Belt and Road Initiative to facilitate development of Middle East countries
By Rabi Sankar Bosu
Now all eyes are on this week’s mega meet, “The Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation” (BRF) to be held at the China National Convention Center and the Yanqi Lake International Convention Center in the northern suburb of Beijing from May 14-15. It takes the theme "strengthening international cooperation and co-building the 'Belt and Road' for win-win development." Chinese President Xi Jinping will attend the opening ceremony of the two-day BRF expected to be attended by at least 28 heads of states. According to Chinese experts, the upcoming conclave will further internationalize and institutionalize the Belt and Road initiative (BRI). It is anticipated that China will use the Forum to build a more open and efficient global cooperation platform, fostering multilateral ties between participating countries.
The B&R Initiative, proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping in the fall of 2013, consists of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road. Building upon the spirit of the ancient Silk Road - "peace and cooperation, openness and inclusiveness, mutual learning, and mutual benefits" - which continues to this day, the Initiative targets a modern transnational network connecting Asia with Europe and Africa along and beyond the ancient Silk Road trade routes, with the aim of promoting common development among all parties involved.
The B&R Initiative is the Chinese President's signature dream project. On September 7, 2013 Chinese President Xi Jinping introduced the Silk Road Economic Belt concept in a speech delivered at Nazarbayev University during his visit to Kazakhstan. It was the first time the Chinese leadership mentioned the strategic vision. On October 3, 2013 Chinese President Xi proposed building a “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” to promote maritime cooperation in his speech at the Indonesian parliament.
Four years after its formal launch in 2013, the B&R Initiative has become the common cause which will help rebalance economic globalization by making it more universally-beneficial and inclusive. The Initiative has drawn a growing number of participants while protectionism and unilateralism are rising, thanks to its global influence. It has eventually encompassed 100 countries representing 70% of the world’s population, 55% of GDP and 24% of global trade. More than 100 countries and international organizations support the initiative, while over 40 have signed cooperation agreements with China.
According to Mr. Ruan Zongze, Deputy Director of China Institute of International Studies, “The initiative has added fresh impetus to China and the rest of the world to promote globalization and build a "community of shared destiny of humankind", which UN Security Council Resolution 2344 of March 17 referred to while calling for regional economic cooperation to promote sustainable growth in Afghanistan. The reference to a community of shared destiny of humankind in the resolution reflects the extent of China's contribution to global governance.”
China’s diplomacy is one of the major powers in the world arena to promote peace, development and win-win global cooperation instead of the zero-sum game of western countries. Undoubtedly, the B&R Initiative comes at the right time for a “comprehensive cooperation belt” to not only promote China’s own development but also accelerate the economic take-off of Asia, Africa and Europe as a whole. It is the centerpiece of China's effort to expand its economic presence in the entire Middle East region - from the massive energy markets of Saudi Arabia and the infrastructure developments in Iran to the domination of trade with Lebanon.
The Middle East has always had a unique and important place in China's foreign policy. Since the 1950s when New China was just founded, China has built a reliable China-Arab strategic cooperative relationship based on long-term friendship. In recent years China has launched more win-win cooperation with Arab countries. More importantly, President Xi Jinping has called for a joint endeavor to build the Belt and Road so as to make the international relations more democratic. The China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative and the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) provide new opportunities for Asia-Africa cooperation.
Enjoying their traditional friendship, China and Arab states and the Middle East countries are increasingly becoming a community of shared interests. China is now the top trading partner of 10 Arab countries with two-way trade exceeding 200 billion US dollars. Nearly half of China's crude oil imports come from Arab countries, and China's investment in Arab countries is fast rising. China is now playing an outsized role in remaking relations in Middle East under the sphere of the Belt and road Initiative.
China sees Saudi Arabia as an increasingly important partner as it seeks to bolster its international presence in the Middle East. Both countries have seen a sound development of bilateral ties since the two countries established diplomatic ties in 1990. In 2015, China became Saudi Arabia's largest trade partner and Saudi Arabia has been China's biggest crude oil supplier and largest trade partner in West Asia and Africa for years. Xi's visit to Saudi Arabia last year shored up China's sphere of influence in the Middle East.
