmin: The gains and losses of Turkey’s “multiple identities”], Global Times, September 27, 2022, link.

[8] Du Ke, Xīlà yǔ tǔ'ěrqí zàidù jiànbánǔzhāng 希腊与土耳其再度剑拔弩张 [Greece and Turkey are at loggerheads again], People’s Daily, September 15, 2022, link.

[9] Qin Tian, Yīlǎng zhèngshì “rù qún” shì shàng hé zǔzhī fǎ zhǎn shǐshàng de yòu yī lǐchéngbēi 伊朗正式“入群”是上合组织发展史上的又一里程碑 [Iran officially “joining the group” is another milestone in the history of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization], China.com, September 18, 2022, link.

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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.
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