IntelBrief: China’s Belt and Road Initiative
Bottom Line Up Front:
- China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) makes Beijing a key strategic player in the Middle East region.
- The initiative is focused on infrastructure development and economics but will inevitably draw China into the region’s turbulent politics and its conflicts.
- The BRI is providing a key source of investment at a time when even the most economically well-off Middle Eastern countries are suffering from low oil prices and budgetary difficulties.
- The scope and scale of China’s initiative are likely to cause realignments and recalculations by key regional actors.
In 2015, China announced a massive initiative to build transportation and energy infrastructure in Asia, Europe, and Africa. The “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) envisions nearly 1,000 projects that would link 64 countries, including China, in a reconstituted Silk Road. The funding requirement to complete the projects could total as much as $1 trillion, some of which will come from the China Development Bank, China’s “Silk Road Fund,” the China-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and a bank developed in conjunction with Brazil, Russia, India, and South Africa (the so-called BRICS states). Other multilateral banks, such as the Asian Development Bank, will likely be involved as well.
The Middle East is key to the Belt and Road Initiative because of its central geographic location astride both Europe and Africa. And, the BRI is unfolding at a time of key transitions in the region: away from reliance on crude oil and natural gas exports, and toward strategic uncertainty as the United States cedes its leading role to other major players, particularly Russia. As regional countries look to build ties to new outside powers, the BRI will ensure that China’s influence in the region grows, even though China’s officials have generally sought to limit China’s involvement to economic issues. As examples, Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia are coordinating their own domestic economic plans with BRI project proposals and have increased the frequency of high-level visits to China to discuss involvement in the BRI. Iran–the main adversary of the Sunni Arab states–is also a key component of the BRI because of its central regional location.
The Belt and Road Initiative has aggravated divisions among the Gulf states by joining Iran, China, and the Sultanate of Oman in the development of Oman’s major port development at Duqm. The involvement of Iran in the BRI might eventually cause Saudi Arabia and its allies to press China to ‘choose’ between Iran and them. Likewise, the BRI’s largest single project is the $50 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that will link China to Pakistan’s Gwadar Port on the Arabian Sea. That investment is likely to cause India—already a rival of China—to develop closer political ties to the United States and other countries such as Japan and Australia.
It is also likely that China’s intent to avoid being drawn into the region’s conflicts will be thwarted. China has historically sought to secure supplies of the region’s resources to feed its growing economy without becoming embroiled in the region militarily. In 2017, China was compelled to send a naval frigate to Yemen to rescue stranded Chinese workers there, and it is virtually certain that similar interventions will become necessary as more Chinese workers and businessmen enter the region. Beijing will increasingly face the same choices that have frustrated other great powers: to intervene militarily or accept casualties and political humiliation. Increased Chinese military involvement in the region will cause the Trump administration and its successors to have to address China’s regional strategic interests for decades to come.
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