China’s new Silk Road includes both risk and promise of prosperity
TUNIS - China’s plans to revive Silk Road trade routes of antiquity expect to bring economic growth and connectivity to the Middle East and North Africa. Under One Belt, One Road (OBOR), China would establish links between Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe by land and sea.
The aim of the project, Beijing said, was to “promote economic cooperation and connectivity” throughout the targeted regions through infrastructure development built to China’s design.
If successful, OBOR would link Europe, the Middle East and China in ways previously unimaginable. Involving some 60 countries, OBOR would tie the region together via a vast array of bridges, highways, ports and communication grids. The belt is expected to stretch from western China to Europe via Central Asia. The road would connect China to Europe by the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea and the South China Sea.
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has responded warmly to China’s plans. Many of China’s economic aims appear to overlap with the Saudis’ Vision 2030 goals. Situated at a strategic juncture of OBOR’s two main routes, Saudi Arabia is ideally positioned to serve as a key driver of regional development.
The United Arab Emirates also stands to benefit. Chinese state media said that, as of October 2016, China had invested approximately $2.3 billion in the UAE, with infrastructure such as Jebel Ali port offering China access to a key international transport hub.
The Middle East Institute said that Jordan, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are said to be prepared to follow.
Egypt has coordinated plans for its domestic economy with those of OBOR. Much of the work in Egypt is under way. In May, Chinese media announced the investment of $20 billion towards the creation of a new Egyptian capital east of Cairo. Egypt is among the top five destinations for mergers and acquisitions covered under OBOR.
However, just as the project has encountered political difficulties along the Indian-Pakistani border, so, too, could regional rivalries threaten to undermine OBOR’s success in the Middle East.
Iran looks to be a prime beneficiary of OBOR. The country is a vital overland link between the Middle East and Central Asia. The countries enjoy healthy bilateral relations, a situation difficult to see doing anything but improving as OBOR eases international access to Iran’s gas, petroleum and mineral deposits.
If stabilisation proves possible, Syria also stands to benefit from OBOR, adding further weight to regional fights for influence within the war-wracked country.
Syrian ports at Tartus and Latakia, both currently Russian bases, have been earmarked as major departure points for Chinese goods entering Europe.
China has proven a steadfast supporter of the Assad regime and in July pledged some $2 billion towards Syria’s reconstruction. This is in addition to the arms and training provided throughout the country’s civil war. However, despite the Chinese businessmen said to be massing in neighbouring Lebanon, difficulties anticipated between Russia and Iran after the cessation of hostilities could cool Chinese ardour towards Syria.
Though the Trump administration signed an extensive trade agreement with Beijing in May, its attitude towards OBOR appears uncertain. Concerns have been raised in the US Congress over the viability of the project and the accuracy of the “win-win” characterisation favoured by Beijing.
While noting that infrastructure projects were in desperately short supply across the Middle East, US Representative Ted Yoho, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, questioned the financing of the plan. “The belt and road projects are financed by Chinese institution at high rates not typically found in the development context conducted by Chinese corporations that are often state-owned enterprise and utilise Chinese labour and material and seem to add little to local economies and can bring unsustainable debt burdens,” he said in July.
As the United States withdraws from much of the world stage, an economic, as well as a political vacuum, is forming and it is the former that China looks ready to fill. That China appears to have met little resistance is significant. However, with the Middle East seemingly in a permanent condition of tension, how long trade routes across the region can be maintained is open to question.