A dragon dance in the Negev

Por • 3 feb, 2012 • Sección: Internacionales

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 (some say 7,000). 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 – Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) 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 United States 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-strategies in the Middle East. The geopolitical implications are profound.

Amid the cacophony of the war drums beating in the Persian Gulf and in the Levant, it almost went 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 that went far beyond the calls of mere protocol.

Diplomacy for all seasons
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his country and China make a «successful combination» and he could visualize a «dramatic expansion» of the ties. «I think we’ve barely scratched the surface of Israeli-Chinese relations», he said at a celebration in Tel Aviv last Tuesday.

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 that 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».

Speaking at the function in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu pointedly invited Beijing to work with Israel to «address the challenges of securing Middle East peace». And China’s ambassador to Israel Gao Yanping, who was present, responded:

The further development of China-Israel relations is not only beneficial to both countries and the two peoples, but are also very much conducive to regional stability, world peace and global prosperity.

Facing the ongoing transformation and adjustment in the region [read Arab Spring] and in the world, China-Israel relationship is now at a new historical point. We should continue to work together, grow together and succeed together in the years to come.

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 at 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 said, «China supports the establishment of an independent Palestinian state that enjoys full sovereignty, with East Jerusalem as its capital and based on the 1967 border. China supports Palestine’s membership in the United Nations.» Li went on to roundly condemn the Israeli government’s recent decision giving approval for plans of expansion of new settlements. He said:

China is always against Israel’s establishment of Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory including East Jerusalem. We urge Israel to cease the settlement construction immediately, by prudent in action and work actively in collaboration with the efforts of the international community to promote peace, and create conditions for the resumption of Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiation.

Li seemed unperturbed by the warm sentiments being mutually expressed between the Chinese and the Israeli leaderships the very same day that he spoke.

The parallel portfolio of China’s stunning Middle East diplomacy that was evident during Wen Jiabao’s recent six-day tour of the GCC states is repeating. (China weighs ‘right side of history’ in Gulf, Asia Times Online, January 17, 2012).

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. Conceivably, one day they well might.

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.

Netanyahu said, «I appreciate China’s need to ensure a regular supply of sources of energy in order to continue its impressive growth. I believe it is possible to replace Iranian oil.» He 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 US$45 billion – as compared to $8 billion China-Israel trade.

‘Junction between continents’
Nonetheless, Israel is making an offer out of the massive oil and gas reserves in the Levant Basin province in the eastern Mediterranean. The area, encompassing approximately 32,000 square miles, 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 122 trillion cubic feet (tcf) 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 be easily doubled in the very near future. (China already figures as Israel’s third important trading partner after the US and European Union.)

Israeli Transport Minister Yisrael Katz visited Beijing in September and he has been quoted recently as saying, «The professional capability of the Chinese companies in the construction of railway systems and transportation networks is among the best in the world.»

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.

Swiftly following up on Katz’s discussions in Beijing, China began 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.

Now, the two biggest Israeli gas finds – Leviathan and Tamar – lie off 130 and 80 kilometers from the port city of Haifa. While Leviathan is estimated to hold reserves of 16 tcf of gas, Tamar’s reserves amount to at least 8.4 tcf. (Recently, two more gas fields – Sarah and Mira – were discovered off the port city of Hadera further south of Haifa.)

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».

Indeed, 2011 has been a good year. In May the commander of the Chinese navy Admiral Wu Shengli visited Israel, which was followed in August by the visit by the chief of the People’s Liberation Army general staff department General Chen Bingde. This was the first visit by a Chinese military chief to Israel.

In between, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak visited China in June, which was also the first of its kind. In July, the two countries concluded an economic cooperation agreement. To quote Netanyahu, «The bilateral ties are important to us; therefore, we are committed to expanding them quickly in a variety of fields. To this end, I have issued a sweeping directive to approve any invitation to visit China.»

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.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.


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