Belt and Road Initiative: An Impetus to Sino-Israeli Strategic Partnership

Authors: Wang Li & Bokang Malefane Theoduld Ramonono

[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] S [/yt_dropcap]ince the normalization of diplomatic relations between China and Israel (1992), a steady and rapid development of mutual ties characterized contemporary interactions.

Israel’s export of sophisticated technologies involving controversially dual-used know-how of civilian products remains one of the key providers for China. Israel has been aware of China as a huge market and Chinese talents and capabilities. The bilateral recognition idea with China will make it easier for commerce to occur between the two countries, guarantee the highest standards of legal compliance. In 2013, Prime Minister Netanyahu indicated that if Israeli innovation in technologies would combine with Chinese prowess in manufacture, it would be an extraordinary union of the two competitive, innovative and advance economies. Recent conditions indicate the implementation of the previously delivered announcements.

In 2013, President Xi Jin-ping initiated the concept of the “One Belt & One Road” (OBOR) which aimed at creating a belt of railroads, highways, pipelines and broadband communications stretching from China, headed westwards through the Arabian plans and finally into Europe, whilst simultaneously embarking on the “Maritime Silk Road” initiative combining prominent sea routes with port infrastructure from the Indian Ocean to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. This project has proven captivating as the image of the United States in the Middle East continues to decline in the post-Gulf war period, and thus it would be in China’s aspirations to assume a greater role in the region. Turkey is an undisputedly big power in the Middle East, but Israel’s geo-strategic location and its technological advances have shored up its hard and soft power capabilities, essentially amassing the state with the appearance and strength of a micro-superpower with the ability and the opportunity to shape Beijing’s strategic concerns in the region for decades to come.

Firstly, Israel is associated with creative, advanced technologies and military capacities in the Middle Eastern milieu. Despite, the geopolitical challenges to Israel, the “Red-Med” rail project was a necessary essential and therefore, Israel is responsive to “OBOR” for China has plenty of seasoned labors and approximately $2 billion investment in this 300 km rail line linking Ashkelon with the Red Sea. With the specific role of Israel in the Middle East, Chinese policy-makers seek a broad swath of opportunities to build high-speed rail lines in Southeast Asia, Africa and the Middle East as well as China aims to double its 12,000 kilometers of railway track by 2020, with high-speed lines comprising most of the expansion.

Secondly, some Chinese strategists propose the “Red-Med” rail as emblematic of a more ambitious design for the region. In words of President Xi, “A peaceful, stable and developing Middle East meets the common interests of all parties including China and Israel”. And to that end the Sino-Israeli collaboration efforts include counterterrorism and anti-piracy operations, as well as economic support for Arab countries. Beijing looks toward Tel Aviv to provide advanced technologies, such as in agriculture and manufacture, to secure the industrialization and social stability of the region in the context of “One Belt and One Road.” Additionally, PLA Navy seeks assistance from Israeli counterparts in anti-piracy missions in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden. This indicates, the “Red-Med” project accentuates the dramatic shift in China’s perceptions of regional security in the Middle East. Given the China’s dependence on Middle Eastern oil; for instance, China’s net oil imports have nearly tripled in the past decade, with a 150% increase in tons per month spanning a decade imported from the Persian Gulf, the leaders and their security advisors in Beijing must pursue innovative avenues in order to “enhance regional security presence without, attempting to play a superpower role in the region”, as David Goldman argued recently.

Third, there is a new consensus in China that as a rising power with the second largest economy in the world, China will have to take more responsibilities in the world including the Middle East. However, the suddenness of America’s lesser role in the region has left China unprepared and unsure of its next steps; a fact, Chinese analysts quick to acknowledge. On one hand, China has proactively joined the P5+1 negotiations with Iran and offered to become a fifth member of the Quartet (UN, US, Europe, Russia), but these are pro forma proposals to assert China’s interest in the region rather than a policy per se. but on the other hand, China has voted with the Palestinians at the United Nations according to the “two states” formula over the past years, and it will not alter its diplomatic position in the foreseeable future.

