In late May academics from Arab nations and China convened in the Qatari capital Doha for “The Arab World and China,” a conference on the evolving state of Arab-Sino relations.
With increased investments, China may find that its business interests are inextricable from the political brokering that will be necessary to create stability where there is now chaos. Questions were asked. Will China become another exploitative power, seeking only resources and markets? Or will it offer a new diplomatic paradigm built on the principles of pragmatism that produced China’s economic miracle?
China’s spokespersons said their intention was to expand business interests and not become political, but Arab leaders want China to become involved in security and peacekeeping mediation. Participants cited Beijing’s recognition of the Palestinian state and continued support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a positive factor, and they felt China should be more active in pushing for solutions.
Energy also loomed large in the discussions. The Arab world is concerned about the future of fossil fuels in light of China’s massive state investments in renewable energy. Can the Arab world become part of this? China now leads the world in the production of solar panels. The main solar panel ingredient is silicon, made almost entirely from sand. The Arab world may be exporting sand rather than oil in the future. Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are all moving rapidly to develop solar energy, and sunlight intensity on the Arabian Peninsula is among the highest on the planet. Could the Arab world harness its sunshine with massive solar farms derived from Chinese technology and supported by co-investment, becoming a global provider of renewable energy, rather than oil, in the future?
China will be pushing an agenda of clean energy in the region. Nuclear will play a major role, and China intends to lead in this. Few realize that the Washington-Tehran nuclear negotiations were facilitated by Beijing, which is providing the technicians and technology to reduce Iranian plutonium output, without which a deal could not be struck. China’s role as a fresh international mediator in the region, driven by its increasing business and financial interests, is enhanced through its softer, back-door approach.
Topping everyone’s agenda at the conference was China’s “One Belt, One Road” project. For Arab leaders, the idea works: The region was culturally entangled with China along the old Silk Road trading routes for thousands of years. “One Belt, One Road” is China’s policy of revitalizing the Silk Road with investments in roads, high-speed rails and ports, bringing efficiency to manufacturing bases across a broad regional belt. It makes perfect sense to every Arab leader. For ages the Silk Road represented a true globalization of ideas, facilitated by trade and based on respect for others’ diversity, a mutual exchange and learning. That is different from unilateralism, whether coming from the World Bank, the White House or the Pentagon.
Asia was deeply connected with Africa and the Middle East. Colonialism and the postcolonial new economic order were but temporary glitches on the connectivity of the Silk Road. Now China is about to bring it all back.
Even the architecture of Beijing has Arab origins. When Mongol emperor Kublai Khan rebuilt Beijing after conquering China, he invited Arab architects from North Africa to design the city. That is why the hutong alleyways look like a North African medina. Even Beijing’s traditional foods and floral patterns have Arab origins. So to everyone in the room at the Doha conference, a Silk Road consensus involving greater regional connectivity just made so much sense.
The “One Belt, One Road” project aims to revive the infrastructure of the ancient trading routes by adding a new dimension — a fresh financial architecture — with the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the New Development Bank, the Silk Road Fund and South-South Cooperation Fund for Climate Change all offering alternatives to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
The Silk Road consensus calls for respecting diversity and addressing issues of resources. It is about diversified localization, rather than monolithic globalization. It is about security through building communities, rather than bombing them with drones. It is about letting people solve their own problems and facilitating with back-channel mediation, rather than intervening and toppling governments without understanding the foundations upon which they exist.
There is a general view that the U.S. has not provided leadership in the region and that its intervention has backfired on everyone. Could China provide a more neutral role as mediator? This question was at the forefront of the dialogue during the conference in Qatar.
Core to the Silk Road consensus is that such dialogues can serve to avoid conflict and violence — even terrorism. Everyone in the room agreed: Religion is not the problem. When you can respect diversity and empower local networks with being financial stakeholders, there will be a lot less violence and conflict. That is the power of the Silk Road consensus.
Laurence Brahm is an international lawyer, mediator and economist and has served as senior adviser to China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection.
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