Understanding the BRI in Africa and the Middle East
13 Feb 2018|

President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is driven by two main considerations. First, Xi recognises that the Chinese Communist Party’s survival is dependent on China’s ability to continue to serve as the world’s factory while the country transitions into a developed economy. In 2015, China experienced more than 130,000 protests, or almost 400 each day, relating to dissatisfaction with living standards and wages. Xi has made it clear that he will protect the party from domestic and foreign enemies.

Second, Xi believes that China has crossed into a ‘new era’ and he is determined that China will be recognised as a great power. However, as a pragmatist, he appreciates that China can’t act as Putin’s Russia does, exploiting humanitarian crises to serve its national interests or committing flagrant violations of international law. Xi prefers the post–World War II American method of using economic power to cajole and entice countries into China’s sphere of influence.

The key to understanding the breadth of the BRI is to see how it connects China and the world and how it allows China to project non-military power to shape public opinion, which it does through its economic, educational and cultural programs (China, for example, has established 135 Confucius Institutes in the 51 nations that are part of the BRI).

Under the BRI, China has made massive inroads into spaces where it previously had only limited influence. In my ASPI Strategic Insights paper, I look beyond the Asia–Pacific region and beyond the BRI to highlight how China is expanding its influence in Africa and the Middle East.

In Zimbabwe, Beijing has exploited the Robert Mugabe – Emmerson Mnangagwa crisis to support Mnangagwa’s rise. This is likely to give it a major role in Mnangagwa’s ambitious economic program. A strong foothold in Zimbabwe gives China access to vast natural resources and, due to Zimbabwe’s strategic location, allows it to further project power across southern Africa.

After decades of having no official ties with Israel, China has aggressively pursued relations with the start-up nation (in 2016, Chinese investments in Israel were over US$16 billion). In 2017, the two countries announced the formation of a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’, and they’re now negotiating a free trade agreement. For China, developing an Israel–China corridor through the construction of a ‘Red–Med’ railway, which includes developing the port of Eilat to accommodate more cargo ships, makes strategic sense, as it provides an alternative route to the congested Suez Canal. The railway would connect Eilat on the Red Sea to the port of Ashdod on the Mediterranean, which can ship to Piraeus in Greece, and into the rest of the EU. The China Ocean Shipping Company has operated Piraeus since August 2016.

Egypt has always been important for China because of the Suez Canal, the influence that Egypt wields in the Arab world, Egypt’s size (it has almost 100 million people), and its status as the second largest non-NATO recipient of US military aid after Israel.

Xi visited Egypt in 2016, precipitating the signing of 21 memorandums of understanding on economic cooperation, electricity, energy, trade, civil aviation, science, technology, communications and aerospace. China’s commitment to invest in Egypt, coupled with its lack of criticism of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s policies, has endeared Beijing to Cairo: the Egyptian president has visited Beijing, but not Washington DC.

China is focused on Iran, too. Iran’s geostrategic location is crucial to the BRI project: it’s on the Persian Gulf, so it can affect traffic along the BRI’s maritime route (the Road), and its position makes it important to the BRI’s land route (the Belt), as well as to China’s investment in Pakistan through the China–Pakistan Corridor, valued at over US$60 billion. China now wants Afghanistan to be included in the corridor.

China has seized on Iran’s commitment to spend around US$185 billion by 2020 to revamp the country’s antiquated energy sector, and Xi has vowed to boost bilateral trade to US$600 billion by the late 2020s, beginning with the construction of high-speed railway lines so that a train leaving Shanghai would be able to reach Tehran, 3,200 kilometres away, in 12 days (a similar trip by sea takes 30 days).

China and Iran have also improved their security relationship. China is a major arms supplier, selling the Iranians anti-ship cruise missiles, long-range J-10 advanced fighter jets and other military equipment. The two also conducted joint military exercises that have brought Chinese warships into the Persian Gulf (in 2012, the Iranian navy came to the aid of a Chinese cargo ship that was attacked by Somali pirates). These activities enhance relations and ensure that, if Iran were to close the Strait of Hormuz, Beijing could use its ties with Tehran to cushion the impact that such a move would have on oil prices.

There’s much about the BRI project that’s unknown, specifically on the financing side. For example, there’s an assumption that China could never really recoup the US$1 trillion-plus that it’s investing in the initiative. However, for Xi Jinping, the BRI is less about a return on the investment and more about making sure that the Chinese people are economically satisfied, allowing the Communist Party to continue to govern. And that requires unfettered access to new markets, which is why Xi has staked China’s future on this ambitious program.