Saudi Arabian King Salman’s three-day visit to China in March this year showed the importance he attached to relations with China. The visit bolstered the roll out of the B&R Initiative on the desert kingdom as a regional linchpin. In terms of strategic location, Saudi Arabia has been an important part of the Initiative. It is expected that the Chinese Initiative will make creative contributions to helping Saudi Arabia realize its "Saudi Vision 2030". Security ties between China and Saudi Arabia has also grew significantly, with the Saudi air force deploying Chinese unmanned attack drones and the two militaries holding joint counter-terrorism exercises in western China. China has also discussed harmonizing B&R Initiative with Jordan’s Vision 2025.
China and Iran have been enhancing efforts in recent years to boost cooperation in various areas. Iran has warmly welcomed China's BRI as the revival of an ancient network of trade routes connecting the east to the west. Last year from January 22nd to 23rd Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Tehran appears to have energized Iran’s integration in the Eurasian fold. During his first trip to Iran, President Xi called for better cooperation and closer ties with Iran under the Belt and Road framework. The first train from China’s trading hub of Yiwu had arrived in Tehran on February 15, 2016 signaling Iran’s firm integration in the Beijing led-Belt and Road connectivity initiative along the New Silk Road. Promoting the Belt and Road construction, China and Iran can work together on a transportation network that helps to connect eastern and western Asia, expand cooperation on energy and industries, and enhance communications in a variety of fields.
The B&R Initiative has promoted cooperation between China and Israel. Israel joined the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank as soon as it was founded. China is also involved in building infrastructures in Israel, such as digging the Carmel tunnels in Haifa, laying the light rail in Tel Aviv, and expanding the Ashdod and Haifa seaports which would be for the benefit of Israel and the benefit of China.
China has been always backing the Palestinian state. China is helping push-forward Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. Speaking to the Arab League Headquarters on January 21, 2016 in Cairo, Egypt, Xi referred to the injustice toward the Palestinian people and announced 50 million yuan ($7.6 million) for the Palestinians which were made in parallel with China's Belt and Road Initiative.
China and Egypt are true friends and good brothers. Egypt was the first Arab and African country to recognize the People's Republic of China in 1956. Egypt is a founding member of the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Egypt is seeking to promote the growth of its comprehensive strategic partnership with China, deepen cooperation in various fields and would like to seek new ways of cooperation further within the framework of the B&R Initiative.
During his first visit to Egypt last year, President Xi Jinping suggested that the two countries focus on cooperation on infrastructure and production and turn Egypt into a hub under the B&R Initiative. It is reported that China is willing to participate in Egypt's key projects like the development of the Suez Canal Corridor and the construction of a new administrative capital.
Turmoil in the Middle East stems from the lack of development, and the ultimate solution will depend on development itself. The B&R Initiative is vital to promoting peace and political stability mainly in Central Asia and the Middle East. According to Gong Xiaosheng, China's special envoy on Middle East affairs, “the Belt and Road Initiative is highly likely to become China's most significant contribution to the Middle East peace process because it will provide the economic solution the region needs."
China played a significant role in the P5+1 negotiation (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China, Russia plus Germany) on Iran’s nuclear program, resulting in the historic joint agreement. China also has appointed a special envoy to Syria to boost involvement in Middle East and protect regional interests.
China has made significant contributions to promoting economic development, rebuilding war-torn areas and giving humanitarian aid in Middle East. The B&R Initiative is a driving force for Middle East economies. Encouragingly, China has invested $15 billion in the Middle East industrialization through special loans and established a total of $20 billion joint investment funds with the UAE and Qatar.
More broadly, the B&R Initiative is a vision for the future of China-Middle East relations. The Chinese Government said the BRI "is a way for win-win cooperation that promotes common development and prosperity, and a road toward peace and friendship by enhancing mutual understanding and trust and strengthening all-round exchanges." The upcoming mega conclave will provide a wonderful opportunity for Middle East countries to solidify arrangements under the initiative. It is hoped that the Middle East countries could develop their cooperation with China in a broader context and it would maximize benefits of the B&R Initiative.
Rabi Sankar Bosu, Secretary of New Horizon Radio Listeners' Club, West Bengal, India