Riding the dragon train through the Negev

By MK Bhadrakumar 1 February 2012

Bedouins of Israel’s Negev Desert will soon witness a Chinese-built railway snake its way through the sand to the Mediterranean and Levant Basin oil and gas reserves. The 'Med-Red' plan is symbolic of China's bold Middle East advance on three tracks: Iran, Gulf states and Israel. The geopolitical implications are profound and pose unsolvable riddles for other outside powers. By M K BHADRAKUMAR.

There is no record of dragons in the nomadic life of the Negev desert, which dates back at least 4,000 years. That may be about to change in the Year of the Dragon. The Bedouins of the Negev will soon witness the sight of a Chinese-built railway line snaking its way through the melange of brown, rocky, dusty mountains and the wadis and deep craters, leading north from the resort city of Eilat in the Gulf of Aqaba toward the eastern Mediterranean. 

Having developed strong interests on the two sides of the Persian Gulf divide – with the Gulf Cooperation Council states and Iran – China is taking an awesome leap as a big-time player in the geopolitics of the Middle East by elevating its ties with Israel to a strategic partnership. Paradoxically, just as the US is hoping to nettle the dragon in the South China Sea and ‘contain’ it in the Asia Pacific, it makes a dramatic, outflanking appearance in the citadel of American geo-strategic interest in the Middle East. The geopolitical implications are profound. 

Amid the cacophony of war drums beating in the Persian Gulf and the Levant, it went almost unnoticed that the exchange of greetings between Beijing and Tel Aviv last week marking the 20th anniversary of diplomatic ties between the two countries acquired a sudden verve. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his country and China make a “successful combination” and he could visualise a “dramatic expansion” of ties. “I think we’ve barely scratched the surface of Israeli-Chinese relations”, he said at a celebration in Tel Aviv last week. 

In his message of greetings for the anniversary, President Hu Jintao said China “attaches great importance to advancing Sino-Israeli ties and is ready to make joint efforts with Israel”. In turn, Premier Wen Jiabao noted China and Israel have “huge potential and broad prospects for cooperation” and Beijing is “ready to continue to expand and deepen” the ties and raise them to “a new high”.

These are heady, brave thoughts for a region where angels fear to tread. But the maturity of China-Israel ties today is such that even as Gao was speaking in Tel Aviv, her counterpart in the United Nations in New York, ambassador Li Baodong, was taking note of the “stalemate” in the Middle East peace process and reiterating China’s strong support for a Palestinian state as part of a two-state solution, restoring the “lawful right” of Palestinian people. Li seemed unperturbed by the warm sentiments being mutually expressed between the Chinese and the Israeli leaderships the very same day he spoke. 

The parallel portfolio of China’s stunning Middle East diplomacy evident during Wen Jiabao’s recent six-day tour of the GCC states is repeating. China’s Middle East diplomacy is adroitly advancing three parallel tracks engaging Iran, GCC states and Israel. This may seem improbable against the backdrop of the rise of Iran and the concomitant hostility it arouses in Israel and the GCC states. But Beijing sees no contradiction here, and is striving to make the three tracks even complement each other.

The great beauty is that all three Middle Eastern camps – Iran, the GCC and Israel – equally want the best of relationships with China and are manifestly vying with each other for the dragon’s prime time. This is going to pose an unsolvable riddle for other outside powers aspiring for influence in the region, be it the West or Turkey and Russia. 

Even Netanyahu appreciates China’s multilateral engagement. “I appreciate China’s need to ensure a regular supply of sources of energy to continue its impressive growth,” he said. But still hopes to wean China away from Iranian oil, although Beijing has no intentions to erode its economic relationship with Iran. China-Iran trade is booming at $45-billion – as compared to $8-billion China-Israel trade. 

Nonetheless, Israel is making an offer out of the massive oil and gas reserves in the Levant Basin in the eastern Mediterranean. The area, encompassing approximately 82,880km², covers onshore and offshore territory including the Gaza Strip, Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Cyprus. The US Geological Survey estimated in 2010 that the area holds a mean of 1.7-billion barrels of recoverable oil and a mean of 3.45-trillion cubic metres of recoverable gas. 

The earlier estimation was that these reserves would ensure Israel’s energy security, but more recent assessment in the light of new findings of reserves is that they are far greater than required to meet Israel’s needs. 

Huge infrastructure development is on the cards including liquefaction facilities to be set up on Israel’s coast and transportation routes leading to viable markets for Israel’s energy export. These alluring vistas of cooperation explain Netanyahu’s confidence that Israel’s bilateral trade with China can easily be doubled in the very near future. (China already figures as Israel’s third important trading partner after the US and European Union.) 

The Israeli transport ministry has underscored that Israel would prefer Chinese state-owned companies to undertake the construction of a so-called ‘Med-Red’ railway through the Negev Desert’s Zin Valley connecting Israel’s Mediterranean and Red Sea coast cities of Haifa and Eilat. China has already begun working on a joint proposal with Israel for the Eilat link. Chinese and Israeli companies may jointly execute the project and, conceivably, China may invest in the project. 

The proposed rail-cum-road links would facilitate transfer of liquefied natural gas from Israel’s Mediterranean coast to the Red Sea coast from where they can be shipped across the Indian Ocean to China. Again, the communication link would enhance the scope for China’s exports to central and southern Europe and the Balkans. 

The relationship between China and Israel has been complex. It has had its ups and downs. But the Israeli foreign ministry is justified in claiming in a statement last week that the two countries are presently “enjoying a flowering of relations in recent years”. 

Clearly, Israel and China are poised to enter a profound and highly strategic engagement. Netanyahu told a cabinet meeting in Tel Aviv on Sunday that he intended to develop the proposed rail and road networks joining Eilat to northern Israel as a “junction between continents”. He went on to flag China’s interest in the project. 

Beijing would have already sized up the immense strategic potential of an audacious transportation route across the Negev bypassing Egypt’s congested Suez Canal, which would connect Asia with Europe. It almost seems Washington has lost the plot. DM

This edited article is run courtesy of Asia Times Online.

Read more:

  • Israel plans Red-Med rail link to take Suez overflow on Reuters.

Photo: Bedouin men sit in a village known by Bedouin Arabs as al-Arakib, one of many ramshackle desert communities whose names have never appeared on any official map, November 2, 2011. Picture taken November 2, 2011. REUTERS/Amir Cohen



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