China Expands “Silk Road” transport arteries into Eurasia, sends trade caravans to Israeli ports

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South Front

China will speed up the construction of the “Silk Road” transport arteries. This geo-economic project, consisting of 65 countries, not only requires billions of dollars in investment, but also a considerable political balancing act on the part of China. However, its room to manoeuvre is shrinking: Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen lie in ruins. Iran, having signed a nuclear agreement in July 2015 in Vienna to get out of economic isolation, has entered into a harsh confrontation with the US and Israel. And this is only half of the problem. The civil war in Turkey is gaining momentum, blocking the so-called central corridor, which was meant to link China, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asian countries to Europe via Turkey. Henceforth, ‘workarounds’ seem preferable – “the northern route” intends to access the EU through Russia, and “the southern” – through Iran. Here is how the centre-left Turkish daily, Milliyet, describes the Chinese plan: “the plan of the Chinese government is to unite the European and Chinese railways. China plans to build a high-speed railway between China and the UK, which will connect Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Austria, Germany, Belgium and France. The project, with an estimated cost of $150 billion, is scheduled for completion in 2020-2025.”

Despite its global scale, breaking the traditional nation-state model, the plan had every chance of success, if not for the rebellion in Turkish Kurdistan to which President, Recep Erdogan, refuses to grant the right to autonomy. Without even knowing it, the Chinese are confronted with the historical Turkish-Kurdish antagonism, with which the Armenian-Turkish conflict and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict are closely associated. In this sense, the war of Azerbaijan against Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (Republic of Artsakh) is an attempt to take control of the land corridor to Nakhichevan and subsequently attain access to Turkey. The major task for Azerbaijan is the construction of the Baku–Tbilisi–Kars railway line, which should serve as a continuation of the high-speed Edirne–Kars line. Once it became clear that the plan failed, the Baku press began to praise the idea of a “strategic partnership” with Russia, hoping to mitigate the geo-political damage inflicted on Moscow.

Meanwhile, the Chinese are taking the initiative into their own hands. According to the newspaper, China Daily, on 2 June Beijing and Ankara signed an agreement for the establishment of a bilateral e-commerce platform. The project, worth $76 million, will operate in the Chinese, English, Turkish and Uygur languages, uniting under its banner about 100 cities of China and Turkey. The basis of these Sino-Turkish economic manoeuvres is a free trade area agreement between Ankara and Islamabad, the signing of which is scheduled for September 2016. “The free trade agreement will strengthen economic cooperation between Turkey and Pakistan. We are planning to sign an agreement in September and will focus on concrete results,” said the Ambassador of Pakistan in Turkey, Sohail Mahmood, who was quoted by Anadolu Agency.

In fact, we are talking about free trade between Ankara and Beijing, as Chinese goods freely flow into Pakistan over a railway which originates in the north-western province of Xinjiang. But there is an alternative route through Iran. Even in 2014, a China–Kazakhstan–Turkmenistan–Iran railway was commissioned, which is a logical continuation of the Iran–Turkey line. However, these routes are exposed to serious risks: on one side, the Turkish Air Force is carrying out strikes on PKK (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party) positions on the border with Iran, after which the Kurdish militias periodically incapacitate the Iran-Turkey gas pipeline. On the other, the Kazakh city of Aktobe, bordered on the north by the Orenburg region of Russia, appeared to be under threat of destabilization. That is to say, the architects of the terrorist attacks in Kazakhstan are at once trying to put pressure on both Moscow and Beijing.

Returning our attention to Turkey, we note that Tel Aviv has entered into the matter, and is interested in the development of trade with Beijing and Ankara. The Turks are interested in Israeli natural gas, and the Chinese in the achievements of the Jewish state in the area of R&D. Judging by the statement of the Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, as quoted by i24news.tv, “the ice is broken…  The normalisation of relations with Israel is but a question of one or two meetings.” Israel considers Turkey to be an economic “bridge” to East Asia. It is no accident the Sino-Israeli negotiations on establishing a free trade zone started in March, and in May Tel Aviv started to talk about free trade with Seoul.

It’s hard to overestimate the value of the question: from the 24th to the 26th of September, Tel Aviv will host the largest investment summit in history, in which about  1500 Chinese investors and 500 Israeli high-tech companies will participate. Analysts at the US intelligence agency, Stratfor, ascribe the following characteristics to this relationship: “the China-Israel Free Trade Agreement (FTA) is of great economic significance. China is one of the leading industrial markets in the world, and Israel is one of the leaders in R&D. The Chinese want Israeli technology, and the Israelis are attracted to cheap consumer goods from China. Economic relations between the two countries are expanding: in 2015 bilateral trade amounted to $11 billion despite starting from $50 million in 1992. The FTA will accelerate this trend.” However, the Israelis are interested not only in Turkey but also in Azerbaijan, which is of interest in terms of arms exports.

According to the former head of the Israeli secret service “Nativ”, Jacob Kedmi, the new Defense Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, “is not against the further expansion of military cooperation with Azerbaijan, if it is relevant to Israeli defense industry recommendations… And so we have quite a close relationship with Baku to supply the newest high-precision weapons. The fact that we have supplied weapons to Azerbaijan in the amount of more than four and a half billion dollars, says a very great deal. If Azerbaijan wants to deepen this cooperation, then Lieberman and the whole of Israel will only be happy,” Kedmi said in an interview to Baku portal, Haqqin.az. And here we come to the Israeli plans for Iran, or rather the so-called liberal-reformist wing of the Iranian political elite. These are evident (if we accept the core thesis of the former head of “Mossad”, Meir Dogan) in that Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, himself lobbied six international mediators in Vienna for the signing of the nuclear deal with Iran. That is, the interests of Tel Aviv and Beijing coincide on strategic issues, which is not surprising, especially since May this year, when Chinese caravans began to arrive in the ports of Ashdod and Haifa.

Events in the Middle East and the Caucasus are arranged in a logical sequence. Our eyes fall not only on nation states, but also on century-old unions, which are replaced by new, flexible coalitions, however, with a diffuse configuration. Not by chance, in the beginning of June, the German Bundestag adopted a resolution on the recognition of the genocide of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, putting an end to the numerous efforts of Chancellor, Angela Merkel, for the development of dialogue with Ankara. However, Merkel did not particularly resist the pressure from parliamentarians. Furthermore, in Turkey, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, with whom Berlin could agree on refugees and Syria, has left the political scene. Now all the efforts of European diplomacy will be aimed at supporting the Kurdish project, which is inextricably linked with the Armenian question. Germany will try to draw maximum benefit from its chairmanship of the OSCE. From this stems Merkel’s manoeuvres on the Nagorno-Karabakh settlement, the development of dialogue between Yerevan and Brussels, as well as a nervous reaction of official Baku to the decision of the German Parliament.

Nevertheless, Berlin is avoiding drastic steps in relations with Moscow. “Of course, Russia will play a crucial role in resolving the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. Here we will use our contacts to support the Russian government, as well as the American and French, as co-chairs of the Minsk group in resolving the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh,” Merkel said after talks with Azerbaijani President, Ilham Aliyev. The European Union, led by Germany, is reaching out to the Chinese “Silk Road.” So we become witness to the intrusion of Berlin into the Armenian issue, which promises new challenges for the region.