China’s new Silk Road includes both risk and promise of prosperity

If successful, OBOR would link Europe, the Middle East and China in ways previously unimaginable.
December 17, 2017
 Indonesian models look at scale models of Chinese-made bullet trains on exhibition at a shopping mall in Jakarta
Indonesian models look at scale models of Chinese-made bullet trains on exhibition at a shopping mall in Jakarta

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.