China planning Silk Road 2.0 through the Middle East

Al Monitor

Those concerned with current East-West relations often use the term “Silk Road.” Referring to this term, in writing and literature, is more like retrieving old photographs from a bygone ancient era rather than having an outlook onto the future. This road, which spread economic prosperity, cultural diversity and interaction across Asia, Africa and Europe, is not a component of modern geography but of ancient history.  

China and the Arab countries have a different perspective on the Silk Road. The Chinese leadership sees a future project and practical steps to be implemented with the usual Chinese diligence. This was confirmed by China’s president, Xi Jinping, when he received Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi two weeks ago. Between 1992 and 2014, China spent approximately 5.8% of its total GDP on infrastructure, including roads. On the other hand, the infrastructure investment rate of other developing countries ranged between 2% and 4% of their gross domestic product (GDP), according to an article published by the East-Asia Forum on Aug. 16, 2014, titled, “Building Silk Roads for 21st Century.”

With the implementation of these steps and sub-projects, the features of the intercontinental road being built by the Chinese leadership began to become clearer. According to The Economist of Nov. 29, 2014, the Silk Road follows three routes: one running from central China to the Arab region through Central Asia; a maritime route extending from the southern coast of China all the way to Arab crossings and ports on the shores of the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea; and a third branching out from Yunnan, in west Asia, to China’s neighbors, namely Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. If these estimates prove to be true, a large part of the contemporary Silk Road will pass through Arab lands.

This possibility spread optimism in the hearts of those predicting that the Arab region faces a dark fate for several years to come, i.e., at least until Arab-Arab wars come to an end. Before stability returns to the region, and before political and security conditions stabilize, it will be difficult to convince those involved in international trade, whether country leaders, such as China, or owners and officials of transcontinental companies, to make huge infrastructure investments in the region and investments in construction of a Silk Road for the 21st century.

The worsening, bloody, factional conflicts in the region are gaining a dynamic that means it will be difficult to end them within the foreseeable future. In light of signs of the continuation of these bloody conflicts for an extended period of time, the efforts to extinguish them — to free the region of them and start an era of construction and development — will face, in addition to the sectarian and armed conflicts plaguing the region, other factors adversely affecting the Silk Road’s passage across Arab territories.

Two factors are worth tackling. First, China has changed its perception of the course of the Silk Road. Today, it is rushing to build the Silk Road and to develop its trade with the Arab region and Europe. But it finds that in the coming years, it would be more useful and better to avoid routes crossing the Arab region and to focus on lanes and crossings passing through Turkey and European countries to the north as well as on maritime lanes crossing the African continent to reach Europe and Latin American countries.

China imports half of its oil for consumption from abroad, from Arab countries in particular. The current turmoil in the Arab world could lead China to increase its imports from Latin America at the expense of the Arab states. The same scenario could also play out in other parts of the world, as the role of Arab countries as a stable and guaranteed business partner could decline.

In this context, one should pay attention to statements by Chinese President Xi Jinping when he received President Sisi. He said that China has so far received approval from 50 states to revive the Silk Road. There is no doubt, that the Chinese president had no intention of informing the Arab side that there are several alternatives to the Silk Road going through Arab territories, but those following up on the road map have taken mindful readings of the rhetoric and statements made by Chinese leaders.

Second, the region is characterized by poor organization for cross-border cooperation. This situation is slightly odd, as the region experienced the birth of one of the most prominent regional organizations, the League of Arab States, after World War II.

Yet, seven centuries have passed, and cross-border cooperation organizations in the region remain at a standstill. Those following up on the activities and work of these organizations could name countless examples of their fragility and poor performance.

In fact, the main organizations, such as Arab summits, Arab ministerial councils and the Arab League councils, are all suffering, as declared by prominent Arab leaders. All these organizations face great hardships in following up on and implementing decisions. This is not to mention the obvious lack of accountability and liability in most cases.

It is only normal that the reality of these official conferences have adverse consequences on regional organizations in charge of communications between Arab states and of developing their relationships with the rest of the world.

The official website of one of these organizations provides a sad example of their poor efficiency. The website highlights the organization’s 10 main achievements, 7 of which constitute the institution’s officials attendance at international conferences.

The website listed attendance among the organization’s activities, as if attending conferences is in itself a great achievement, whereas these conferences should be considered an opportunity to directly contribute to discussing the issues of regional and international cooperation and set forth suggestions serving these goals.

Moreover, the concerned organization ought to disclose the details of its quests and goals at conferences and elsewhere, to educate citizens about the importance of these objectives and their relation to their social, economic and political situation.

Should the regional cooperation organizations, in particular the major ones of a political nature, refrain from assuming such a role? Should they refrain from raising awareness among the people about things that affect their countries and the region, including major international projects, such as the Silk Road? [If so,] it is not only that cooperation between Arab countries would be undermined, but each and every country separately would suffer the consequences.

If China, with its geographic and cultural size, is looking forward to deepening cooperation with other countries no matter how large or small, and if it seeks to achieve tangible results from building the Silk Road, Arab countries ought to bend over backwards to consolidate cooperation among themselves to promote cooperation with neighbors and friendly countries to open the door wide to allow the Silk Road to pass through Arab lands.

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