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The New Silk Road: China’s Energy Strategy in the Greater Middle East—The Four Seas Strategy

May 28th 2011

China Topics - China Energy String of Pearls

As Beijing embarks on its “look west” Silk Road development strategy, Syria’s “look east” policy aims to meet China at the Caspian Sea. Since 2009, Syrian president Bashar al-Asad has promoted his Four Seas strategy to transform his country into a trade hub in the regions bordering the Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea, Persian Gulf/Arabian Sea, and the Caspian. Damascus has therefore been aligning with key countries that lie on these shores, namely Turkey, Iran, and Azerbaijan. According to one analyst, Syria’s economic relationship with Ankara lies at the center of this strategy, particularly the two countries’ efforts to connect their oil and gas infrastructure with the region’s expanding pipeline networks. With Turkey emerging as Syria’s most significant investor and trade partner and Iran remaining the guarantor of Syria’s security, the Ankara-Damascus-Tehran triangle has become the nucleus of an approach that aims to include Iraq and the Caucasus in a geographical continuum linking the Four Seas.

A Matryoshka of Regions

Asad peddled the Four Seas idea during a May 2009 conference with Turkish president Abdullah Gul, stating, “Once the economic space between Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran [becomes] integrated, we would link the Mediterranean, Caspian, Black Sea, and the [Persian] Gulf … We aren’t just important in the Middle East … Once we link these four seas, we become the compulsory intersection of the whole world in investment, transport and more.” And during a December 2009 speech before the Syrian parliament, Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem stated, “These strategic ties [between Syria and Turkey] are to be a nucleus that will soon be augmented by Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.” In that scenario, Syria could act as an access point for EU countries seeking to enter markets in the Arab world and Western Asia. Asad discussed this vision with Russian president Dmitry Medvedev in May 2010, and in August 2009 he received Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s blessing for the strategy.

Asad’s vision appears to be based on the EU’s idea of enlargement throughout the Three Seas region (i.e., the Caspian, Black, and Mediterranean Seas). Initially, the union formulated a wider Black Sea region concept to designate the strategic space encompassing Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Russia, Ukraine, and Moldova, but Azerbaijani officials called for a broader concept that encompassed the three seas. In addition, the European Commission currently supports the EU 4 Seas project funded by the EU’s Seventh Framework Programme. Slated for 2009–2011, the project involves four EU countries (Estonia, France, Italy, Spain) and four non-EU countries (Azerbaijan, Iceland, Turkey, Ukraine) studying “subregional multilateralism” in the area surrounding the Baltic, Black, Caspian, and Mediterranean Seas with a view toward EU enlargement. Yet given delays in Turkey’s EU accession and Syria’s Association Agreement with the union, Ankara and Damascus appear to have turned eastward and replaced the Baltic/Northern Europe focus with a shift toward the Persian Gulf/ Arabian Sea, including Iran.

In looking at these various rings of regionalism and their impact on enlargement and eventual globalization, analysts Lembke and Voinescu described the EU as a Russian matryoshka—a set of nesting dolls of decreasing sizes placed one inside another, akin to viewing the EU macro-region as “a sum of different smaller regions.” Turkey and Syria thus appear to be creating their own matryoshka doll outside the EU, with the eventual goal of broader trade integration westward toward the EU and eastward toward Asia.

Damascus as China’s “Ning Jiu Li”

While the West views Syria, Iran, and similar countries as strategic liabilities and pariah states, China views them as strategic assets. Since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Beijing has feared that Washington’s Greater Middle East strategy entails encircling China and creating a norm of toppling undemocratic regimes, which implicitly challenges the Chinese Communist Party’s legitimacy at home. In response, Beijing has increased economic and diplomatic ties with countries in the region that have problematic relations with the United States and the West—such as Syria, Turkey, and Iran—in addition to expanding its overall footprint in the region.

This approach is also rooted in broader historical and conceptual factors. Damascus was a traditional western terminus of the ancient Silk Road, and today the Chinese call Syria “ning jiu li” (cohesive force). Indeed, Damascus is playing a cohesive role as China’s Silk Road strategy converges with Syria’s “look east” approach.102 Damascus is part and parcel of Beijing’s broader Middle East strategy, which one Chinese analyst argued is going through a new activism that signals the end of “the age of Chinese passivity in the Middle East.” Stated in other terms, Chinese foreign policy has been transforming from “responsive diplomacy” (fanying shi waijiao) to “proactive diplomacy” (zhudong shi waijiao).

Beijing’s interest in Damascus stems from more practical factors as well. First, Syria can serve as China’s gateway to European markets in the face of increasing protectionist pressures from larger countries such as France, Germany, and Britain. As such, China has launched a strategy of investing in small countries and territories in the area, including Balkan states poised to join the EU and certain Levant states. These countries are part of the Mediterranean Union, which was initiated by the 1995 Barcelona Process to create a free trade zone between the EU, North Africa, and the Middle East along the Mediterranean coast. Thus, investing in Syria would eventually provide China with a beachhead into the EU market via the Mediterranean Union.

