June 4, 2017
On April 14-15, 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping conducted a summit in Beijing on the Chinese initiative to connect Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Many leaders, including Vladimir Putin, took part in the summit, as well as lower-ranking representatives from dozens of countries. The Middle East was represented by high-ranking individuals from Egypt, Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Turkey, Syria, and Tunisia.
The Chinese initiative has been the subject of uncertainty ever since it was announced by Xi in 2013. This summit was intended to clarify Chinese intentions. According to the Chinese, the initiative is open to all countries of the world, but they specified 65 along the route that they particularly hope will take part. Those countries, together with China, make up 60% of the global population and 30% of global GDP.
The initiative has aroused great interest among the international political and financial communities. Several countries have expressed support for the initiative and asked to take part, including several not on China’s list of 65. Other countries, however, primarily in the west, are skeptical of the feasibility of the plan.
The initiative, which has been nicknamed “The New Silk Road” and “One Belt, One Road” among other names, actually consists of two main routes, one continental and one maritime. The continental axis will connect China to central Asia, Russia, and Europe via railroads and highways. The maritime axis will connect China to southeastern and southwestern Asia, the Middle East, and Africa via seaports along the route that will be either acquired or leased. It is to be supported by the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Silk Road Fund.
Why is China planning this bold endeavor? Neither Xi nor the Chinese leadership needs this or any other initiative to expand China’s financial influence. It appears that the answer lies mainly in the president’s personal aspiration to take stronger hold of the country and the party and leave an impressive legacy. The historic element of the initiative could elicit the support of other countries, boosting its prospects.
Xi also hopes to leave behind enhanced Chinese influence on the Middle East, an influence he prefers to achieve through investment rather than intervention. The initiative is already having an effect. Middle Eastern leaders are paying more and more attention to China, and encouraging the Chinese leadership to invest more in the area.
The Middle East is essentially a way-station for the initiative, but one that could bear great fruit for the local economies. The costs of construction of these routes will be huge, with estimates in the billions in every country (for example, over the 2017-21 period, the minimal Chinese investment in infrastructure in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq is estimated at at least $10 billion per country). These investments will have a direct financial impact that can help many countries substantially develop their own economies.
Furthermore, the greater the number of trading routes – either continental or oceanic – that are active in the area, the more important the area will be to the Chinese, who would thus have an interest in conserving as stable a local situation as possible. The initiative might therefore have a restraining effect on area conflicts, including the Israeli-Arab and Shia–Sunni conflicts. Since financial incentives will be involved, the parties might be more inclined to find the will to cooperate with one another.
Israel, which is not officially on the Chinese map as part of the initiative, did not take part in the summit. It appears that the reason was mainly political: the Chinese wished to make the project as palatable to the Arab world as possible. However, this does not mean that Israel is out of the picture. On May 12, two days before the summit, Tzachi Hanegbi – Israel’s National Security and Foreign Affairs Minister – visited the Chinese capital and met with the president of the investment fund that deals with the project. According to Hanegbi, “In the focus of the conversations stood the interest Israel has in practical cooperation with the Chinese initiative.” China appears to be succeeding at dealing with both Israel and the Muslim world, and is working constructively towards its main goal: financial growth without intervention in other countries’ internal affairs.
*Roie Yellinek is a doctoral student in the department of Middle East studies at Bar-Ilan University.
BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 486, June 4, 2017