In April 2014, the Israeli President and historic figure Shimon Peres led a three days state visit in China, in order to bolster the growing relationship between the two countries (Shannon Tiezzi, “As China Turns Toward Middle East, China and Israel Seek Closer Ties“, The Diplomat, April 09, 2014). It is interesting to note that the discussions were mainly focused on agriculture, natural resources, environmental protection, education and healthcare. Since then, other talks have been held about defense cooperation (Mercy A. Kuo and Angelica O. Tang, “The U.S.-China-Israel Defense Dynamic: Strategic Common Ground”, The Diplomat, May 11, 2015). Beijing has even proposed its mediation in the Israel-Palestine conflict (Shannon Tiezzi, “China appoints new special envoy to the Middle east”, The Diplomat, September 05, 2014).
The choice of these fields is not “simply” about the way Israeli expertise meets the interest of the Chinese political and economic authorities (Gregory Noddin Poulin, “Sino-Israeli Ties blossoming”, The Diplomat, December 01, 2014). At a much deeper level, these areas are directly related to the basic needs of nations, which must remain sustainable.
This is especially true currently for China, which is devising the worldwide strategy of the “New Silk Road”, in order to succeed in its national project (Valantin, “China and the New Silk Road: the Pakistani strategy”, The Red Team Analysis, May 18, 2015).
That project, also known as “one belt, one road”, is based on the building of a series of land and sea transport infrastructures. Its different parts constitute segments of “one road”, which deploys itself wherever the Chinese authorities need it, thus defining spaces that are part of a common belt.
These spaces, composed of countries, or regions, are thus defined as part of an international “support system” for the Middle Kingdom (“Belt and Road Nations account for 26 per cent of China’s trade”, The Beijing Review, April 29, 2015). In other words, through the growth of its cooperation with China, Israel is joining the “New Silk Road”, and thus involves itself in the Chinese grand strategy (Tyler Durden, “New silk road could change global economics forever, part 1”, Zero Hedge, 05/23/2015).
This grand strategy needs to be understood for what it is, i.e. a coherent set of ways and means, combined and deployed by China, which seeks to guarantee its own capability to remain a growing and viable country during the twenty-first century.
Water and national futures
The new phase of the Israeli-Chinese cooperation materialises itself through multiple projects. Among them, the “Water city” framework allows Israeli and Chinese municipal officials to explore different kind of innovations across the water sector (Niv Elis, “Israel, China launch joint task Force for expanding ties”, The Jerusalem Post, 03/30/2015).
In effect, Israel is extremely advanced in the field of water treatment and management, and is the leading nation in the field of desalination technology ((William Booth, “Israel knows water technology and it wants to cash in”, The Washington Post, October 25, 2013). It is a huge advantage in an arid region, strongly hammered by climate change, and home to countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Syria, which are under a mounting hydric stress, because of their growing population and water needs, and of the regional effects of the war in Syria and Iraq (Valantin, “Collapse war in the Middle East?” The Red Team Analysis, April 7, 2015).
Through water technology, Israel works at being a nation with a future, in the context of the regional situation of hydric stress, climate change and social and political tensions. This makes the “Water city framework” especially interesting for the Chinese, given the rapidly growing hydric needs of Chinese cities.
In effect, China knows a phase of giant urban expansion: according to the OECD, the Chinese urban population counted 200 million people in 1980, and is currently reaching 700 million people, out of a total population of 1, 200 billion. It could count 950 million in 2030. This unprecedented urban growth necessitates the rapid development of efficient and affordable water treatment capabilities (OECD, “Urbanisation and green growth in China”, OECD Regional development working papers, 2013/07).
This is especially true in coastal industrialized cities, such as Shougouang, which is the designed core of the “water city project” and where the possibilities offered by Israeli technology and expertise are explored, before being expanded to other cities (Sharon Udasin, “Chinese officials in Israel to advance Shougouang “water city” project”, The Jerusalem Post, 03/30/2015).
In effect, the rapidly growing Chinese megacities need to be able to attract the kind of technologies developed by Israel. Indeed, Chinese demographic and industrial growth generate the same kind of threat on sustainability, through, for example, air and water pollution (Valantin, “The Arctic, Russia and Chinese energy transition”, The Red Team Analysis, February 2, 2015) and environmental degradation as the combination of aridity, demography and economic growth in the case of Israel (Valantin, “Israel, Natural Gas and Power in the Middle East”, ibid).
The focus on water is particularly telling as far as the strategic importance of the partnerships that China is currently developing with Israel is concerned. Guaranteeing access to water to the immense Chinese urban and rural population, in conditions of growing hydric stress (OECD, ibid), is a key feature of the social and national cohesion the Middle Kingdom must ensure.
In effect, the different ways and means through which China achieves sustainability – i.e. the adequate equilibrium between the organization of society and the production of resources necessary to answer its needs (John King Fairbanks, Merle Goldman, China, a New History, 2006) – is one perspective through which to read and understand China.
The development of the country, and the legitimacy that is granted to the political authorities in this context, rests upon the material and biological viability of the cities. If this were to be endangered, the relationship between the population and the local and national authorities could be violently questioned (Quynh Delaunay, Naissance de la Chine moderne, L’Empire du Milieu dans la globalisation, 2014).
