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The China-Mediterranean Observer: How Will a New/Old Biden Mideast Policy Impact China’s Ambitions in the Region?

Students of Iran's Basij paramilitary force burn posters depicting US President Donald Trump (top) and President-elect Joe Biden, during a rally in front of the foreign ministry in Tehran, on November 28, 2020, to protest the killing of prominent nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh a day earlier near the capital. ATTA KENARE / AFP

The killing of the Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the future of American foreign policy toward the Middle East under President Biden, and the tensions between France and the Muslim world are the three key topics of recent Chinese commentaries.

The first reactions to the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh are unanimous: Iran’s enemies want to provoke Iran with the hope of eliminating any chance that the leaders in Tehran and Biden’s White House might find a way to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Former ambassador to Iran Hua Liming added that the killing of such a highly guarded figure like Fakhrizadeh is indicative of the growing weaknesses of Iran’s security services. Unsurprisingly, the expression of concerns for regional stability were not coupled by any clear criticism against Israel, which was identified by Iran as the most likely instigator behind the murder.

U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East

Much of what will happen depends on if and how American policy toward the Middle East will change. Fan Hongda of the Shanghai International Studies University (SISU) published an article about this topic in the Shanghai Observer. According to him, U.S. policy could change in four different aspects:

  • First, relations between Washington and Teheran will relax a bit as both look at the JCPOA as crucial for their interests.
  • Second, the United States will return to try to balance between the interests of Israel and those of Arab countries. However, Fan clarifies that Israel will maintain its special role and, according to him, the appointment of Antony Blinken–born to Jewish parents–to head the Department of State will ensure this. Interestingly, another scholar from Fudan University, too, identified the Jewish ancestry of the American representative in the Middle East–Jared Kushner in this case–as a deciding factor of how the United States would approach the region.
  • Third, tensions between the United States and Turkey are likely to increase as Ankara’s activism runs against American interests.
  • Fourth, Fan contends that the efforts of the Trump administration to contain China’s influence in the region will not cease with Biden. Of course, Iran is not the only country that is waiting to know more about the future of American policy. As reports emerge about the meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Chinese scholars interpret this event as a clear indication that Israel wants to force the hand of the Biden administration. Yet, they indicate that it is unlikely that the Israeli-Saudi partnership will produce any result, such as the normalization of the relations between the two countries, before Biden’s inauguration.

Franco-Muslim Tensions

Meanwhile, tensions between France and the Arab world, especially Turkey, have increased in the aftermath of the remarks made by the French President Emmanuel Macron about Islam in October. Chinese scholars have put forward two partially overlapping interpretations. On the one hand, wrote Peng Shuyi of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, there is an evident lack of mutual understanding between France and Muslim countries. These tensions cannot but add pressure on French counterterrorism efforts at home. On the other hand, commented Luo Ailing, a researcher at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, there is also a conflict of hard interests at the root of the worsening of the situation. France and Turkey have found themselves on different fronts in many of the crises going on in the Mediterranean region. Both have ambitious leaders. Turkish and French public opinion are extremely sensitive to religious issues, especially those related to Islam, though for opposite reasons. Regardless of their origin, the tense relations between France and the Islamic world are not going away any time soon.

It is difficult to say how China will react to these developments. In a recent conference held in Fudan University, Yang Guang, China, Dean of the Institute for International and Area Studies of Tsinghua University and President of the Chinese Associations of Middle East Studies, emphasized that the Middle East will remain central to Chinese diplomacy for its role in Chinese energy imports, as well as serving as a region of great importance for the evolution of relations among great powers.[3] That was not the only conference on Middle Eastern affairs held in Shanghai in November. Indeed, on November 26, SISU hosted Chinese and Arab scholars and diplomats for a conference on Sino-Arab cooperation.[4] Clearly, Chinese observers are paying close attention to what is happening in the region.

The Mediterranean region looks at China

The mystery continues in Iraq regarding the fate of the so-called “oil-for-reconstruction” agreement signed in late 2019 between the then-Prime Minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, and his Chinese counterpart, Premier Li Keqiang, in Beijing. As we have reported in the past, Iraqi MPs have stated that the government has been under great pressure from the United States to cancel the deal with the Chinese. Iraqi journalists, too, have expressed skepticism about its future. Against this background, the Iraqi Minister of Planning, Khaled Battal Al-Najm, stated in early November that the deal was not over. It was simply delayed because of COVID-19 and, according to Al-Najm, “the negotiations moved from discussions to implementation, and we will soon announce the start of its implementation.”

Moreover, Al-Najm denied that the agreement recently signed by Iraq and Egypt is a substitute for that with China. Mazhar Muhammad Saleh, economic adviser to the Prime Minister, added on November 23 that the budget of the government for the fiscal year 2021 will include the allocation of resources coming from the agreement with China. Talking with journalists of al-Sabah, Saleh stated that “the current year 2020 has witnessed two main problems in the implementation of the agreement with Beijing:

  • The first is the closure of the Chinese economy and its isolation from the world due to the coronavirus.
  • The second is the non-approval of any new government project in Iraq during the current year, due to a lack of legislation on the federal budget, including the budget allocated for investments.

