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

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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

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

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East Asia

Taiwan: The First and Oldest ‘Thorn’ between China and the West

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Over three hundred and fifty years ago, when the West lost its first war with China over Taiwan, the technological level between the two sides was fairly even. But the Dutch, then the most dynamic colonial power, paid a heavy price for misbelieving “China might have invented gunpowder but we possess superior guns.” Today, the world is witnessing China’s rapid rise and the US is in decline. The question is, will Taiwan once again bust the Western (aka US) superiority myth?                                                                         

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In 1662, the West fought its first war with China and lost. The Sino-Dutch War, as it is called now, was fought when a Chinese admiral dared the Dutch East India Company to give up its little under half century ‘rule’ over Taiwan. The defeat resulted in the island falling under Chinese rule for the first time in history. It is not so important to know it was China’s first great victory over Europe’s most dynamic colonial power. In the words of the Dutch historian, Tonio Andrade, what is more significant is the first Chinese victory over the West broke the myth of Western superiority as it had been achieved on the basis of “Chinese advantage in strategic and tactical culture.” (Emphasis added) The Chinese victory also broke another myth which the Western historians held on to until as recently as in 1970s, i.e., the Chinese might have invented the gunpowder but didn’t know how to use it as weapon, Andrade, the author  went on to add.

Fast forward to the present-day tensions in the Taiwan Strait. As China embarked on the path of Reform and Opening-up, relations between Beijing and Taipei too started improving in the early 1980s. Seen as a remarkable political development on both sides of the Taiwan Strait in 45 years, the KMT government in Taipei declared in 1991 “an end to the war with the People’s Republic of China on the mainland.” However, since the election of Chen Shui-bian as president in 2000, political headwinds in Taiwan have been moving in the opposite direction to Beijing. Alarmed by Chen’s backing of demands for Taiwan’s independence, Beijing was quick to pass anti-secession law a year after Chen was reelected in 2004.

In 2016, following Donald Trump’s victory in US and the victory of Ms. Tsai Ing-wen as Taiwan’s president respectively, Beijing’s fear of Taiwan declaring itself an independent country has reached unprecedented levels. In fact, Beijing is feeling seriously threatened by the US role in creating conditions for Taiwan to declare independence. Immediately upon assuming office, President Trump held telephone conversation with the Taiwan president – something which no other US had done in the preceding forty years. This was the beginning of a new trend in US-China relations and which grossly undermined the “One China” policy.

During the past decade (between 2007 and 2019), the US warships made over one hundred trips through the Taiwan Strait. No wonder Beijing has been describing Taiwan as “the most important sensitive issue in Sino-US relations.” According to New Strait Times, in 2020, the year of Coronavirus pandemic, the cross-strait faced its worst crisis in the past two decades. Without denying that the PLA fighter planes crossed maritime border with Taiwan, China however dismissed Taipei’s claims of “incursions” by the mainland. Beijing even maintained its warplanes, bombers and anti-submarine aircrafts “conducted normal exercises on September 18 and 19 respectively and that the median line never existed.”

However, according to experts, the median line is the unofficial airspace boundary between Taiwan and China, and was demarcated by US Air Force General Benjamin Davis Jr. in 1955, before the US pressured both sides to enter into a tacit agreement not to cross it. Media reports originating from Taipei, Hong Kong and Singapore claimed the forty or more PLA incursions last October, were prompted by two US top officials visiting Taipei during August-September period last year. “U.S. Under Secretary of State Keith Krach arrived in Taiwan on Thursday for the second visit by a high-level American official in two months. The first visit was by the US Health Secretary Alex Azar in August 2020.” The visits by Krach and Azar respectively were first highest-level US Cabinet visits to Taiwan – in gross violation of the US commitments to China – since the US switched formal relations from Taiwan to Beijing in 1979.

This year, especially within hours following President entered the White House, the new US administration lost no time in announcing “our commitment to Taiwan is rock-solid.” Two days earlier, the State Department invited and officially received Taiwan’s unofficial ambassador in Washington to Biden’s inauguration – the first envoy from the island present at a presidential swearing-in since 1979. Both the statement of commitment to Taiwan and the presence of Taiwanese envoy at the presidential inauguration respectively were interpreted by strategic affairs experts in Washington and Beijing as moves to provoke China towards making a strategic mistake leading to military conflict.

Further, Taiwan has returned as “thorniest” issue in US-China relations under President Biden – since perhaps it is easier to violate “One China” policy than to either rally European allies against China or to announce a decisive Washington position toward Beijing. As President Biden gears up to embark on his maiden in-person visit to shake hands or bump elbows with his European allies, the US administration has further escalated tensions over Taiwan. Last Sunday, a bipartisan contingent of three US Senators – Tammy Duckworth and Christopher Coons, both Democrats, and Dan Sullivan, a Republican – briefly visited Taiwan on a US military aircraft.  According to media reports, the Chinese Defense Ministry described the visit as “extremely vile provocation.” Reuters citing Chinese sources said China believes that “Biden administration is challenging one-China principle and trying to achieve the so-called goal of ‘using Taiwan to control’ China.” 