Yet, there is an increasing level of interest in the features and characteristics of the “One Belt One Road” initiative devised by China. It sounds attractive that the transformation of the Eurasian landmass by high-speed transport and communications will lift large parts of the continent out of backwardness, as China sees the matter. But, building the transnational rail lines, though, demands the suppression of security threats that could disrupt trade flows. It is generally held that “OBOR” stems from China’s confidence in its rapidly-growing economic strengths while it also requires making long-term political stability possible. As China doesn’t want to rock the boat with any prospective adversary, Beijing’s Middle East stance is in the midst of a grand reconsideration. In the absence of overriding American influence in the Middle East, the risks of regional war and an interruption of China’s oil supplies will rise above the threshold of acceptability to Beijing. Taking the above-mentioned into consideration, The U.S. and European economies are still recovering from the 2008 crisis and growing at anemic rates. At the same time, Europe’s relationship with the Jewish state is becoming increasingly colored by anti-Israel sentiments. In this context, an Asian pivot makes sense. Israel’s desire to establish a reliable commercial corridor with the Far East dates back to the David Ben-Gurion (Israeli Prime Minister) administration. But now in both respects, Beijing sizes up Israel as a strategic partner since it clearly has an important prowess in the regional security and in meeting China’s technological needs.

Frankly speaking, China still has a long way to go in view of completion of the grand “OBOR, as the potential challenges are from both the Islamist extremism and the common practices of the geopolitical game. First, as the largest power adjunct to China’s Tibet, how India will interact with the “OBOR” is not yet clear, though it seems increasingly likely that India and China will collaborate rather than quarrel. After President Xi’s state visit to India in 2014, the new government headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi may draw on Chinese expertise and financing to alleviate critical infrastructure bottlenecks. The two countries are negotiating a $33 billion high-speed rail scheme, for example, the first major improvement in a rail system built by the British in the 19th century. Economics trumps petty concerns over borders in the mountainous wasteland that separates the world’s two most populous nations. Yet, there is also a strategic dimension to the growing sense of agreement between China and India. From India’s vantage point, China’s support for Pakistan’s military has been a grave concern, but it cuts both ways. First, Pakistan remains at perpetual risk of tipping over towards militant Islam, and the main guarantor of its stability is the army. China wants to strengthen Pakistani army as a bulwark against the Islamic radicals, who threaten China’s Xinjiang province as much as they do India, and that probably serves India’s interests as well as any Chinese policy might.

The more dangerous prospect to China comes from the rise of Islamist extremism that has evidently worried Beijing. At least a hundred or even many more Chinese Uyghurs are reportedly fighting with Islamic State, presumably in order to acquire terrorist skills to bring back home to China’s homeland. Chinese analysts have a very low opinion of the Obama administration’s approach to dealing with IS, but they did not have an alternative policy. Hopefully, there is an opportunity for low-profile but significant security cooperation between Israel and China.

In foreign affairs, China’s policy-making is careful, conservative and consensus-driven, for its overriding concern is its own economic growth which has been seen as the fundamental issue to the security of the country and the legitimacy of the ruling party. The pace of transformation of the Middle East has surprised it, and it has tried to decide what to do next. China’s short-term intension remains largely unknown. But it seems inevitable that China’s basic interests will lead it to far greater involvement in the region, all the more so as the US withdraws. Israel will remain an American ally, and this alliance strictly delimits the scope of Sino-Israeli collaboration. Within these limits, though, Israel has greater room to maneuver, and the opportunity to assist in the formation of Chinese conceptions and strategy in the region for decades to come. Chinese leaders are clearly aware of this reality.

During his second visit to China in March 2017 at the invitation of China’s President Xi Jinping, Prime Minister Netanyahu signaled at an occasion marking the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations that Israel is cordial in taking a more prominent role to build the “OBOR” in the region of the Middle East and the Mediterranean. The visit to China of the Israeli PM had the anticipated positive results with regard to the development of the two sides’ financial relationship, since the Chinese government views Israel, despite its small size, as a producer of natural resources and a potential contributor to China’s grand design of the “OBOR”. For sure, several non-financial subjects also occupied the leaders during their meetings, including relations with the US, the role Russia is playing in the Middle East and terror threats from Islamic sources. As China sees matters, the Chinese government, which strives for global stability that will support its economy, wants to see the peaceful restoration in the whole region.

True, unlike Western foreign policies, which generally prioritize political issues and normal relations, Chinese foreign policy pays attention to economic issues. This is consistent with China’s adherence to nonintervention in the domestic affairs of other countries. China and Israel have worked closely with the enhancement based on terms of “innovation and cooperation”. They are asymmetrical in view of the territorial sizes and the population, but the Chinese government regards as advantageous, Israel’s potential assumption of a non-replaceable participant in the “OBOR” initiative. Due to this consideration, China and Israel provided as joint statement declaring the establishment and promotion of bilateral relations based on a “comprehensive innovative strategic partnership”.

(*) Bokang Malefane Theoduld Ramonono, PhD Candidate in International Relations at the School of International and Public Affairs,  Jilin University China

Paul Wang
Paul Wang
Wang Li is Professor of International Relations and Diplomacy at the School of International and Public Affairs, Jilin University China.