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Initiated in 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s New Silk Road project aims to secure China’s supplies and, more broadly, to restructure global governance. In this context, Lebanon would once again become a key stop in the Levant, but this time oriented towards the East.

A “shared future for mankind.” These words, first spoken by Chinese President Xi Jinping in his report to the 18th Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2012, were meant to illustrate China’s vision regarding the “New Silk Roads” initiative launched a year later, in 2013, and then renamed the “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) in 2017.

This expression has since been reused by the Chinese leader on many occasions, particularly during his visits to countries involved in the BRI, such as on May 17th in Bahrain. He stated in Beijing in October 2023, “China will strengthen the cooperation with Belt and Road partners, bringing it to a new stage of higher-level development, and work tirelessly to achieve modernization in all countries of the world.”

Interviewed by This is Beirut, Nadine Loufti, a China specialist in the Middle East at the Free University of Brussels, states, “The BRI consists of establishing a vast network of infrastructure and transport.”

This gigantic project thus involves “everything related to roads, railways, ports, airports, as well as a network of energy infrastructures, such as oil pipelines, gas pipelines, and so forth, and a communication network considered the third branch of the BRI,” she says.

Among the main routes of the BRI, the maritime one is most likely to be connected to the Levant. “When we talk about the BRI in the Middle East, we mean the maritime routes that pass through the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, the Strait of Hormuz, and the Suez Canal,” Loufti explains.

The primary goal of this project is economic, as previously discussed. However, behind the objectives of developing commercial ties, it also hides a geopolitical aim.

BRI and the ‘Asia Pivot’

The BRI also serves as Beijing’s response to another strategy developed within the walls of the White House. This is the “Asia Pivot” strategy of former United States President Barack Obama, also known as the “Rebalance to Asia.”

In essence, it was a strategic reorientation of US foreign policy. Announced in 2011, it aimed to strengthen American engagement in the Asia-Pacific to counter China’s growing influence in the region. The overall goal was to maintain stability and security in the Asia-Pacific while supporting the economic and strategic interests of the US.

For Nadine Loufti, “from a geopolitical point of view, the BRI is meant to respond to the American pivot strategy, to reduce its influence, and attempt to avoid containment.” In other words, Beijing “is trying to establish a new world order, parallel or alternative to Western orders,” she maintains.

“The Chinese will overcome these obstacles by turning towards Eurasia, Africa, and thus westward, via the Silk Roads,” she adds. In short, while Washington seeks to strengthen its control of the Pacific Ocean, Beijing primarily circumvents it by land.

As a reminder, the first land corridor of the BRI passes through northern Russia to Eastern Europe, the second goes through Central Asia then Iran and Turkey. A third one crosses Pakistan to the port of Gwadar before joining the maritime routes along South Asia. One of these routes descends to South Africa, while the other ascends to the Mediterranean.

BRI diplomacy

To secure these corridors, China is deploying increasingly significant means. This translates first into an increased military presence. Besides Gwadar in Pakistan, which serves as a relay point for Beijing’s fleet, the People’s Liberation Army (the name of the Chinese army) has a base in a highly strategic location: Djibouti.

Situated at the Bab al-Mandeb Strait (Gate of Tears) on the African side, this small country usually witnesses between 10 to 15 percent of global maritime traffic pass by its coasts, linking the Indian Ocean to the Suez Canal. Repeated Houthi attacks on ships in the Red Sea have since disrupted this commercial artery, without stripping the Chinese base in Djibouti of its strategic importance. The presence of its army thus allows Beijing to counter threats to its supply routes in the region.

But primarily, China secures the BRI corridors through diplomacy. “One of Beijing’s major achievements, entirely in line with its BRI ambitions, was the negotiated rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia in March 2023,” Loufti points out. “The Saudi-Iranian reconciliation could serve to strengthen the security of the BRI, including transport routes and critical infrastructures, particularly in the Red Sea,” she adds.

More generally, Beijing is strengthening its relations with the main actors in the region. The reason behind such behavior is that its energy dependence makes “energy security a major priority for Beijing, thus reinforcing the strategic importance of the Middle East within the BRI framework,” continues the researcher. Besides KSA and Iran, Beijing has also forged strategic partnerships with the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, Loufti notes. This being another opportunity to counter the influence exerted by Washington, which has maintained deep ties with all these countries – except Iran.

What about Lebanon?

As for the Land of the Cedars, it “occupies a strategic place in the Levant region and has direct access to the Mediterranean Sea” within the framework of the BRI, Loufti asserts.

However, it remains on the sidelines. “The distribution of benefits among Middle Eastern countries is not equal. And Lebanon is sometimes unfortunately neglected due to its complicated political situation,” the researcher comments.

A situation that some local political actors, like Hezbollah, wish to change. The pro-Iranian party’s Secretary-General, Hassan Nasrallah, argued in 2021 that securing Chinese funding would be easier and faster than an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan. Behind this apparent enthusiasm lies, of course, the desire to distance Lebanon from its Western allies.

But is such a prospect viable? “Some countries, particularly African ones, find themselves in difficulty with China and fall into the ‘debt trap.’ For example, Sri Lanka was unable to repay its debts, leading to the assignment of a Sri Lankan port to China,” comments Loufti. “China has become one of Lebanon’s main partners, I would even say the main trading partner [outside the European Union]. But one must always beware of this debt trap,” she continues.

Considering the Land of the Cedars’ current economic situation, strengthening a partnership between China and Lebanon could thus raise more questions than opportunities… resulting in an outcome that would not necessarily be a “win-win.”

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