Written by Sam Chester.
Much ink has been spilled in recent years on speculation that the Chinese state, buoyed by its growing economic imprint and oil dependency in the Middle East, will become more engaged in the peace process between Israel and its regional adversaries. China’s allies in Tehran, Ramallah and Cairo have long beseeched Beijing to get more involved. Washington has begun making similar requests albeit for different reasons. How has Beijing responded?
“Thanks but no thanks” may best capture China’s cagey response. Save for the appointment of a largely symbolic “special envoy” and banal statements about universal harmony, Beijing has avoided any serious political involvement in the peace process. This is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.
Even as Beijing maintains a light political footprint, a strategic initiative to expand transport routes across the region may reduce many of the barriers that have long undermined efforts at regional cooperation. New railways and seaports financed by China have the potential to promote extensive intraregional commercial and societal interaction, prompting peace dividends that will have more pervasive influence than Beijing’s reluctance to get involved in political peacemaking.
China’s reluctance to get drawn into the bruising responsibility of peace making is informed by Washington’s Middle East experience. American misadventures have taught Chinese leaders that no single power can resolve regional grievances nor instill sustainable development. But America’s inability to pivot away from the region communicates an even starker lesson: the Middle East is quicksand for foreign interlopers, drawing them in and making it impossible to ever withdraw unscathed.
Despite these lessons, China’s evolving regional strategy consists of sinking Chinese resources firmly into the region’s treacherous sands. Under the framework of the Silk Road initiative, Beijing is seeking to build railways, ports and pipelines across Asia. While most of these transcontinental routes will be located in Central and South Asia, the littoral states of the Eastern Mediterranean—Turkey, Lebanon, Israel and Egypt—play a crucial role in completing China’s Eurasian bridges.
China’s Silk Road initiative remains a work in progress, filled with contradictory agendas that Chinese leaders are still coming to terms with. In some ways, this new grand strategy simply reframes infrastructure projects that have been in development for over a decade. In other ways, the Silk Road initiative is Beijing’s realization of the March West doctrine wrapped up in less confrontational language. To ensure this generational initiative serves as a hallmark for regional peace, intermediaries should recognize three key factors:
1. China is the sole author of its destiny in the Middle East
The Silk Road initiative is driven by Beijing’s goal to expand Chinese markets across Asia and into Europe while simultaneously transforming the country’s underdeveloped west into a new commercial center. While regional actors or external powers (like Washington, see below) can incentivize Chinese involvement, the Chinese state and/or major state-owned firms operate by their own domestically anchored calculus in deciding where to invest their resources. The upshot is that infrastructure projects with the potential to spur coexistence need to be presented to the Chinese with the latter’s domestic benefits front and center.
2. America’s role is best communicated clearly, modestly and via security
The Silk Road initiative is not a challenge to American interests. The challenge for Washington is providing its regional allies with a clear blueprint of how America wishes to be engaged in a region hounded by violent sectarianism and the expanding economic imprint of China, India and other Asian states. Aside from communication, America would be best served if it played a background role in the Silk Road initiative, leveraging its security resources to protect the new infrastructure projects. Using American guns to protect Sino-Arab economic collaboration would validate China’s emergence as a responsible stakeholder, while also assuring Beijing that it need not deploy its own forces to secure its expanding investments.
3. Multilateralism should be privileged over bilateral frameworks
Chinese foreign policy in the Middle East has traditionally been limited to bilateral meetings (save for interaction with the Arab League, such as CASCF). The Silk Road initiative implicitly challenges this limitation with its stated goal of “breaking the connectivity bottleneck in Asia.” Multilateral input into Silk Road projects need not balloon into an ECSC platform for this input to play an efficient role in promoting coexistence.
The dangers of a bilateral framework can be seen in Egypt and Israel, where the two countries are presently competing to have China build new transport corridors between the Red and Mediterranean Seas. Chinese officials have engaged each country separately, fostering further suspicion between the two neighbors. Beijing indicated a newfound readiness to engage both countries in December, when the Chinese and Egyptian presidents met and reportedly discussed holding trilateral talks with Israel to resolve concerns. In recognizing the need for multilateralism, the two leaders may have been applying lessons learned from Egypt’s recent crisis with Ethiopia and China over damning the Nile River. In any case, this experience underscores the importance of privileging multilateralism in China’s Silk Road initiative.
For Israel and its neighbours, the economic cooperation that could result from China’s evolving Silk Road initiative could not have come at a better time. The same violence in Syria and Iraq that motivates China to concentrate its regional investments in coastal areas also is fostering closer strategic alignment between Israel and many Arab Sunni states. As Prince Turki al-Faisal, a confidante of the late Saudi king, told a senior Israeli official during a remarkably public meeting in May 2014, “the Arabs have crossed the Rubicon and don’t want to fight Israel anymore.” Beijing may not be prepared to take risks for peace as a political actor, but China’s Silk Road strategy could well bring about an economic peace of sorts, granting erstwhile foes opportunities to leverage new regional transportation networks to increase intra-regional trade, tourism, and gradually, reduce political differences as well.