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#SWMEThemes: China’s Space Silk Road and the Middle East, Part One

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman Bin Jassim Al-Thani, and Secretary General of the League of Arab States Nabil El Araby address a press conference after the 7th Ministerial Meeting of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum held in Doha, Qatar, on 16 May 2016. Photograph courtesy of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Centuries ago, China and Europe were connected by a number of trade routes across the Eurasian landmass and the Indian Ocean that were later known as the Silk Road.

These Silk Roads not only connected the ancient Chinese Middle Kingdom and Medieval Europe, but also connected regions of Eurasia that are today known as Central Asia, South Asia, Iran, and the rest of the Middle East.

Untold riches were to be found in cities such as Constantinople, Baghdad, Samarkand, and Xi’an, among others, thanks to the merchants and adventurers who traversed these Silk Roads, but in the 15th Century these trade routes became dormant as China withdrew into itself, and all semblance of order collapsed across Eurasia.

It was the end of an era that pioneered globalization, brought cultures and religions together (indeed, the Silk Roads helped the spread of Islam in the 7th Century onwards), and facilitated trade across the known world.

Fast forward nearly 500 years and these Silk Roads are being revived thanks to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), also known as the New Silk Road and the One Belt One Road (OBOR), announced by President Xi Jinping during a visit to Kazakhstan in 2013.

The BRI is a U.S.$1.3 trillion infrastructure development initiative that encompasses roads, railways, fiber-optic cabling, and pipelines across the Eurasian land mass, known as the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB), and ports, canals, and submarine cabling from China to Europe via the South China Sea, Southeast Asia, Indian Ocean, Arabian Gulf, the Red Sea, and the Mediterranean Sea via the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (MSR). Added to these programmes are an Air Silk Road that involves the development of new air routes and air travel hubs, and a Digital or Cyber Silk Road that will provide digital connectivity throughout Eurasia and beyond.

Critical to the BRI, and its myriad offshoots, is the Belt and Road Initiative Space Information Corridor, also know as the Space Silk Road, recently promulgated in the 2016 Chinese Space White Paper.

This Space Silk Road seeks to provide not only connectivity across the BRI region through satellite communications – to include broadcasting and broadband Internet – but also positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) services through China’s Beidou satellite navigation system, and Earth observation, environmental monitoring, and even space science and space exploration cooperation among states participating in the BRI and the Space Silk Road.

Many countries in the Middle East have expressed a strong interest in participating in the BRI, and also the Space Silk Road, and the region plays a pivotal role in both the land-based SREB and the sea-based MSR since both routes must pass through, or close by, the Middle East. For example, a number of SREB routes will likely pass through Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey, subject, of course, to a sustainable settlement to the tragic conflicts and political instability that plague many of these countries. All MSR routes will eventually pass through the Red Sea, via the Arabian Gulf and the Indian Ocean, through the Suez Canal, and into the Mediterranean Sea (and vice versa), providing critical roles to Oman, Yemen, Egypt, Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, and Bahrain. Again, the success of the MSR, and the success of Middle Eastern BRI participation, will greatly depend upon the resolution of the war in Yemen and the prevention of piracy emanating from the Horn of Africa, as well as the political stability of Egypt.

Apart from regional security implications, the BRI, and by extension the Space Silk Road, is poised to provide a significant economic stimulus to its corporate and state participants, taking advantage of the space needs that will arise from the Internet of Things (IoT) across the BRI, increased telecommunications demands, satellite navigation, and Earth observation for BRI infrastructure security, operations and maintenance, and resource and environmental management.

With a number of emerging space powers throughout the Middle East and North Africa, from Morocco to Iran, and from Turkey to Oman, the region’s space agencies and satellite companies are preparing their plans and organisations to participate in the Space Silk Road.

Yet not all is plain sailing for the BRI.

Not all great powers – such as India and the United States – are on board with the initiative and are suspicious of Chinese intentions. Furthermore, the Chinese government has been short on details about the BRI, and there are concerns among foreign investors of a lack of transparency in Chinese companies involved in the BRI, as well as concerns that the BRI is nothing more than a ploy to provide a mercantilist outlet for Chinese steel and construction companies.

Others are more optimistic, to a point, stating that the BRI is a much needed boost to Asia’s tremendous infrastructure needs, that in turn should provide an economic boost to some of the most underdeveloped areas of the world.

These and other perspectives on the Space Silk Road will be published in several parts of this latest #SWMEThemes, the first part of which is being published over the course of this coming week.

Apart from today’s Op’Ed by Benjamin Habib and Viktor Faulknor of Australia’s LaTrobe University, providing an overview of the BRI, we shall be publishing Op’Eds by the following:

On Monday, August 21, 2017, Dr. Malcolm Davis of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), will provide an overview of the Space Silk Road for SpaceWatch Middle East readers;

On Tuesday August 22, 2017, Dr. Bleddyn E. Bowen of King’s College London, makes the case that space powers in the Middle East have a cornucopia of choice when it comes to cooperating and collaborating with the great space powers of the world – United States, Europe, Russia, India, Japan, as well as China’s Space Silk Road. Dr. Bowen argues that the multipolar space order is a boon for Middle East space powers, and that dependency on any one great space power should be avoided.

On Wednesday, August 23, 2017, Professor Kazuto Suzuki of Hokkaido University, Japan, argues that Japan’s recent space policies have been developed in response to China’s Space Silk Road, and that Japan has been very proactive in the Middle East as a commercial provider of space systems and space services as a result.

On Thursday, August 24, 2017, Dr. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan of the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) in New Delhi, India, offers an Indian perspective on China’s Space Silk Road, and points out that despite the rhetoric from Beijing, the Space Silk Road should be viewed in the context of the current geopolitical competition across Asia.

Finally, on Friday, August 25, 2017, Dr. Eytan Tepper of the Institute of Air and Space Law at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, points out that while there is a tremendous amount of mutual opportunity between Israel and China on the Space Silk Road, Tel Aviv needs to keep in mind U.S. security interests when considering its role in China’s Space Silk Road.

These essays are just the first part of an extended #SWMEThemes on China’s Space Silk Road and the Middle East. In the coming weeks readers can expect essays and interviews with regional and international experts, policy makers, and industry executives on the opportunities and challenges for the region in China’s Space Silk Road.

With thanks,

The Publisher and Editors at SpaceWatch Middle East

Original published at: https://spacewatch.global/2017/08/swmethemes-chinas-space-silk-road-middle-east-part-one/

 

 

 

 

 

 

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