Can China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) help resolve some of the conflicts in the Middle East? Could it provide the means for building peace in the region? Such questions may become more pressing in the coming years. Over the past decade the Middle East has become less stable, the result of relative American military and economic decline alongside weak and collapsing regional states which were more exposed to insurgent and radical groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS.
Despite the hopes associated with the BRI, the short answer to the questions posed above is probably no. Certainly the BRI with its focus on the (re)construction of infrastructure from roads to ports to power stations may seem appealing for those countries looking to rebuild after years of devastation and war. Indeed, China’s leaders have stressed the mutual benefits for themselves and partner countries who choose to join. No surprise then that by the beginning of this year, every country in the Middle East and North Africa had expressed interest in becoming a part of the BRI.
The BRI’s appeal is also matched by the broadly positive view that regional governments and societies have towards China. Since 2005 the Pew Research Center has polled people around the world on whether they have a favourable opinion of China or not. Until 2015 the global and regional median was broadly in line, with around half responding in the affirmative. Since then regional approval towards China has grown, rising to 60% compared to a fall in the rest of the world to around 40%.
But despite the optimistic view of China and the BRI in the Middle East, this won’t be enough to address the substantial challenges facing the region. The reasons for this are several.
One is that some countries will benefit more from the BRI than others. Most likely it will be those where Chinese interests are already well established, like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Iran, Egypt, Algeria and Iraq. These six countries have received the most Chinese investments in the region, with more than $150 billion flowing to them since 2005, according to the China Global Investment Tracker.
By contrast, China does not have the same kind of relationship with countries like Syria, Yemen or Libya. Since 2005 Chinese investments in these three countries have been less than $10 billion, highlighting the historically low levels of economic activity.
Even so, this has not stopped the Syrian regime from portraying its relationship with China as a close one and highlighting commercial opportunities and government contracts for which they would welcome Chinese bids.
Yet even if Chinese firms were willing and able to take up such business opportunities, there would not be enough to cover the ravages of war in the Middle East. In July 2018 China’s President Xi Jinping announced that $23 billion in credit, finance and loans would be released for all BRI projects in the region. But that is dwarfed by the estimated cost for rebuilding Syria, which the World Bank estimated would cost at least $226 billion in 2017.
Chinese limitations are not only financial, but ideological as well. China’s leaders have portrayed their country’s rapid economic growth as a form of “peaceful development. “ However, it is not clear how easily this model can be transposed to other situations. Chinese officials point out their country’s particular historical circumstances, including a strong state and stable and unchallenged governing institutions that drove the process of development.
That approach is far from the case in the most conflict-affected parts of the Middle East today. In addition, it says little about those earlier attempts to follow a version of that model, as happened in Syria during the 2000s, as well as in Libya and Yemen to a lesser extent. In Syria especially, the regime undertook partial liberalisation and deregulation of the economy while maintaining strong political control. But as the events of 2011 and after revealed, they were insufficient to satisfy society or secure the authority and legitimacy of the state.
China’s peaceful development model also overlooks other important aspects of postwar reconstruction. Although it has yet to set out an official model of peacebuilding, the primacy it grants to the state and the sovereignty of its partners means that it avoids taking a viewpoint on the different social groups and the demands that exist within them.
While that stance is welcomed by authoritarian state elites, China’s silence on these matters constitutes a risk since a regional partner might use Chinese financial and other resources in an unbalanced or biased way, privileging some groups over others and so maintaining or exacerbating existing grievances.
Already there has been criticism made against the Syrian regime in its planning and actions for postwar reconstruction. In recent years, it has introduced development plans and laws to restrict property rights, especially of refugees, as well as favouring businesspeople with links to the government.
Were China to become more active in Syria’s reconstruction that could mean that any BRI-related projects might have precisely the effect that its advocates do not want it to have: instead of generating improvements for all, they could instead become a source of conflict.
Should the BRI cause conflict, the wider repercussions would be significant. Not only would it prevent the prospects for reconstruction and reconciliation in conflict-affected states in the region, it could also damage public perception of China as well as its wider status as a global power. Perhaps for this reason, China’s efforts at portraying itself as a peacemaker and the BRI as a means to achieve this have so far been relatively low key.