China in the Mediterranean region: key trends and regional debates in 2022

ChinaMed Report 2022

The emotional symbology that supports the “China Dream” – the renaissance of the Chinese nation – projects the “return” of China to the center of the international system as the realization of a natural path towards the reestablishment of a harmonious and fair order. However, along this apparent historical trajectory towards the completion of China’s “revolution,” the country has deeply transformed itself to adapt to the changing global environment. During this epoch-making shift, China has moved from relative isolation to being profoundly integrated into the core of the globalized world. China’s current search for contemporary centrality in a newly integrated global system represents a completely new challenge for Beijing, one that for the very first time profoundly exposes China’s interests and ambitions to the volatile dynamics of the “others.”

Among them, the Mediterranean region has progressively acquired a privileged role. The growing surge of Chinese goods bought by European consumers has also led to China’s increased dependency on the Middle East’s energy supplies and thus the region’s stability. China’s emerging competition with the United States has also turned key regional actors into essential partners as it attempts to hedge vis-à-vis American pressures. Therefore, in the last two decades, the wider Mediterranean region has risen to the top of Beijing’s strategic horizons, becoming its most important area beyond Asia. At the same time, China’s political and economic investments in the region have boosted the global relevance of the Mediterranean, bringing some to describe its “new centrality.”

However, the recent deepening of the Sino-American rivalry is revising the above-mentioned dynamic. Vocal American warnings have ignited a lively debate within regional actors over the risks and opportunities generated by close economic and political relations with China. The reaction by Mediterranean actors has not been uniform. While the China policy of some, especially those who are NATO members, has shifted to complete alignment with the United States; others, instead, have opted for a more independent posture in an attempt to maximize the benefits that can be reaped from being at the center of great power courtship.

Therefore, the regional debate on China is a useful proxy that can be studied to identify the potential evolution of the dynamics within the Mediterranean region that shape China’s global stance and, thus, influence its path and pace toward the successful completion of its dream of national rejuvenation.

To capture at least one aspect of this phenomenon, this report discusses the main trends in the media debates in China and in seven key countries of the wider Mediterranean – France, Greece, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Saudi Arabia, and Türkiye – on China’s role in the region. We build on the work done throughout 2022 for our monthly newsletter, the ChinaMed Observer, which draws from original sources in Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, French, Greek, Italian, Hebrew, and Turkish. The analysis in each chapter is supported by descriptive statistics based on the data that the ChinaMed Project team has gathered over the years from a variety of sources, that range from the Chinese government to international organizations.

It goes without saying that the countries taken into consideration here greatly differ from one another on many key indicators and issues like media freedom or foreign policy interests, and these differences naturally shape the nature and drivers of their debates on China’s role in the wider Mediterranean region as well as the nature of the insights that can be gained from analyzing said debates.

Nonetheless, what clearly emerges is how the policymakers of all countries considered, including China, are facing enormous challenges in dealing with the reverberations of the worsening relations between Beijing and Washington, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the breakdown in the negotiations to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and the failed search for a new model of political stability and economic development in much of the southern and eastern parts of the wider Mediterranean region. Indeed, defying the widespread narratives that describe well-defined international fault lines, such as between autocracies and democracies, or between being pro-Beijing and pro-Washington, this report instead highlights how regional actors are in reality trying to hedge their bets vis-à-vis growing uncertainty. For example, Chinese commentators were cautious in levying criticism against Paris for its attempts to assert its influence in its former colonies, conscious of how without any French involvement the situation in much of the Sahel is likely to worsen. In Iran, some disputed the soundness of closer relations with Beijing. Meanwhile, in Greece, Saudi Arabia, and Israel there is no desire to antagonize or quickly scale down economic and technological cooperation with China, despite their close security ties with the United States. In other countries, such as Türkiye, China is many things at once, from a source of capital to a competitor in foreign markets.

Another crucial element that emerges from this report is a sometimes-deep lack of knowledge of the Chinese or Mediterranean other. Of course, policymakers are very likely better informed than what shines through their countries’ media debates. Moreover, there is no doubt that some commentators willfully mischaracterize other states’ intentions to promote certain policy positions, or discredit others. Nonetheless, there is little doubt that certain explanations for why China, the United States, or the region’s countries act are based more on mirror-imaging than anything else.

To conclude, we hope that the reader will appreciate our efforts to provide an overview of evolving Sino-Mediterranean relations as the actors involved describe them. Despite the chapters’ brevity, we believe that the pages that compose this report contain important information and insights that will provide nourishing food for thought for experts and policymakers alike.

This report was jointly produced by the ChinaMed Project and John Cabot University in Rome.

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