The stumbling in the implementation of the agreement, for what Iraq is concerned, comes as a result of exceptionally difficult financial conditions, due to the deterioration of oil markets, low budget revenues, and the rise of an unexpected large deficit, financed through two borrowing laws. This changed the priorities of the government’s spending in this exceptional fiscal year.” Yet, widespread criticism remains. The deputy of the al-Sadiqun Parliamentary Bloc, Thamer Dhiban, affirmed that the government’s statements regarding the Chinese agreement are meant to illude public opinion and hide the fact that a part of the money has already been withdrawn to cover the salary of public employees. According to Dhiban, the agreement with China could have played a key role in reviving the Iraqi economy. While it is not clear what the fate of the deal will be, it is evident that the Iraqi government regards China as an important economic partner. Indeed, it has become official that Iraqi authorities have contacted Chinese companies possibly to take over the South Korean firm, Daewoo, for the construction of the al-Faw Port in Faw, in the southern province of Basra. The port is considered the country’s most important outlet to the Gulf and Iraqis have been looking forward to establishing it for many years, given its promising economic potential for the country. The agreement with Daewoo was that the company will implement the project, with a navigation canal at a depth of 19.8 meters, at a total cost of USD 2.37 billion, in three years. Daewoo later asked to increase the price to USD 2.8 billion.

Israel

Ports are the common thread in this issue of the ChinaMed Observer as we move to Israel and Greece. In Haifa, Globes’ journalists were told by a “source in the shipping industry” that the arrival of Joe Biden in the White House is a source of uncertainty for the future of Haifa, after the Trump administration has repeatedly pressed the Israeli government to limit or exclude Chinese presence in Israel’s infrastructure. Moreover, while many welcomed the interest of many international companies towards the old Port of Haifa, it is unknown how the situation of the Shanghai International Port Group (SIPG)-controlled new Haifa Bayport container terminal will evolve. According to Chinese sources mentioned in the article, the new container terminal should be operated in two stages. In the first, the terminal will manage about 800,000 containers per year. In the second phase, 700,000 containers per year will be added. SIPG is reportedly aiming to bring its best technologies and practices to Haifa to showcase its capabilities as it looks for other projects overseas. The journalists point to key issues that the Israeli government has yet to explain. The first is why it seems that the entire project is supervised by the Ministry of Finance and not the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, despite the fact that the SIPG-controlled terminal is part of a broader project to connect the port with the Persian Gulf. The second issue that remains to be answered is who will finance and build this regional railway network, though the article mentions the possibility that it will be a Chinese company to do that.

Greece

Meanwhile, COSCO’s plans for the Port of Piraeus and the growing tensions between Greece and Turkey are becoming interlinked as COSCO continues to pressure the Greek government to hand another 16% of the share capital of Piraeus Port Authority, as well as approve the new projects–like a new fourth pier–for the port that has been delayed so far by both Piraeus municipal authorities and the Greek central government. According to the journalist Minas Tsamopoulos, the Chinese ambassador in Athens has been meeting numerous government officials but has received no clear answer. Yang Jiechi’s visit to Greece in September is a sign that COSCO’s problems are becoming a diplomatic issue between the Greek and the Chinese government, said diplomatic sources to Tsamopoulos.

The most striking fact reported by the journalist, however, is that COSCO executives have also tried to pressure the Greek government after Yang’s visit by implying in informal communications that the evolution of the situation in the Piraeus might shape China’s stance in the dispute between Greece and Turkey. If we perceive Tsamopoulos’s reporting as truthful, the fact that COSCO, not Chinese diplomats, tried to play this “geopolitical card” cannot be underestimated as an indicator of how bad the situation is. Moreover, we should look at this news in the context of the Greek discussion about the role of China and the United States in Greece’s relations with Turkey. As pointed out by Plamen Tonchev, Head of Asia Unit at the Athens-based Institute of International Economic Relations, only the United States can help Greece. China is an important economic partner, Tonchev wrote, but it is not a security provider of any kind in the eastern Mediterranean. Therefore, the Greek government and public opinion could not be rational about its approach to China. At the same time, Konstantinos Grivas, a professor at the University of Athens, wrote that there are also limits to what the United States will do against Turkey. The reason is that Turkey is crucial for American foreign policy and Washington cannot risk Ankara joining the Sino-Russian camp. Even without doing much, China has become a geopolitical factor in the eastern Mediterranean.

Turkey

We close this issue of the ChinaMed Observer, with very interesting news published on November 20, 2020, in the Aydinlik Gazetesi. According to the Turkish newspaper, the Eğirdir Mountain Commando School hosted at least one Chinese commando, First Lieutenant Chen Xinren, to complete a 7-month course. Chen’s presence, the author pointed out, took place as Chinese and Turkish military officials are arranging for Turkish soldiers to train in China. At the same time, relations between the two countries are also moving forward in regard to the vaccine against Covid-19. Although–as stated by the Ministry of Health’s Coronavirus Scientific Committee member Prof. Dr. Tevfik Özlü–some are anxious about taking the Chinese vaccine, 1700 Turkish nationals have already received it and no side effects have been recorded so far. Five million more will receive it soon.

For more information about the ChinaMed Project and to view the original editions of the ChinaMed Observer please click here.

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