While there is much attention on reaching a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, there should also be focus on a sustainable post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction plan for Gaza.
Rather than continuing with Israeli policy of “mowing the grass” frequently to degrade Hamas’s military capabilities, given China’s increasing presence in the Levant, perhaps Beijing can be an effective geographic partner for Israel, Egypt and PA to help re-landscape Gaza.
It is increasingly a stakeholder in regional economy and stability, and as such will invest in genuine efforts to ensure long-term quiet.
In the Arab Spring aftermath and post-$20 billion Libyan losses, China has become more proactive in safeguarding its investments. With three UNSC vetoes on Syria to prevent another “Libya” and dispatching its warships to conduct naval war games with Russia off the Syrian coast in January, China is changing its “non-interference” posture.
China and regional actors also share similar threats of Islamic extremism. Beijing fears new Islamist regimes in the Arab states will be more supportive of Uyghur separatists in Xinjiang, and deny Beijing’s access to their energy supplies. It especially fears Chinese jihadists in Syria garnering support from international terror groups, and returning to attack Chinese territory as well as spawn homegrown radicalization of China’s 20 million Sunni Muslims.
It is a little known fact but China’s internal security budget for the Ministry of State Security is greater than its defense budget since the 2009 Xinjiang uprising. Thus, Beijing will increasingly exercise its diplomatic and military power to combat terror and protect its core interests.
Beijing is also increasing its military presence post-Libyan losses by investing in various Mediterranean seaports that can accommodate larger cargo ships and naval vessels. Concerned about security of energy supplies, China has also sent troops under UN banner to maintain regional stability.
Already there are 1,000 Chinese UNIFIL troops in Lebanon and in Cyprus UNFICYP is under the command of a Chinese general. China deployed 500 combat troops to UN mission in Mali to help stabilize neighboring OPEC member Algeria, and discussed possibly offering troops to the West Bank under a UN banner before the recent violent outbreak.
China is also interested in the new Cypriot and Israeli gas sources, offering to build an LNG terminal for Cyprus while China’s energy giant CNOOC is looking for partnership in developing the Leviathan gas field. With increasing investments in the Eastern Mediterranean, China would be a vested stakeholder in Gaza stability. Given its experience in large infrastructure projects from Central Asia, Middle East to Africa, China is also a natural partner for reconstruction.
On the reconstruction side, Beijing has a special talent for establishing Special Economic Zones (SEZ) in Central Asia, Africa and elsewhere. Having already cut its teeth in conflict zones and tough terrains such as Sudan and Zimbabwe, they are best suited for leading SEZs in the Middle East, especially in the West Bank and Gaza.
In February, Egypt and PA were working on plans to build two airports in the West Bank, as well as seaport and railway line between Gaza Strip and Cairo. China would be well placed to participate in these infrastructure projects once there is a ceasefire agreement. In fact China is already building and expanding seaports around the Mediterranean littoral—Greece’s Port Piraeus, Lebanon’s Port Tripoli, Israel’s Ashdod and Haifa, Egypt’s Port Said, and can add Gaza port to the list.
And if Hamas is not completely demilitarized, China can also play a role in an alternative construction project. Back in 2011, Transport Minister Yaakov Katz pioneered a plan to build a man-made island off the Gaza strip, controlled by an international force, to develop Gazan economy and bypass Hamas. This ensures Israel controls maritime security while supporting Gaza’s development.
Either on the Gaza strip or off on an island, under the auspices of a Chinese and international consortium for Gaza reconstruction, guarantees that construction would not be diverted to bunkers and terror tunnels would have more credibility and Israelis, via Beijing, can continue to be involved in planning and logistics.
On the stabilization side, China’s Xinjiang Production and Construction Corp (XPCC), or bingbtuan, conducts large infrastructure projects. XPCC has a unique dual-use posture in providing both construction and security in hostile terrains, well suited for Gaza. It is a paramilitary group that was established in 1954 to stabilize and develop frontier regions, and former Chinese president Hu Jintao praised the corps as a “mighty construction army” able to turn desert areas into farmland and keeping their guns to quell ethnic tensions.
With more than six decades of experience in quelling low-level insurgency in restive Xinjiang, XPCC has flourished with its business spanning from agriculture, mining, trade, distribution, real estate, tourism, construction and even insurance. Xinjiang economic growth averaged 10% in recent years despite occasional outbursts of violence, and XPCC has been expanding its overseas business. In September 2013, even Ukraine signed a deal to lease XPCC five percent of its land for agriculture.
Just as Nehemiah led his people to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem by posturing themselves with a trowel on one hand and a sword in the other, XPCC seems adept at this posture by building with one hand and holding a gun in the other to protect its construction in tough terrain. As such, perhaps XPCC can be a “Chinese Nehemiah” of sorts to rebuild Gaza, and China can help support the peace process “with Chinese characteristics.”