Last week China welcomed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the heels of Saudi King Salman’s visit. Both visits highlighted closer economic cooperation, but Beijing also weighed in on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Beijing hoped that Saudi Arabia and Israel would “each make their contributions to the realization of enduring peace and development in the Middle East”.
Increasingly, Beijing has been signaling its aspiration to play a larger role in the Middle East not only with economic ties but also politically. Already China is becoming a large stakeholder in regional security by virtue of its economic and infrastructure investments, and the increasing number of Chinese workers overseas.
In Israel, which just celebrated 25 years of diplomatic ties with China and annual bilateral trade now at US$8 billion, Chinese companies are the major drivers in infrastructure projects such as the Tel Aviv Metro system and ports in Haifa and Ashdod, with 3,500 workers currently in the country and another 20,000 on the way. As a corollary, China needs to reinforce its political and security posture in the region to help maintain stability and protect its citizens and assets.
Promoting regional connectivity
Haifa is the site of one of a growing number of Chinese-owned ports around the Mediterranean, including Algeria’s Port of Cherchell, Egypt’s Port Said and Alexandria Port, Turkey’s Port of Kumport, and Italy’s Port Genoa and Port Naples. This provides an opportunity for China and other countries to promote economic integration jointly via the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative, especially in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East.
For example, growing Chinese investments in both Turkey and Israel could be utilized for broader cooperation at the regional level. One such project is the Jezreel Valley Railway, revived after 65 years in August 2016. Cargo traveling by sea from Turkey to Haifa Port can be placed on the Jezreel line and transported to Jordan and the broader Persian Gulf region. The Jezreel Valley train, part of the Turkish Hejaz Railway built under the Ottoman Empire in 1905, ran until 1951. After China won a tender to operate Haifa Port for 25 years, this railway will facilitate China’s shipment of goods from Turkey to Jordan and further into Asia via the Red Sea or the Persian Gulf, and vice versa.
Indeed, it is within the context of the OBOR and the goal of broader regional cooperation that Captain Yigal Maor, director general of the Israeli Transportation Ministry’s Administration of Shipping and Ports, proposed the Israel-Gulf Economic Corridor (IGEC) in September last year.
He believes that if China can invest in this corridor, which would involve linking infrastructure projects in the Gulf region with Israel and Jordan to transship Chinese goods, this could push Gulf countries into more formal ties with Israel.
In turn, this could jump-start the Arab Peace Initiative that aligns with European Union and US goals in the Middle East peace process, with the added benefit of promoting broader regional cooperation with Turkey and the EU in the eastern Mediterranean. The recent Israeli-Turkish reconciliation, repairing a relationship broken by the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, could also help in this regard.
Beijing and Ankara also appear to be compartmentalizing the Uyghur issue and marching forward on economic cooperation via the New Silk Road.
In addition to China acquiring a 65% stake in the Kumport container terminal, Turkey’s third-largest, China’s Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank is financing the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline Project (TANAP) that pipes Azerbaijani gas through Georgia and Turkey unto Europe. In November 2015, Ankara and Beijing signed a memorandum of understanding on harmonizing China’s OBOR initiative with Turkey’s “Middle Corridor”, based on a high-speed rail link between Kars in eastern Turkey and the western city of Edirne, and eventually connecting Turkey with China via Central Asia and the Caucasus.
Complementing this is the China-Turkey intermodal corridor, inaugurated in December 2015 by DHL Global Forwarding, a major provider of air, sea and road freight services in Europe and Asia. The rail corridor is expected to generate $2.5 trillion in annual trade within the next 10 years, and has been expanded to connect Taiwan with Europe via mainland China, thereby linking the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, with Turkey as a key trading hub.
Promoting regional peace and stability
As China becomes a bigger stakeholder in the Middle East and Mediterranean, Turkey, Israel and other countries in the region can leverage Beijing’s vested economic interests to help promote regional stability, and perhaps see a positive spillover into the political realm with conflict resolution in Syria. Already Gulf states such as the United Arab Emirates are eyeing China’s rising influence in the region, convening a conference in March to explore what constructive role Beijing might play in resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Iran issue and the Syrian crisis.
As a recent Pentagon-commissioned RAND report assessed, with so many shared interests in Mideast stability, Washington and Beijing also should have no problem cooperating in the region. Given that Sino-US relations are a key pillar of any future international system, indeed the Middle East may be a good place to start.