Long before the discovery of the New World and roundness of the Earth, it was the Silk Road that connected the East and the West economically, culturally, and politically. The famous travels of Marco Polo were also set through this route. For almost 2 thousand years, from the 2nd century BCE to the 18th century, this road was the largest trade network in the world. Now, after more than 200 years, China is willing to make the Silk Road great again!
The New Silk Road, formally called as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), was firstly announced in 2013 by Chinese President Xi Jinping, with the belt being the land routes and the road being the maritime routes from Southeast Asia to the Middle East, Africa and Europe. Later, a third layer of digital routes was also integrated into this global masterplan, referring to technological investments. As of today, in accordance with the plan, 2 global forums and over 200 agreements have been made with more than 150 countries, most of them being infrastructure investments financed by China. Morgan Stanley estimates that the spending will total $1.3 trillion by 2027.
However, not all countries are convinced by this project of the century, defined by Xi, to foster peace, development, cooperation, and mutual benefit. In fact, there are periodically increasing concerns about this project, mainly claiming that China is trying to increase their global influence and step up as a rival to the US to be the World’s dominating power. Such concerns have already caused delays especially in the Southeast Asia, and some partners like Malaysia, Thailand, and Laos are highly hesitant to continue this partnership, due to financial and political concerns. For instance, the agreement with Laos included a $6 billion loan from China, which weighs almost a third of Laos’ GDP.
Despite these concerns, the project is still in progress at an increasing pace, and it may currently be the best option for many countries to be involved in a global union, considering the lack of alternatives. One particular region that is not having this shortage of alternatives is the Middle East. In contrast, the Middle East can choose among a variety of global powers. Russia is highly involved in the Syrian conflict, the USA has a long establishment in the area, the EU desires to improve their presence in the area for the Mediterranean conflict, and China places the Middle East at the center of the BRI project.
What About the Middle East?
Over the past few years, China has invested enormously in the Middle East to improve diplomatic, economic, and cultural relations. There have been many partnerships between China and Middle Eastern countries in the field of agriculture, infrastructure, energy, and construction. Therefore, the Chinese expectation is to enhance these partnerships even more with the BRI. Indeed, most Middle Eastern countries, involving Turkey, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Kuwait, has already integrated BRI into their national development schemes. For the rest, China keeps attempting to involve them into this plan through political or economic influences. China’s increasing involvement in Syria with Russia is an example for this intention.
The reason China is eager to involve the Middle East into BRI is very simple. The Middle East is geographically at the center of both land and maritime routes. Alternatives like the Arctic route directly to Europe is not as inclusive as BRI, and China has realized the potential of the developing world markets. Through the Middle East routes, China can connect with Europe and Africa on land, the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea, the Caspian Sea, and the Mediterranean on sea. Strategical geopolitical locations like the Bosphorus, Bab al-Mandeb Strait, and the Strait of Homuz are also included in these routes. Eventually, there are solid reasons for all parties to cooperate.
Besides, countries under heavy US influence like Saudi Arabia and UAE are not hesitated to foster their partnership with China, which can be observed by the Khalifa Port in UAE or the Jizan Port in Saudi Arabia. Egypt, having an opposite view on Turkey in the Mediterranean, has already concluded some infrastructure agreements like Port Said. All these agreements bring, in return, higher trade outcomes. According to the Middle East Monitor, the trade volume increased by 77 percent only in 2018-19. Considering new energy agreements, this increase can be sustained in the long term.
Another perspective is the fit BRI has to the regional politics of the Middle Eastern countries. The recent Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict in the Caucasus and Turkey’s direct support to Azerbaijan can be interpreted accordingly. One of the terms that ended the conflict was the opening of a corridor from mainland Azerbaijan to the disputed Nakhichevan region, connecting China, Central Asia, and other Turkic countries with Turkey without a hostile country blockage.
While China has a lot going on, the world has been facing the greatest health crisis of the century. This health crisis caused many economies to decline and go into a recession period, which is not estimated to be recovered in the short-term. The BRI agreements can be an additional stress factor to developing countries, causing the Chinese masterplan to face more problems in the near future. In fact, several countries like Pakistan, Nigeria, and Malaysia have already started renegotiations on the agreements under the BRI. Even though China has the capability to cope with this crisis and help partner countries to do the same, it brings President Xi to a dichotomy. Unfortunate to him, China has to choose whether to prioritize its own nation or the partners, since Chinese citizens need help, too. In spite of the authoritarian regime in Beijing, the Chinese government also feels great pressure from the public. Nevertheless, Xi Jinping is insistent to progress the BRI and open a new chapter in the 21stcentury’s globalization era.