Experts in Beijing point out, Biden is accelerating the pitch of what started under Obama and was intensified by Trump, i.e., to use “the US economic and military might to pressure Beijing and force it to accept US hegemony in the region.” Elsewhere, first the joint statement following Biden-Suga summit in April and then in late May the statement released after the summit meeting between European leaders and Japan’s Prime Minister Suga, are being interpreted as “belligerent stances towards Beijing initiated and encouraged by President Biden.” The EU-Japan post-summit statement called for “peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.” Similar to several moves initiated by Trump and Biden challenging one-China policy, the EU-Suga joint statement too is the first time that Taiwan has been included in such a statement. 

A scholar in Tianjin, who writes a column for ftchinese.com, the daily online Mandarin version of the Financial Times, thinks Biden has intensified the so-called Thucydides trap. In a recent article, he has actually put forward a solution for Beijing to not only avoid falling into the trap, but also steer clear of having to choose between using force to reunify with Taiwan and being forced into military conflict with the US by striking first. To sum up Li Yongning’s rather long thesis, he prescribes that China fight out Thucydides trap with economic growth and people’s prosperity. To prove his point, Li flashes the example of de-escalation of hostility between China and Japan. Remember until a few years ago, heightened tensions between the two over Diaoyu or Senkaku Islands. Of late, especially since the middle of Xi Jinping’s first five year tenure, belligerent provocations between Beijing and Tokyo have almost ceased.

How did China under Xi achieve this? According to Li, Xi’s strategy to strike peace and tranquility with Japan was simple and practical. “China’s GDP exceeded Japan’s in 2010 and by 2019 it became 2.8 times more than Japan’s, which put an end to Sino-Japan competitiveness. Likewise, once China achieves one and a half times or twice bigger GDP of the USA, the China-US competitiveness will be rendered as joke,” Li contended. In 2017, in PPP terms China had already exceeded the US economy. Li cited a Brookings Institution report which predicted China’s GDP will cross America’s in 2028. “Once China reaches there, higher GDP will act as shock absorber for all Sino-US conflicts,” Li wrote.

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China’s know-how on becoming the oldest society in the world

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china bicycle

For decades, China had a “one-child policy” that permitted families to have only one child. A few years ago, this restriction was changed to a “two-child policy”, and now the Chinese government has allowed the Chinese people to give birth to three children.

The main reason for this is the concerningly low birth rate and the impending demographic crisis. China is still the country with the largest population (1.41 billion), but UN forecasts indicate that India will soon surpass it, since India has a much higher birth rate.

Statistics show that last year approximately 12 million babies were born in China, which is the lowest birth rate China has had in many years. For instance, in 2016 when the “two-child policy” was implemented, the number of newborns reached 18 million.

Chinese demographers argue that it will be difficult for China to boost birth rate in the near future because the number of women in the reproductive age is decreasing. This was caused by China’s “one-child policy” that was in force from 1979 to 2015.

Chinese families could give birth only to one child, and many families chose to “spend” this quota on a boy, since in China boys have traditionally been valued more than girls. If a family were told they were expecting a girl, the mother would often decide to have an abortion.

This caused an unexpected outcome – the number of men exceeded the number of women. Although it was not allowed to find out the sex of the baby during pregnancy, there were several ways to do so which lead to numerous late abortions. That is why currently there is a disproportion between the number of men and women in the Chinese society.

As a result, modern China is overproducing men and is in a grave lack of women. Statistics indicate that there are 35 million more men than women – leaving many men with no chances of finding a spouse.

Moreover, the beliefs and values of the Chinese people have also changed over the years, i.e. many women wish to pursue a career first and only then to establish a family. The recent years have seen a rapid decline in marriages in China.

These trends are particularly prevalent in Chinese cities, leading demographers to predict that the gap between the situation in cities and the situation in the countryside will only widen in the future – people in the countryside still prefer larger families, while city dwellers have a hard time giving birth to a single child.

“Now, we are allowed to have three children. The problem, however, is that I don’t even want one child,” a user of the Chinese social media network Weibo wrote in his account.

Many are asking the question – will the “three-child policy” change anything if the “two-child policy” wasn’t able to do so? That’s why people are happy about the government’s decision to provide other incentives and motivations in this regard.

For example, education costs – which were twice as high in two-children families – will be cut, people will see additional support on tax and housing issues and working women will be granted more rights. In addition, the government also has plans to educate young Chinese people on the issues of marriage and love – now, state propaganda will not only deal with shaming the West, but also teach people how to love correctly and “make children”.

This leads to believe that the Chinese government has taken quite a peculiar approach to identifying mistakes in their previous policies, but it isn’t truly admitting these mistakes – as is the case in all authoritarian regimes. If the previous plan fails, simply improve it a bit and relaunch it anew.

