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Will China’s Belt and Road Projects Ease Disputes in the Middle East?

2017-6-15

China may find it difficult to increase its influence in the Middle East because of the diplomatic dispute between Qatar and its neighbors.

China’s Belt and Road trade Initiative, a development plan valued at more than $1 trillion, could affect the Middle East in many ways. It may permit China to influence the region economically.

However, experts say there are doubts that many of the projects may be completed. That means China has less influence in the Middle East than many experts would expect, although it has the world’s second largest economy.

In addition, the Middle East suffers from conflicts within and between its countries. It also is an area of competition between major world powers.

China’s diplomatic policy of “non-interference” limits its ability to develop close ties with Middle Eastern countries.

Recently, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut diplomatic ties with Qatar. Those nations may also cut air and sea traffic because they believe Qatar is supporting terrorism. Qatar denies this.

Qatari planes wait at Hamad International Airport (HIA) in Doha, Qatar. Qatar's foreign minister says Kuwait is trying to mediate a diplomatic crisis in which Arab countries have cut diplomatic ties.
Qatari planes wait at Hamad International Airport (HIA) in Doha, Qatar. Qatar's foreign minister says Kuwait is trying to mediate a diplomatic crisis in which Arab countries have cut diplomatic ties.

The United Arab Emirates has threatened economic restrictions against Qatar while Bahrain has said “all options” are on the table. The U.S. and Kuwait have tried to prevent further intensification of the dispute.

Some say China needs to make changes to its “non-interference” policy to increase its economic power in the region. They want China to be more active there.

Experts say the dispute between Qatar and its Gulf neighbors will cause problems for Belt and Road trade deals in the region. Projects for the initiative stretch across 65 countries in Asia, Africa and Europe.

Li Quofu is a senior research fellow at the China Institute of International Affairs. He said China is not in a rush to mediate conflicts in the Middle East.

He said China believes Gulf nations are willing to solve their differences. He also said the projects China has proposed can help Middle Eastern countries work together. He added, “In this regard, I think China is already playing an active role there.”

Wu Sike is a former special diplomat for China to the Middle East. Wu said China’s cooperation with the region has deepened partly because of the Belt and Road trade initiative.

Kuwait’s proposed Silk City is part of that effort. It will help connect Europe and Asia. Kuwait plans to invest $130 billion on the proposed northern city.

Wu said in May that China is turning to investments supporting trade in manufactured goods in the Middle East. China’s earlier investments focused on energy. Half of China’s imported oil comes from the region.

Wang Tofar, an economics professor from the National Taipei University, said China will place its interests in the region before its political role. He said this is the case, although the Belt and Road Initiative expands its international influence.

Wang told VOA that the initiative has strategic value since it lets China compete with the economic or political power of the U.S. But China’s willingness to help the Middle East depends on whether it thinks economic interest is its first concern.

Kerry Brown is with the Asia Program at Chatham House, a foreign policy research group based in London. He said China will need to be involved in the Middle East because it depends on the region for energy. But he said China’s involvement will be limited.

Brown said in an email to VOA that China has interests in the region, but does not want to be trapped in the problems there. In addition, China’s “non-interference” policy will always interfere with its desire to be more involved.

“So in the end it has to perform a balancing act,” Brown wrote.

Liu Chang is the China economist at the research group Capital Economics. He wrote in an email that he doubts whether China has the economic ability to influence the region. He said the initiative’s plans and reality do not match.

For example, Kuwait’s Silk City may not be completed. And it is unclear how it is being financed.

China’s latest information on commerce shows its foreign direct investment in Kuwait decreased from $162 million in 2014 to $144 million in 2015.

China’s total investment in Kuwait, Oman and Saudi Arabia was $560 million in 2015. Liu said that is not a major investment. He said it is about 5 percent of what China invested in Singapore and 0.4 percent of China’s total foreign investments in 2015.

Liu said there is little evidence that China has been investing more in countries that are part of the Belt and Road Initiative than before it announced the plan.

I’m Mario Ritter. And I'm Olivia Liu.

Olivia Liu adapted this story for Learning English. Mario Ritter was the editor.

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Words in This Story

intensification v. to become stronger or more extreme

option – n. the opportunity to choose among two or more choices

mediate – v. to work with opposing sides to reach an agreement

focusedadj. giving attention and effort to a specific task or goal

strategicadj. of or relating to a general plan that is created to achieve a goal in war, politics, etc., usually over a long period of time

commercen. activities that relate to the buying and selling of goods and services

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