Second, Syria’s proximity to a large trading bloc

encompassing both the EU and some of the fastestgrowing economies in the world (in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia) could enhance its role as a trading hub due to the “neighborhood effect,” whereby factories are placed in locations closer to both suppliers and consumers of products. Thus, the ancient Syrian node on the Silk Road can be reborn as a regional outsourcing distribution center poised to take advantage of this neighborhood effect. Accordingly, Beijing is already using the country as a springboard to the region via China City, an area in the Adra Free Zone industrial park northeast of Damascus. Located on the Damascus-Baghdad highway, China City was “established by entrepreneurs from the wealthy Chinese coastal province of Zhejiang, to sell Chinese goods and as a major trans-shipment hub onto Iraq, Lebanon and the wider region.” It is especially popular among visiting officials from Iraq. Third, Syria is a key node in China’s “Iron Silk Road,” discussed below.

Pipeline Links

To implement his Four Seas strategy, Asad is also taking steps to expand the Arab Gas Pipeline (AGP) in order to move gas from Egypt and Iraq via Syria, connecting with Nabucco pipelines reaching into Turkey and Europe. The AGP currently links Egypt with Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, and a new sixty-two-kilometer link between Syria and Turkey was agreed to in 2009 and is scheduled for completion in 2011. This would provide northern Syria with much-demanded gas supplies. And as gas becomes available from other sources (primarily Iraq), the new lines will ultimately serve as a supply route to Turkey and the EU.

Syria’s long-term aim is to become a transit state for Egypt, Iraq, Iran, and Azerbaijan. In 2009, Asad visited Azerbaijan—the first Syrian president to do so since the Azeris gained independence in 1991—and signed nineteen cooperation agreements and memoranda of understanding on economic, political, and commercial matters. This included a deal for Azerbaijan to begin exporting 1.5 billion cubic meters of gas annually to Syria via Turkey in mid-2011.110 Damascus is also eyeing a role in the Nabucco gas pipeline project, while Russian firm Gazprom considers joining efforts to connect the AGP with Nabucco.111 Moreover, by connecting with Iran—an observer in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)—the AGP can also link with the Turkmenistan-China pipeline and future Kazakhstan-China oil pipelines.

An Iron Silk Road

Syria also wants to build railways from its Mediterranean port city of Tartous to Umm Qasr port in southern Iraq, which could allow it to establish trade routes between Iraq and Europe. Similarly, there have been “discussions about building a natural gas pipeline from Iraq’s Western Akkas fields to Syria, which could be an attractive transit point for gasstarved Arab and European markets.” This bodes well for China’s energy holdings in Iraq, where Beijing is establishing a large presence.

More broadly, China is interested in building a Eurasian railway network connecting Central Asia through the Middle East and onto Europe. Under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Beijing is already negotiating to change Kyrgyzstan’s Soviet 1,520-millimeter tracks to the international standard of 1,435 millimeters in order to connect with Turkish and Iranian rail systems. According to Wang Mengshu, a senior consultant on the Chinese government’s domestic high-speed rail project, the network would eventually carry passengers from London to Beijing, and then to Singapore, India, or Pakistan. Specifically, there will be three main routes: one connecting to Southeast Asia as far south as Singapore, a second from Urumqi in Xinjiang province through Central Asia and onto Germany, and a third from Heilongjiang province in northern China to Eastern and Southeastern Europe via Russia.116 As mentioned in the previous chapter, China is already negotiating with seventeen countries over these lines. It is also in the middle of a domestic expansion project to build nearly 19,000 miles of new railways over the next five years, aimed at connecting major cities with high-speed lines.

Meanwhile, in December 2009, Damascus hosted discussions regarding rail cooperation with Italian State Railway (Italferr), toward the goal of upgrading the Damascus-Aleppo line as part of a network connecting Turkey with Europe and Jordan with Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf. In addition, Turkey and Iran are linking their railways to China via the UNsponsored Trans-Asian Railway, initiated in the 1960s to provide 8,750 miles (14,000 kilometers) of rail links between Singapore and Istanbul, with possible connections to Europe and Africa. In July 2010, Turkish minister of transportation Binali Yildirim proposed strategic railway cooperation with China, stating, “It is high time to turn the Silk Road into [a] Silk Railway.” And on September 12, 2010, Iran and China signed a $2 billion deal to build a rail line from Tehran to Khosravi on the border with Iraq, eventually linking with Syria and Lebanon as part of a Middle Eastern corridor. This line will help Central Asian states access the Iranian port of Chahbahar and give China a vital overland route for transporting goods to Europe.

