CHINA’S PRESIDENT Xi Jinping and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud attend an event at China’s National Museum in Beijing earlier this month..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Just a few days after Saudi Arabia’s King Salman visited China, where he inked deals worth a staggering $65 billion, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu landed in Beijing on a trip timed to mark 25 years of diplomatic ties between the two countries. Was the proximity of Netanyahu’s and the Saudi monarch’s visit pure coincidence or was it by design, and does China’s growing interest in the Middle East offer strategic opportunities to Israel, in particular in strengthening its covert ties with Sunni states? To try and answer those questions, I spoke with Israel’s former ambassador to Beijing, Matan Vilna’i, who recently returned home after five years in China, and to Jun Hua Zhang, a professor of political science and director of the Center for Israel Studies at Shanghai’s Jiao Tong University.
Jun sees the timing of the visits as purposely planned from the Chinese perspective.
“Things are arranged in a way that China wants to show its profile in the Middle East,” he says. “I don’t think we can call it pure coincidence. I would say these two meetings are purposely designed and China wants to show that it can do something for the Middle East in a different way.”
That different way is trade and the focus of China’s foreign economic diplomacy is the project known as One Belt, One Road (OBOR), Beijing’s ambitious drive to renew the ancient trading routes of the Silk Road across land to Europe [the belt] and the maritime route [the road].
“The Chinese are very involved in renewing the Silk Road and the maritime route passes through the Middle East and that is a major part of their foreign policy. We have to think about how we can take advantage of that,” says Vilna’i.
Israel has the potential to be a stop on the maritime route by connecting the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean via a rail line from Eilat to Ashdod and its telecommunications and hi-tech knowledge are in demand for the huge infrastructure works the project entails.
Jun says the OBOR project has huge geopolitical and regional significance and enormous potential for Israel.
He notes what he calls a “subtle change” in China’s thinking on its policy on the Middle East leg of OBOR, based in part on dissatisfaction with Iran’s input on the project since the lifting of sanctions following the Iran nuclear deal.
“China has great hopes from two sides; one is Saudi Arabia and the other is Israel,” says Jun. “China hopes both could become flagship projects for OBOR because in the Middle East there is still no visible progress in terms of OBOR. If you look at central and southern Asia – everywhere, in Pakistan, in the republics of the former Soviet Union – there are so many projects ongoing, so many investments. China is making progress in those regions, but now China also wants to do something in the Middle East.”
And with Saudi Arabia and Israel potentially cooperating with China on the project, albeit not directly and with Beijing at the apex of the triangle, does that create new opportunities for Jerusalem and could China be a conduit for deepening of the covert ties between Jerusalem and Riyadh? “I believe that could happen,” says Vilna’i.
“They are friends of both sides – look at how the Chinese today are mediating between the Saudis and Iran, their two biggest suppliers of oil.”
In a paper for the INSS ahead of Netanyahu’s visit, Vilna’i wrote: China’s policy in the Middle East has a proven ability to conduct fruitful ties with a range of players in the region, and even maintain parallel relations with bitter enemies (Iran and Saudi Arabia; Israel). Based on this potential, it would be appropriate to promote joint initiatives for China, Israel, and the pragmatic states, so as to maximize existing and developing potential and highlight China as a significant player in advancing regional stability by means of an economic strategy that incurs limited risks.”
China traditionally has been a “wary dragon” in the Middle East, refraining from diplomatic involvement, but that is changing with its OBOR policy and America’s diminishing presence in the region.
While China is not about to fill the void or to jump into the Middle East peace process, its deepening engagement in the region provides Israel with myriad opportunities.