Turnover of power in the Middle East

As evidence of US disengagement from the Levant grows – the area encompassing Cyprus, Lebanon, Syria, the Palestinian territories, Jordan and Israel –the prospects are growing that the political vacuum will be filled by East Asian powers – particularly a China in search of energy self-sufficiency.

Growing capital flows to the Middle East, notably to mature market economies like Israel and Turkey, bear the signature of East Asia’s economic giants. Key sectors such as infrastructure, energy and defense form the bulk of Chinese, Japanese and South Korean investments in these two nations.

Unlike Western countries, Asian investors appear to be committed to economic corridor projects, in an obvious bid to propel their trade-oriented economies.

Turkey ushered in an underwater rail link between Asia and Europe on Oct. 29, the world's first immersed tube tunnel connecting two continents. The new US$4 billion railway runs under the Bosphorus Strait for 1.4 kilometers. It was completed by a Japanese-Turkish joint-venture, with US$1 billion financing from the Japan Bank for International Cooperation.

Apart from Ankara's suggestion envisaging it as part of a broader system of new, interconnected Silk Roads, the Marmaray underwater rail tube has undoubtedly the potential to further boost overland trade and exchanges between Europe and the Middle East.

If the Levant were not a permanent battleground, Turkey's Marmaray could be the northern tip of a regional network of transport arteries, including the rail line that should connect Israel's Mediterranean ports of Haifa and Ashdod with Eilat in the Gulf of Aqaba, a project carried out by the Israeli government with the injection of Chinese capital.

China is the world's largest buyer of oil and gas from the Middle East, while Japan and South Korea are other two energy-thirsty nations. Israel looks to Asian customers for export from the Leviathan Gas Field, which straddles national and Cypriot seawaters. Its estimated reserves total a significant 8.9 trillion cubic feet, the third-biggest in the Middle East.

It is worth noting that in January state-owned China Petrochemical Corporation (Sinopec) came to an agreement with the US company Apache Corporation to buy 33 percent of its Egyptian oil and gas business. Sinopec sealed the deal for US$3.1 billion.

While their demand of fossil fuels is growing day by day, China and Japan are also channeling their investments into the nuclear industry. As Beijing funds the construction of new nuclear power plants in Britain, Tokyo plans to build nuclear reactors in Turkey.

On October 29, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. struck a formal deal with the Turkish government to develop nuclear power reactors on the Black Sea shores. The Japanese conglomerate leads a corporate alliance (comprising France's energy giant Areva) expected to invest as much as US$22 billion in the project, which makes provision for Tokyo's export of nuclear technology to Ankara.

The defense business – previously dominated by he United States – is yet another gauge of political and economic interaction between Turkey, Israel and East Asian investors.

A US$3 billion arms deal that Turkey arranged with China later in September caused a stir across the region. Ankara is going to get a truck-mounted FD-2000 missile defense system from China Precision Machinery Import and Export Corporation (CPMIEC).

Low cost and Beijing's readiness to agree to technology transfer prompted the Turkish government to turn to the still relatively untested FD-2000 while discarding the US Patriot missile system, at a time when there are six Patriot batteries installed in southern Turkey, managed by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Conversely, Israel's firm Elbit Systems Ltd has set up a joint partnership with South Korea's aviation firm Sharp Aviation K Inc. The newborn Sharp Elbit Systems Aerospace (SESA) is based in Ansan, near Seoul. It will manufacture components for combat helicopters and planes and assist the South Korean Defense Ministry in developing home-grown fighter jets and light attack helicopters.

With the establishment of SESA, it is the first time an Israeli defense firm has joined hands with a South Korean arms manufacturer. Israel's military industry is also in competition with the US defense behemoth Lockheed to upgrade South Korea's missile defense system to Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC-III), according to a Sept. 12 dispatch by Yonhap news agency.

Co-production is a business model that Israeli arms companies are also promoting with the European Union (EU) and Turkey. In January, the EU Commission started funding Israel Aerospace Industries to produce drones that can stop vehicles in land scenarios and boats at sea without destroying them. This three-year-long project to develop crime-stopping drones is called Aeroceptor and worth US$6.5 million.

There is more than just prospering and profiting from US disengagement. With Washington's interest toward the Middle East on the wane, neophytes of power politics at these latitudes must share the burden in the security realm if they want to see their investments protected.

However, facts at present point in the opposite direction. Take China, for example: notwithstanding its status of rising world power, Beijing is lagging behind Russia in the Levant, where Moscow is carrying out a strategy blending political intervention with military posture, as demonstrated most recently by the Kremlin's central role in the Syrian crisis and its eagerness to conclude a US$2 billion arms deal with Egypt.

(Emanuele Scimia is a Rome-based journalist and geopolitical analyst.)