Previously, in 2008, Turkey laid giant tubes of steel in the waters off Istanbul as part of the ambitious Marmaray Project to link the European side of the city with the Asian side via an Iron Silk Road. “You will be able to go from Europe to Asia without getting off the train,” stated Serap Timur, spokesman for Turkey’s General Directorate of Railways, Harbors, and Airports Construction, which runs the project. Turkey aims to build a two-way rail under the Sea of Marmara at the mouth of the Bosporus, one of the world’s busiest waterways. This route will offer a faster alternative to ferry boats and the two road bridges that already cross the strait, cutting travel time from three hours to one hour and forty-five minutes. The rail “will be able to carry 75,000 passengers an hour between Europe and Asia when the link reaches its full capacity in 2015.” In addition, Turkey is working on a rail link with Georgia and Azerbaijan that “will provide an uninterrupted train connection from China to Turkey” once completed. “This project will go through Kazakhstan to China and through Marmaray to London,” Abdullah Gul, Turkey’s president, said at the groundbreaking ceremony in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi in November 2007. He added that the project would “change history” and revive “the historic Silk Road.” And, indeed, the project would provide a commercially important land connection between China and the Middle East, as did the ancient Silk Road.

Military dimension of rail development. Railways play a key military transport and logistics role in China’s efforts to project power across Eurasia. Along those lines, one Kazakh scholar pointed out the hidden dangers that could result from a shortsighted approach to relations with China, warning that Beijing was facilitating the rapid development of transport corridors in Central Asia and could potentially use those routes to deploy its troops in the region in the event of a serious conflict that threatened Chinese security or strategic interests. Others have expressed similar concerns regarding China’s infrastructure projects with Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq (which tend to be underreported by the major media), especially in light of increased Sino-Turkish military cooperation. For example, on November 15, 2010, Iranian foreign minister Manoucher Motaki announced that Tehran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan had agreed to cooperate with China on building a rail from Xinjiang province through Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, and Iran, with eventual plans to continue westward into Iraq, Syria, and Turkey.

Within China proper, the PLA has already reportedly used the Shanghai-Nanjing express railway to transport troops at speeds up to 350 kilometers per hour, touting the practice as an ideal way to project personnel and light equipment in “military operations other than war.” Another report indicated that the military is actively participating in the design and planning of China’s high-speed railway, with military requirements becoming part of the development process. Indeed, the Transport Department of the PLA’s General Logistics Department, which oversees rail issues, is looking to implement rapid mobilization and deployment of troops via highspeed rails once they are completed across Eurasia. On August 3, 2010, PLA Daily reported that a train loaded with PLAAF combat-readiness materiel had used the Qinghai-Tibet Railway for the first time. Heavy weapons systems such as tanks and infantry fighting vehicles were carried by standard rail, while lightly armored troops deployed to Jinan Military Command were able to use China Railway highspeed trains.131 These deployments were conducted in part to test the PLA’s long-distance mobility. Meanwhile, the ongoing program of building 13,000 kilometers of high-speed rail is scheduled for completion by 2012.

The implications of such growth encompass not only trans-Asian trade integration, but also illicit arms proliferation and rapid PLA deployment to protect China’s growing interests.

In short, the “look west” Silk Road development strategy that China is pursuing via the SCO is poised to meet the Levant’s “look east” policy on a number of levels. Concurrently, a new energy-based Eurasian security architecture appears to be emerging, with Turkey, Syria, and Iran employing a Four Seas strategy to connect with the SCO in the Caspian region.

China Enters “NATO’s Lake”

The previous sections outlined the numerous avenues by which China’s energy diplomacy has brought the Middle Kingdom to the Greater Middle East energy security map. These efforts have been coupled with militarization of Beijing’s energy security policy via naval buildup and deployment of troops to protect and carry out energy and infrastructure projects across the region. From a military perspective, adding a new “pearl” in the Mediterranean in the form of Greece’s Piraeus seaport enables China to control sea access to Istanbul and the Black Sea ports of Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, southern Russia, and Georgia. Beijing is already investing in various infrastructure deals in Balkan seaports, airports, railways, and highways as part of its strategy to control or influence strategic maritime chokepoints, whether via defense cooperation, “arms for oil” agreements, or no-strings aid packages and soft loans. It is also building a blue-water navy, complete with aircraft carriers, to support its string-of-pearls approach.136 In other words, as China makes inroads into the Caspian region, the Persian Gulf, and elsewhere, its enabling vehicle—the SCO—is meeting NATO at the Black Sea, the traditional Cold War demarcation between the alliance and the Warsaw Pact.

The Black Sea is a strategic entry point to the EU, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Middle East. After Bulgaria and Romania joined NATO and the EU, the region became a Euro-Atlantic concern. Given the Western military buildup in the area (via NATO missile defense efforts in Romania, Bulgaria, and possibly Turkey), the increasing Russian naval presence (via the new Black Sea Defense Pact with Turkey and Ukraine),137 and China’s increasing military presence (via infrastructure projects and string-of-pearls tactics), the Black Sea region is becoming the main demarcation line between NATO and the emerging Sino-Russian-led SCO.

Indeed, the 2010 Anatolian Eagle military exercise discussed previously prompted NATO secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen to call for engagement with China. Although the alliance has the NATO-Russia Council as a mechanism to engage Moscow, no such equivalent exists for Beijing. The concluding chapter offers recommendations for addressing this and other potentially troublesome gaps as the West seeks the best means of responding to China’s ramped up regional efforts.

Christina Lin, a former visiting fellow at Washington Institute with expertise in energy security, Chinese military doctrine, relations between China and the Middle East, and other issues, wrote the article (of which this is part 4) for the Institute.


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