In order to have a successful national future, China seeks (and finds) the technologies and skills it needs to get the capabilities necessaries for its national grand strategy. This is exemplified, in our case, by the meeting of the “Belt” with Israeli national interest(s).
An alliance of national futures?
In other words, what the Israel – China cooperation reveals is that these two countries understand each other through a shared question: how are they going to maintain the social, political, economic, and environmental conditions that have been accessory to the Chinese project on one hand and to the Israeli project on the other hand over the last sixty years?
Israel needs not anymore a “protector” as much as it needs partners.
In effect, Israel has developed itself upon the idea of a sustainable Jewish state in a politically challenging context, combined with the necessity of accessing water and other basic resources necessary for a modern state and society in such an arid environment (Valantin, “Israel, Natural Gas and Power in the Middle East”, The Red Team Analysis, April 27, 2015). What is at stake, here, is the possibility of a successful national future both for Israel and for China, as both experiment deep transformative dynamics.
As we have seen, China is becoming, in the same time, an urban country and a world power, which needs to attract immense amounts of resources (Giovanni Arrighi, Adam Smith in Beijing, 2007).
Israel knows a transformation of its own international strategic status, by becoming, over the last few years, an energy power, thanks to the discovery and exploitation of giant off shore natural gas deposits (Marin Katusa, The Colder War, 2014). This is quickly changing its status in the Middle East, making it an energy exporter, particularly to Egypt and Jordan (Gismatullin, “Egypt importing gas for the first time as export disappear”, Bloomberg Business, December 11, 2012).
This happens when the Israeli historic and strategic “special relationship” with the US is strained. We could wonder if a profound reason for these tensions lies in the new status of Israel, which needs not anymore a “protector” as much as it needs partners. In other words, Israel may well seek a way to support its transformation from “protected power” to “integrated regional power” (Valantin, ibid).
The “New Silk Road” is reaching the Middle East
These new relations between Israel and China are happening in the context of the deployment of the “New Silk Road strategy” in Pakistan and, through this country, in Iran and thus in the Middle East.
From a historical and political point of view, it could be said that the “New Silk Road” is revitalizing the medieval Silk Road (“About the Silk Roads“, UNESCO), which closed during the fifteenth century, and which was linking the Mediterranean world to China through the Middle East and Central Asia.
The intensification of the Israeli relations with China may thus appear deeply linked to the Chinese process of international networking launched by China through the “New Silk Road” strategy.
In effect, as we saw, in April 2015, President Xi Jinping and Pakistani Premier Nawaz Sharif announced a joint deal, worth 46 billion dollars, for the development of transportation and infrastructures, which will link the Pakistani harbour of Gwadar, on the Arabian Sea, with the Chinese Xinjiang (Katharine Houreld, “China and Pakistan launch economic corridor plan worth 46 billion dollars”, Reuters, April 20, 2015).
Part of that deal will be devoted to the construction, financed by China, of the Pakistani part of a new gas pipeline between Iran and Pakistan, which will be completed as soon as US sanctions on Iran are lifted when the deal on Iran nuclear projects is signed, probably during the summer 2015 (“China, Pakistan sign gas pipeline deal key to Iran imports”, Press TV, April 21, 2015).
The pipeline, dubbed the “Peace pipeline”, is already completed on the Iranian side, and goes from Assaluyeh, Iran’s energy hub, to the Pakistani frontier. Besides other projects, as seen, it will help alleviate the Pakistani need for energy, and could be used to transport natural gas to China.
Through these infrastructural projects, China’s “belt and road” is reaching the Middle East through South Asia, while developing common interests with Israel.
In other words, the “New Silk Road” becomes a system to support Pakistan and Iran as partners of China, in order for them to be able to support China. This means that China, through the renewal of its relations with Iran, through “the belt” in Pakistan, is becoming both a major South Asia and Middle East player.
This could have major impacts for Israel, which so becomes an important actor of the “Middle East segment” of the system of partnerships and network that China develops. Furthermore, it will be interesting to see if the relations between China and Israel, and between the Middle East countries and China, are going to contribute to further transform, or not, the relationships between Israel and the Middle Eastern world as well as with the Mediterranean world.
And we must not forget that these evolutions of the political and strategic status of Israel are entwined with its new energy capabilities and its relations with the Chinese “New silk road” system.
This convergence between China and its Middle Eastern partners could become a powerful transformative force, given a likely future mammoth influence of China, in the Middle East. This could happen through the creation of new regional and international systems of shared interest between these countries and the Middle Kingdom, while allowing China to become a Middle East player.
What now remains to be seen is the way the New Silk Road could, or not, favour the emergence of a very unexpected system of cooperation in the Middle East, and if this system could affect the balance of power and the “war and peace process” in the region, especially in the case of the Islamic State.
To be (soon) continued.
Jean-Michel Valantin, (PhD Paris) leads the Environment and Security Department of The Red (Team) Analysis Society. He is specialised in strategic studies and defense sociology with a focus on environmental geostrategy.
Featured image: Drops of water falling on the facility description of gray water by Shai Kessel via the PikiWiki – Israel free image collection project – שי קסל [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons.