September 2022

The Mediterranean Region looks at China
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In September, we understandably found that media across the wider Mediterranean focused on the latest summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), held in Samarkand, Uzbekistan on September 15-16. This event, during which Iran’s full membership in the SCO was finalized, prompted extensive debates on the organization and, more specifically, China’s influence on regional developments.

Saudi analyses seem to summarize the region’s perception of the SCO. Writing for al-Riyadh, Fahmy al-Hamed stressed that the organization’s focus is security cooperation against threats like “terrorism, extremism, and separatism.” [1] The gradual increase of joint exercises is making the SCO “able to provide a coherent response to international developments” as a bloc, which may in the future allow it to challenge the American-led Western hegemony in Asia. [2] Moreover, al-Hamed stated that the economic size of the SCO, whose member states together make up 23.1% of the world’s GDP, would allow it to offer “a large contribution to global sustainable development.” This possibility has convinced countries, including Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern states, to join the organization. Ali al-Khashaiban, writing for the same newspaper, shared similar views. Nevertheless, he also points out that the SCO has yet to weigh in on some important international issues, such as the war in Ukraine, that are “awaiting” its contribution. [3] According to him, the SCO’s limited participation in world affairs stems from the fact that it “is greatly influenced by Chinese policies that rely on calm, patient and cumulative achievements.” However, with China’s global economic and political influence likely to increase in the future, the organization is expected to become a “tool” to confront the West and shift the international balance of power.

For their part, Iranian media expressed enthusiastic views on Tehran’s upcoming full SCO membership, mostly focusing on its possible economic benefits. Deputy Foreign Minister Mehdi Safavi highlighted how the SCO will provide his country with new, much-needed energy markets and development opportunities. [4] He mentioned Iran’s major ports, Bandar Abbas and Chabahar, as possible beneficiaries of such relations. However, Kuroush Ahmadi, writing for the reformist newspaper Etemad, suggested that although the SCO offers undeniable benefits regarding Iran’s relations with its neighbors, the importance of the organization should not be overestimated because economic and military cooperation among member countries is actually very limited. The few existing cooperation agreements between SCO member states are solely based upon bilateral relations that fall outside the framework of the SCO. [5] Moreover, the Iranian Parliament must approve several conventions, agreements, and organization statements, including some United Nations documents, a few of which rely on the Financial Action Task Force’s indications, to complete the membership process. Some elements concerning the movement of troops across member state borders may be in contrast with the Iranian Constitution as well.

As expected, the revival of the JCPOA continues to be another topic of discussion in Iran. On the one hand, many currently believe that both the European Union and the United States have no option but to finalize the agreement. This is because Europe, crippled by the energy crisis due to the war in Ukraine, urgently needs alternative energy sources, which Tehran could provide. [6] On the other hand, distrust toward the West is still significant in Iran’s domestic and foreign policy debate. Conservative sources such as Iran suggested that Tehran should start preparing for an economic and political scenario in which the JCPOA is never finalized. [7] The country, therefore, should concentrate on boosting domestic sources of development and avoid international institutions altogether. In this case, China, an economic power that holds similar values, should be considered Iran’s main, if not only, partner.

The possible revival of the nuclear deal remains a concern for Israel, which, as stated by Yossi Blum Halevi in Maariv, considers a “strengthened” and nuclear-armed Iran a direct threat to its national security as well as to the fragile regional balance created by the Abraham Accords. [8] A revived JCPOA would also give Tehran the ability to strengthen its proxies in Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza. Moreover, according to the author, the nuclear deal would weaken Western influence not only in the Middle East, but also in the Indo-Pacific, thereby giving China the opportunity to expand its influence. At the same time, American pressure on Tel Aviv regarding its tech cooperation with Beijing continues. It is relevant to mention that on September 28, Israel National Security Adviser Eyal Hulata and his American counterpart Jake Sullivan chaired the 1st Joint Israeli-US High-Level Strategic Dialogue on Technology Cooperation as part of the Jerusalem Declaration, signed by the presidents of the two countries earlier this July. In a press briefing, Hulata explained that Israel’s participation in this dialogue, which could serve as a platform to build a “technology protection mechanism,” was due to it sharing the United States’ concerns on “protecting technologies from leaking to countries, but also the misuse of such technologies by malicious parties.” [9] According to Globes, while Hulata carefully avoided directly mentioning China, this mechanism will conspicuously strengthen Tel Aviv’s relations with Washington. In any case, trade relations between Israel and China appear to remain stable. In fact, Maariv revealed that between January and August the sale of Chinese-branded vehicles increased by 90% compared to 2021, reaching 6% of the country’s total sales. [10] This trend may have been exacerbated by the closure of the American car market to Chinese brands and by the EU’s restrictive standards that limit Chinese cars’ access to the European market. Another theory is that this significant increase may be due to the free-trade agreement between Israel and China that, according to the South China Morning Post, is reaching its final stages. In the words of the Chinese Deputy Minister of Commerce, the export of electric vehicles “has become a focal point of China’s foreign trade.” This agreement will supposedly remove custom duties on vehicles made in China, thereby probably increasing Israel’s trade deficit with China.

Meanwhile, the Emirati Policy Centre published an analysis of Beijing’s strategy in Syria. [11] According to the study, China has several goals in Syria: to strengthen a regime with which it has stable economic and military relations that could, in turn, significantly limit the threat posed by Uyghur fighters present inside its borders. Secondly, strong relations with Damascus may also help Beijing enhance its maritime presence in the Eastern Mediterranean as they may grant China control of, or at least access to, Syrian ports like Tartus and Latakia. Finally, the careful balancing of relations with all actors involved in the Syrian conflict and in the region at large could help China present itself “as a responsible player on the world stage.” However, Beijing is likely to face several challenges in the pursuit of these goals. For instance, it could face resistance from Turkiye on the topic of dealing with the remaining extremist Islamist groups that harbor Uyghur fighters in the Idlib governorate. Moreover, a rapid increase of Chinese influence in Syria could lead to a rift with Russia and Iran, Damascus’ main foreign partners and Beijing’s allies, while also undermining Beijing’s relations with Israel. It should be noted however that no country other than China has the resources and/or the interest to support Syria’s reconstruction, given the poor health of the global economy and the sanctions against Damascus. Thus, to secure its success, China might be tempted to adopt the so-called “debt-trap diplomacy” approach toward Syria.

Amid these developments, it is noteworthy that Arab countries seem to have reacted positively to the third China-Arab States Forum on Reform and Development held on September 8. The forum focused on ways to further global sustainable development in the framework of the Global Development Initiative. The participants identified energy and the digital economy as the main drivers of “a new strategic consensus between the Arab and Chinese sides.” [12]

Other countries in the Middle East and North Africa continue to show their willingness to increase cooperation with China. Turkish media reported that China is preparing to open three factories in the country, which will be operational by 2023. They will employ at least 10 thousand people and have an estimated export target of 500 million dollars. [13] In addition, Defense Turk reports that Turkiye’s General Directorate of Security imported 500 Chinese-made LM8 machine guns for Special Police Operations units. [14] Similarly, the Libyan Head of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives, Youssef Al-Aqoury, stressed once again how Chinese companies in Libya need to resume their work on the many projects that have been held up for years. [15] Sudanese media, instead, continue to stress the importance of Sudan’s ties with China to help mitigate the stances of the UN Security Council against Khartoum. [16]

More interestingly, Jawad Kerdoudi, president of the Moroccan Institute of International Relations, in an interview with the French-language news outlet L’Opinion, suggested that Morocco could benefit greatly from the competition between the United States, China and the European Union as it could help Rabat satisfy its need for foreign investment. This could be done by carefully calibrating the volume of projects implemented through the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative and the Global Development Initiative, the EU’s Global Gateway, and American investments. Moreover, the academic believes that Morocco’s strategic position and its balanced approach to international affairs could bring both the United States and China to back its position regarding the Western Sahara issue. [17]

To conclude this issue of the ChinaMed Observer, we report that the election of Giorgia Meloni, leader of the right-wing party Fratelli d’Italia, as the new Italian premier could strain relations between Italy and China in the future. Meloni told CNA, Taiwan’s news agency, that she can “hardly foresee the political conditions” for the renewal of Italy’s participation in the BRI in 2024 and that a government led by her will firmly stand by Taipei. [18] The Chinese Embassy in Rome was clearly irritated by these statements, which it claimed would only create unnecessary hostility toward China.

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[1] Fahim al-Hamed, Munzamat Shanghay… Taʿazum nufudh Beijing- Musku… wa-matamih Washington «منظمة شنغهاي».. تعاظم نفوذ بكين - موسكو.. ومطامح واشنطن [SCO...The growing influence of Beijing-Moscow…and Washington’s ambitions], al-Riyadh, September 14, 2022, link.

[2] Ibid.

[3] ʿAli al-Khashaiban, Al-muʾatmar munzamat Shanghay…hal yadkhulu al-ʿalam munʿatifan mukhtalifan? مؤتمر منظمة شنغهاي.. هل يدخل العالم منعطفاً مختلفاً؟ [The SCO conference…is the world entering a different junction?], al-Riyadh, September 19, 2022, link.

[4] Hadaf-e Iran az ʿozviyat dar sazman-e Shanghay entefaʿ-e eqtesadi ast/ se maziyat-e ʿozviyat-e Iran هدف ایران از عضویت در سازمان شانگهای انتفاع اقتصادی است/ سه مزیت عضویت ایران [The purpose of Iran’s membership in the SCO is to gain economic benefit/ Three advantages of Iran’s membership], IRNA, September 18, 2022, link.

[5] Kuroush Ahmadi, Tavahhom-zadayi dar mowred-e sazman-e Shanghay توهم زدایی در مورد سازمان همکاری شانگهای [Disillusion regarding the SCO], Etemad, September 29, 2022, link.

[6] Amin Sobhi, Niyaz be Tehran; dar miyane-ye dargiri ba Cin va bohran-e enerzhi نیاز به تهران؛ در میانه درگیری با چین و بحران انرژی [In need of Tehran; in the middle of the conflict with China and the energy crisis], Jam-e Jam, September 7, 2022, link.

[7] Mohammad Mohajeri, Iran bi barjam ایران بی برجام [Iran without JCPOA], Iran, September 4, 2022, link.

[8] Yossi Blum Halevi, Lo Hakol Diburim: Yisrael Khayevet Laarokh Reforma Maamikah Betorat Habitakhon Haleumi Shelah לא הכל דיבורים: ישראל חייבת לערוך רפורמה מעמיקה בתורת הביטחון הלאומי שלה [Not just talks: Israel must conduct an in-depth reform of its national security theory], Maariv, September 10, 2022, link.

[9] Barak Ravid, Bitmurah Leshidrug Hashituf Peulah Yim Artzot Habrit: Haza’ad Hadramati Shel Yisrael Klapei Sin בתמורה לשדרוג השת"פ עם ארה"ב: הצעד הדרמטי של ישראל כלפי סין [In exchange for upgrading cooperation with the USA: Israel's dramatic step towards China], Maariv, September 28th, 2022, link.

[10] Dovi Ben Gedaliah, Hayisraelim Mista'arim Al Hamekhoniyot Misin, Ve Zo Asuya Lehiyot Rak Hahathalahהישראלים מסתערים על המכוניות מסין, וזו עשויה להיות רק ההתחלה [Israelis are throwing themselves on cars from China, and this may just be the beginning], Globes, September 12th, 2022, link.

[11] Al-tamaddud al-sini al-tadriji fi Surya: al-ahdaf wa-l-tahaddiyat التمدُّد الصيني التدريجي في سوريا: الأهداف والتحديات [Gradual Chinese expansion in Syria: goals and challenges], EPC, September 1, 2022, link.

[12] Mehdi Dayrani, Al-muntada al-sini al-ʿarabi… khatwat jadida nahwa al-tanmiyat al-ʿalamiya المنتدى الصيني العربي... خطوة جديدة نحو التنمية العالمية [The Chinese-Arab Forum… a new step toward global development], al-Mayadeen, September 13, 2022, link.

[13] Çin'den bomba Türkiye kararı! Milyonlarca dolarlarla resmen geliyorlar [Big Turkiye decision from China! They're officially coming in with millions of dollars], Yeni Akit Gazetesi, September 27, 2022, link.

[14] Türkiye, Çin’den 3 binden fazla makineli tüfek aldı [Turkiye bought more than 3,000 machine guns from China], Defence Turk, September 13, 2022, link.

[15] Al-‘aquri yad‘u al-sin li isti’naf  ’a‘mal sharikatiha fi libia العقوري يدعو الصين لاستئناف أعمال شركاتها في ليبيا [Al-Aqouri calls on China to resume the work of its companies in Libya], Akhbar Libya 24, September 15, 2022, link.

[16] Heba ‘Ali, Al-sin wa al-sudan.. tawlifa jadida fi al-‘alaqat? الصين والسودان.. توليفة جديدة في العلاقات؟ [China and Sudan... a new synthesis in relations?], Al-Nurs News, September 22, 2022, link.

[17] Maroc-Chine-Europe: le Royaume au centre d’une rivalité sino-occidentale [Morocco-China-Europe: the Kingdom in the midst of a Sino-Western rivalry], L’Opinion, September 1, 2022, link.

[18] Meloni: “Non rinnoverei l’adesione alla via della seta cinese” [Meloni: I wouldn’t renew participation to the Chinese Silk Road], ANSA, September 23, 2022, link.

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.
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