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Why Middle East is of immense importance for belt and road initiative project?

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Mehwesh Kayani

BRI a developmental approach embraced by China is the revival of ancient silk road project in order to promote interconnectivity and interdependence because of the overwhelming changes in the global economy and geopolitical balances in the world. By implementing this project china has an aim to have access to new markets, securing the global supply chains which in return would help in generating continuous Chinese economic growth and, thereby, contribute to social stability at home. China has increased its engagement in the Middle Eastern Region in the past few years, establishing cordial relations with a variety of states, involving those on different sides of regional divides.

Middle east is considered as one of the most critical region for China because lies at the crossroads of three important continents Europe, Africa and Asia along with them the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea, the Caspian Sea, and the Black Sea also converges. All these continents is thought to be connected by Belt and Road Initiative project by China. This region is also situated at the intersections of oil roads which are considered to be of immense importance for China for meeting its increasingly massive energy demands. In short Middle eastern states exhibit the potential source markets for China in terms of resources and a gateway to the other markets in the international world. As a result of which China has started increasing its economic, strategic and diplomatic engagement with this respective region. These investments not just serves China’s interests but also of Middle Eastern states which are dreaming to improve and enhance their economies for supporting the norm of social stability at home. Middle East is also  closest to the four strategic maritime channels of the Bosporus, the Dardanelles, Bab el-Mandeb, and the Hormuz Strait through which most of  Chinese trade passes. This region also plays a key role in the security coordination, economic cooperation and cultural exchanges under the umbrella of BRI project.  Except all this, this critical region accounts for more than 40% of China’s oil imports and is a major provider of the liquefied natural gas.

In order to stimulates its economy china is heavily depending upon the energy imports from this region. More than half of the imports of china’s crude oil originates from middle east. in addition to this about 10-20% of the natural gas imports of china also resides in this region.

Another major reason that enables middle east to be a core part of BRI is the navigation security concern for china. Most of the merchandise goods carrying vessels between Europe and china are passes via several choke points that resides in this region. So it is at the foremost interest of china to secure theses choke points. Apart from this about 1/3rd of the crude oil is also been transported over seas has a journey via the strait of Hormuz ,off the coast of Iran and the United Arab Emirates.

Majority of the Seaborne trade  between China and Europe travels via the strait of  Bab el-Mandeb, off Djibouti and Yemen. This trade route exposes china’s energy imports, and goods to interruptions and disturbances instigated by piracy, regional tensions, and conflict. As a result of which China has the foremost interest in securing these trade routes along with searching for other alternate routes to avoid maritime chokepoints.

China has  improved its relations with the middle eastern states  after the implementation of BRI project , becoming a major import-export partner for countries of the region. Kingdom of Saudi Arabia  today is viewed as one of the most important trading partner in the Middle East and China is the kingdom’s biggest trade partner, with the export of Saudi oil and petrochemicals. It  has been one of the major supplier of majority of china’s crude oil imports, making itself as a country having particular attention in the eyes of china.

The United Arab Emirates lies on the Strait of Hormuz via which the majority of China’s oil imports transit. Therefore it is in the best interest of china that these routes should be secure for ensuring the smooth passage of vessels transporting oil to ChinaUAE  is China’s second preferred investment location in the middle eastern region. The UAE’s strategic location and high-end infrastructure make it appealing as a hub for Chinese exports.

Iran is another  very important state that China has wanted to have cordial relations with an  aim of expanding energy suppliers and reducing energy dependence on Saudi Arabia.  Having cooperation with Iran has also been regarded as important for reducing the risk of disruptions to maritime transport through the Strait of Hormuz. Iran has on occasion, including recently, threatened to close the Strait, which would push up oil prices and disrupt energy supplies. Beijing is, therefore, eager to develop cooperative relations with Teheran. In addition, Beijing is hoping that Iranian oil could one day go over land to China, thereby reducing dependence on seaborne shipping and the risks this entails.

The importance of the Suez Canal for shipping Chinese goods to Europe makes Egypt another key state. Although Egypt’s strategic location means that it is central to the MSRI, because of which China is playing a key role in facilitating some of Egypt’s flagship projects launched under President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi.

China has stepped up the development of transport infrastructure in Israel in an attempt to create a route from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean that avoids the Suez Canal. China is, therefore, building a high-speed railway from Eilat on the Gulf of Aqaba to Ashdod Port on the Mediterranean, as well as investing in the expansion of the port. The hope is that goods could be shipped from these ports to the Port Piraeus in Greece that is operated by the China Ocean Shipping Company.

However a diplomatic tool China has adopted that facilitates this “fence-sitting” is the use of partnership diplomacy, rather than alliances. In an alliance, the stronger side fears getting entangled in the weaker side’s conflicts, while the weaker side fears abandonment. Strategic partnerships remove these fears by reducing the commitments. Both sides agree to cooperate on areas of shared interests while managing areas of potential competition. By working on common interests, they are goal-driven rather than threat-driven, and offer paths toward improved relations regarding other issues. China’s use of strategic partnerships has a hierarchal range of relations, from a “friendly cooperative partnership” at the bottom rung to a “comprehensive strategic partnership” at the top.

Hence, china’s developmental strategy of BRI indicates that this emerging economic power aspires a greater influence in the region which is thought as one of the most crucial region of the world. In the new era, the most important interests of china is maintaining great power relations, to enhance its influence. However relations with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Iran, Egypt, and Israel  are the only ME states with comprehensive strategic partnerships indicates that Beijing perceives them as the most important regional states, and also demonstrates that China’s Middle East policy is more heavily weighted toward the Gulf region.