Avoiding ‘Great Powers Graveyard’: Future of China’s ‘Belt & Road Initiative’ in MENA

Written by | Monday, August 7th, 2017

Being part of China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative, also known as the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI), is a great opportunity for each partnering country. Whether in the form of investment, lending, or an improvement to their relationship in general, Beijing offers a blend of “services” in what is essentially a bilateral silo. The BRI covers many countries – the total number now exceeding the original 65 in 2015 – and each of these countries looks at this relationship with China in a different way. BRI’s main purpose is really to spread out China’s clout across the world, although this strategy has clearly encountered some obstacles.

Many Chinese analysts actually ponder the benefits of the initiative to the Chinese businesses and skepticism is prevalent due to strict European Union rules and the “cultural distance” – a disguise for the rules. Especially the staffing is an issue for Chinese companies who prefer to employ Chinese workers under their own rules – not being able to do so in the EU countries constitutes a major downside for them. Because China prefers to operate in less rule-based environment, it has planned many projects in less developed countries to avoid red tape and regulations. Interestingly, other ‘fears’ such as refugees, the rise of populism or frequent changes of governments seem to be secondary issues for Beijing.

In contrast, when it comes to the BRI in the Middle East in North Africa, the focus on governance and geopolitics is much greater. For example, Algeria and Morocco are relatively close to EU rules and European influence, while Egypt is a land of its own, burdened with bureaucracy and corruption. Even though there is an interesting focus on taking forward Egypt-China cooperation, some observers instead prioritize the rich Gulf states.

Most Chinese observers see the Middle East as the world’s most complicated region and blame the rise of the Islamic State group and the disintegration of Syria as the main reasons for the current state of dilapidation. They also identify the volatility of relations among the main geopolitical forces in the Middle East – namely Turkey, Iran, Israel, and the Arab states – and the aftermath of the Arab uprisings in 2011 as the main contributors to the chaos. In their view, political instability, sectarian conflicts, terrorism, and the general trend towards a fragmentation of the geopolitical landscape (which they see as a relic of Western imperialism) are the main obstacles to the success of the BRI in the region. Moreover, they also mention “third party risks” – especially the interests of the United States’ in the region.

Most observers would like to see China and the United States cooperate in the region rather than seeing Beijing as a “free rider”. They see the role of China as actively shaping the MENA region because the moves of other players – most notably the US – could damage their own economic interests. China should therefore avoid regional conflicts and focus on economic and trade cooperation with emphasis on energy. Some analysts even suggest that China should partner with other BRI countries to run projects in the region to escape the Middle East’s notorious label – “great powers graveyard”.

‘China and the Mediterranean: Open for Business?’ – Study by a Team of Authors –European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).

(The Study can be downloaded here)

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