The “one-child policy” has led to one-and-a-half generation where there are six people from the non-working population for each person in the working population, i.e. the person’s parents and two sets of grandparents. This is the Chinese Communist Party’s know-how.

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Global Health & Health Silk Road: The Other Side Of Picture

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The new world order is a twisted maze of political, economic and cultural ambitions. China’s obscure political economy presents an unparalleled challenge to those unfamiliar with the cultural and historical undercurrents driving Beijing’s global movements. Following the onset of the CoVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, the global society observed one of the hasty economic convulsion since World War II. Nearly all nation states sealed their borders and placed global supply chain and trade in limbo as the spread of the virus continued unabated. As Beijing’s flagship investment project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was similarly disrupted. The BRI initiative has formed the cornerstone of President Xi’s approach to strategic diplomacy and challenged the traditional concept of development. Key rhetoric underlying the initiative, such as “the community of common destiny for mankind”.

Nevertheless, there is a “Digital Silk Road”, and “Space Silk Road”, so it should come as no bombshell that China is also building a “Health Silk Road”. China’s HSR first appeared in a speech given by President Xi in 2016. At the first BRI Forum 2017, a Beijing Communique of Belt and Road Health Cooperation and Health Silk Road was signed by China, the World Health Organization (WHO), UNAIDS, OECD, GAVI and other participating countries. Since then, China made a significant move towards the consolidation of its role as a major player in global health. Similarly, it is no secret that China is making a boost for global health leadership during CoVID-19 pandemic. As the pandemic spread across the world, China sought to provide aid packages and medical assistance to partner states within the BRI under the name of “Health Silk Road”. The ongoing CoVID-19 pandemic is not only going to fundamentally transform the global politics, but also the foreign policy priorities of many countries. Since the outbreak, the CoVID-19 pandemic has exposed the significant weakness of public health infrastructure of developed and developing countries alike.

There is widespread understanding among scientists, heritage and history writers that one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, black death, originated in China and spread along the old silk road to central Asia, northern India and Europe. It exhibited a blueprint that is as old as human history, – when people and goods travel, so do viruses and bacteria. Today, there is some speculation about whether CoVID-19 circulated along the “new silk road”, and it has been criticized that the BRI contributed to the spread of the virus. These kinds of debates are pointless because, even without modern means of transport like trains, cargo-ships, and planes, the plague can reach the most remote places in the world and kill a large portion of the global population. Highly criticized for covering up and not preventing the virus from turning into a global pandemic, China is making an efforts to reinstate its persona as a symbol of support, strength and leadership. Opponents have also alleged that Beijing rationalized itself as a global health champion at a time when Washington had abdicated its responsibilities.

Regardless of misgivings, China has been promoting the institutionalization of health cooperation within HSR framework by organizing and sponsoring a number of health-themed forums. For example, the Silk Road Health Forum, China-Central and Eastern European Countries Health Ministers Forum, China-ASEAN Health Forum, and the China-Arab States Health Forum. Beijing also initiated a series of supportive programs on disease control and prevention in alliance with its neighbors in Central Asia. All these efforts were made as part of China’s broader global health diplomacy and leadership before the CoVID-19 pandemic hit the world. With the spread of  CoVID-19 across the world, the Chinese government extended support to countries from East Asia to Europe. It has given 20 million dollars to the World Health Organization (WHO) for assisting developing countries in coping with the pandemic, build up their epidemic-prevention abilities, and building a stronger public health system. China also handed out concessionary loans and played a coordinating role in multilaterals like G-20, ASEAN, the SCO and the African Union, established itself in a leadership position by promptly responding to the crises and catering to the needs of the countries all over.

In contrast with the advance economics, what China has contributed to the global pandemic combat becomes even more admirable. Statistics show that China has provided considerable amount of medical assistance to the rest of world, including approximately 70.6 billion face masks, 225 million test kits, 115 million pairs of goggles, 340 million protective suits, 96,700 ventilators, and 40.29 million infrared thermometers to 200 countries and regions in 2020. China’s medical professionals have also played a vital role in the global pandemic battle by contributing their knowledge and experience on the frontlines in many virus-impacted countries. China has shared medical best practices with a multitude of international organizations, including the ASEAN, EU, African Union, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, Caribbean, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, as well as some of the hardest-hit countries such as South Korea, Japan, Russia, the United States, and Germany.

Concisely, with all these notable endeavors and substantial contributions, is it still premature to presume that China has taken over the leadership role in terms of global health? China’s engagement in global health, especially during CoVID-19, has positioned itself as a johnny on the spot in global health leadership. The HSR undoubtedly will allow China to re-establish its national repute on the international stage, in particular by contrasting it with the inelegant responses of the United States and other European nations. China’s global aspirations, efforts to present itself as a global health leader should not be considered as surprise. It is still too early to tell the magnitude to which China’s global health sprint will transform its international profile, but there is no reason to be cynical that it will be revolutionary. As an old Chinese saying goes, it takes a good blacksmith to make good steel.

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