China Expands into the Levant—and Improves Its Ties to Israel’s Adversaries

April 21, 2021 | Mordechai Chaziza and Efraim Karsh
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In 2013, Beijing formally announced its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an effort to create a network of railroads, ports, and other infrastructure spanning across Asia to Europe, facilitating trade and expanding Chinese influence. This project has included closer economic ties with Iran and the Gulf states, as well as with Turkey and the Levant. While China’s steps to expand the Belt and Road into Israel have become liabilities for the Jewish state, the Communist country is actively gaining a foothold Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey. Mordechai Chaziza and Efraim Karsh write:

China has evolved from simply an oil and gas consumer into a major economic (and to a lesser extent political) player in the Middle East. China is now the Middle East’s largest foreign investor, with its $155 billion worth of investment from 2013 to 2020 accounting for over 40 percent of the total direct foreign investment in the region during this period.

One of the main beneficiaries of this development has been the Levant, which had previously occupied a marginal place in Beijing’s energy-oriented regional involvement. Investment in Israel, to give a prominent example, has nearly doubled from $6 billion in 2005-13 to $10 billion in 2013-19. But Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey, which lack Israel’s economic and technological prowess, have also benefitted from the BRI as their location at a critical segment of the new Eurasian overland and maritime routes enabled them to integrate into China’s global economic surge, not unlike their role in the historic Silk Road.

Keenly aware of its highly limited ability to influence the military course of the war [in Syria], China allowed Russia to take the leading role in securing the survival of the Assad regime while contenting itself with extending political support to Damascus, mainly at the UN Security Council where it helped block anti-Syrian measures. . . . Beijing’s military support for the Assad regime was limited to the sale of reconnaissance drones and the deployment of a special-operations force in late 2017 to fight the reported 5,000 Chinese Uighurs who were fighting in Syria.

[A]nnual Chinese-Turkish trade, which crossed the $1 billion threshold in 2000, had grown tenfold by 2009, and the following year, Beijing and Ankara launched a “strategic cooperative relationship.” . . . No less important, to the exasperation of its NATO partners, in 2013 Turkey chose the Chinese HQ-9 air-defense missile system over the European SAMP/T and the U.S. Patriot.

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