Belt & Road Reaching Far and Wide in Middle East

“All eyes on Ukraine,” writes a former staff member of a British prime minister in an email. That is understandable, but not to the exclusion of everything else. In particular, Europe should spare a few minutes to consider the expansion of China’s Belt and Road Initiative across the eastern and southern shores of the Mediterranean.

Syria joined the scheme on January 12 with the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding to that effect in Damascus. The Belt and Road is now connected from Iran through Iraq to the eastern Mediterranean.

This opens the way to rebuilding Syria’s infrastructure and economy, and to restoring Syria’s historical role as a crossroads of regional trade.

It also puts China in direct conflict with American sanctions under the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019 (Caesar Act). The Act was named after a person known only as Caesar, who photographed and documented evidence of torture by the government of Bashar al-Assad.

The act was signed by President Trump in 2019 and put into force in 2020. The Biden administration has continued to enforce its provisions, which sanction individuals, corporations and political entities worldwide involved in economic activities deemed to support the Syrian military. These include oil and gas, construction and banking.

The Brookings Institution describes them as “the most wide-ranging US sanctions ever applied against Syria” and notes that the Act “dramatically expands the authority of the US government to sanction … activities that support the Assad regime’s ability to wage war.”

Without regime change, the sanctions would, if effective, prevent the reconstruction of Syria after more than a decade of civil war. But they are not effective, as China is intent on ignoring them and filling the vacuum created by inflexible US policy.

In March 2019, The Atlantic published an article entitled No One Wants to Help Bashar al-Assad Rebuild Syria.” Quoting American and French diplomats, it was a remarkable but typical piece of self-delusion.

The Syrian port of Latakia is likely to be of particular interest to China. Iran already leases part of it and Russia has a naval base at Tartus a short distance to the south.

With the cost of reconstruction estimated at $250 billion by the United Nations, Chinese construction companies and banks will also have a lot to do in Syria

The port of Tripoli in Lebanon is also a target for Chinese investment, as is the Tripoli Special Economic Zone. Lebanon signed an MOU to join Belt & Road in 2017.

Egypt, which has a “comprehensive strategic partnership” with China, joined Belt & Road in 2016. That was predated by the establishment of the China-Egypt Teda Suez Economic and Trade Cooperation Zone in 2008.

More recently, Chinese companies have been participating in the financing and construction of Egypt’s new administrative capital east of Cairo, the establishment of more industrial facilities near the Suez Canal, the building of railways, and the construction of a container port on the Mediterranean coast.

The goal is to turn Egypt into a manufacturing and distribution hub serving the Middle East, North Africa and Europe. China is the largest user of the Suez Canal and the largest investor in adjacent industrial facilities. More than 1,500 Chinese companies are active in Egypt including manufacturers of textiles, fiberglass, consumer electronics, electric vehicles and components.

As noted in Greater Eurasia’: Belt & Road expands in Africa” (Asia Times, December 28, 2021), the “comprehensive” in “comprehensive strategic partnership” mis meant to stand for political, economic, technological and cultural cooperation. “Strategic” means important, stable and long-term.

Chinese infrastructure projects in Libya, which date to 2011, have been disrupted by military conflict, but China continues to work for a political settlement that would allow them to resume. China’s interests in Libya are centered on oil and port facilities. Libya joined Belt & Road in 2018.

Tunisia also joined in 2018 and signed an economic and technical cooperation agreement with China in 2021. China has assisted in the construction of sports, cultural, academic and medical facilities, as well as a canal, in Tunisia.

Belt & Road participants in the region. Map: Silk Road Briefing

Algeria, which also has a comprehensive strategic partnership with China, joined Belt & Road in 2018. The two countries are negotiating a five-year plan for cooperation in the areas of trade, investment, infrastructure, energy and mining. Mineral products on the list include iron ore, phosphates, zinc, gold and uranium. Some 1,000 Chinese companies are active in Algeria.

After a long delay, Chinese companies have started work on the Port of El Hamdania, west of Algiers. The country’s first deep-water port will compete with Tangier-Med Port in Morocco and, if all goes according to plan, play a major role in African and Mediterranean trade. In exchange for financing, China reportedly will control the port for 25 years.

On January 5, an MOU was signed for the “Implementation Plan on Jointly Building the Belt and Road Initiative between Morocco and China.” This should lead to Chinese financing of infrastructure projects and facilitate cooperation in industry, energy and technological development.

Morocco joined Belt & Road in 2017. A year before that, the Chinese completed a major bridge construction project in the country. Since then, Chinese entities have participated in some 80 projects around the country. Chinese companies have built factories to supply air conditioners and diecast parts for autos, and invested in other manufacturing, fisheries and telecom.

Governments from Syria to Morocco see Belt & Road as a way to stimulate economic growth and provide jobs for growing populations. China’s rivals see it as a strategic threat.

Japan’s Institute of Developing Economies, a part of the Japan External Trade Organization, proclaims on its website that:

The top African telecom markets for Chinese companies are Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and South Africa, comprising 60 percent of China’s total telecom assets on the continent.

Alongside construction, energy and mining, telecommunications is one of the four strategic pillars underpinning China’s economic development and providing the necessary platform from which to challenge theWest for global hegemony.

The Voice of America warns that:

Telecommunications networks funded and built by China are taking over Africa’s cyberspace, a dependence that analysts suggest puts Beijing in a position to exert political influence in some of the continent’s countries.… Huawei is working and partnering with many governments across the continent, and it is those governments that are using quality technology to undermine democratic values.

The Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank at Stanford, warns that:

We should view each of the Chinese port facilities in the Med as a potential Chinese navy base.

The European Think Tanks Groups says:

The perceived need by the EU to rebalance relations with Africa is inexorably linked to the increased competition of interests in the continent, coming especially from China.

The EU is aware of the problem. On February 17 and 18, representatives of the European Union and the African Union agreed to a 150 billion Euro investment plan for Africa. 

According to POLITICO EU, a European politics and policy news organization, the plan “lists a series of ambitious projects to improve digital connectivity, build new transport links and accelerate the shift to lower-carbon energy sources. It is all part of the bloc’s Global Gateway strategy — seen as a geostrategic riposte to China’s own Belt and Road initiative.”

But POLITICO EU wonders if it isn’t “too little, too late? One big open question is where the funding for Europe’s ambitions will come from.”

Meanwhile, on January 24, the Jerusalem Post reported that: “Israel and China celebrated 30 years of diplomatic relations by signing a three-year cooperation plan on Monday, even as the US continues to call for Israel to limit Chinese investments in technologies that could pose a security risk.”

The fifth meeting of the China-Israel Joint Committee on Innovation Cooperation, it was attended by senior representatives from Israel’s foreign, science and technology, energy, economy, agriculture, environmental protection, health, culture and sports ministries.

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid noted that The Chinese, like the Israelis, are not afraid of new ideas. There is a built-in curiosity at the national level in both of our nations. Give us a new and exciting idea, and we will gather around it, speak about it enthusiastically, [and] immediately check where it comes from and how to improve it.”

Israel, like its Arab neighbors, is steering a course between US hostility to and the economic gains to be had from China. The latter are being pursued, not sacrificed, even though the Chinese and Russian navies held their first joint exercise in the Mediterranean as long ago as 2015.

The new balance of power is already here.

Scott Foster, a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC, is an analyst with LightStream Research in Tokyo. Follow him on Twitter: @ScottFo83517667

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