Belt and Road, Development, Trade and industry, International relations | Asia, East Asia, The World

25 February 2020

The World Bank estimates it could cost at least $250 billion to rebuild Syria – four times the country’s GDP in 2010. China intends to play a major role in the process, and has much to gain by doing so, Isaac Kfir writes.

There is growing evidence that China is furthering its evolving presence in the Middle East, with the Chinese government signing major economic agreements with Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and others.

The Chinese Communist Party recognises the centrality of the region to its survival, which is why former Chinese President Jiang Zemin visited the Arab League while in office in 1996, and, in 2004, Beijing sponsored the establishment of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum.

The region provides much of China’s energy needs but also it has a vibrant, young population that is looking to buy things, and China’s as ‘the world’s factory’ is therefore appreciative of the Arab World’s growing purchasing power. In 2018 alone, bilateral trade between China and the Arab World stood at US$244 billion, a 28 per cent increase from 2017.

In 2016, President Xi Jinping marked the 60th anniversary of China-Arab diplomatic relations by not only visiting Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Egypt but also by issuing the first Arab Policy Paper, a document aimed at promoting trade between China and the Arab States.

Several events highlight China’s interest in Syria specifically. In May 2017, Qi Qianjin, China’s ambassador to Syria, announced that Syria will be a recipient of $8.7 billion in humanitarian aid as part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

More on this: Russia in Syria: a win-win situation?

Then, in December 2019, President Assad announced that his regime has proposed six projects to the Chinese government for the initiative. This is all part of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s determination to rebuild the country that he helped destroy as he fought for survival in the civil war.

It is worth recalling that along with the BRI funding, at the July 2018 China-Arab States Forum, Beijing promised $20 billion in infrastructure loans to Syria. Included in this pledge was $100 million in humanitarian aid to Syria and Yemen.

Several months later, when the Syrian government held the 60th Damascus International Fair, over 200 Chinese companies attended the event. The implicit promise that came with the Chinese companies was that they would build cars, mobile hospitals, and more in reconstructing Syria.

Syria is important to Beijing for several reasons. First, China wants a diverse range of options when it comes to its relationships. Be it energy, economics, or security, China recognises that having few options can make it vulnerable, which is why it likes to spread risk and have multiple potential partners it can use to meet various needs.

The clearest example of this is in the BRI, which has three principal trade routes linking China with Europe and Africa. The first is a northern land trade route that goes through central Asia and Russia to Europe, the next is a central route which relies primarily on western Asia to the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean, and the third is a southern, mainly maritime route, running from China to the Indian Ocean. This structure gives China a wide range of options when it comes to its trade and security.

Being able to transport goods through Syria to the Mediterranean Sea would provide China with more options to transfer goods, as it would need not rely solely on Turkey as the main land conduit to Europe.

More on this: China can be a good Samaritan in Syria

It also gives China a footprint in a strategically important area, something it values highly. This is consistent with the country’s other behaviour in the region – it already has a strong presence in Egypt, is cementing its presence in Israel, and is actively seeking stronger relations with traditional American allies such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, which have long been dominated by the United States and Russia.

Beijing also recognises that the way it is engaging with the Uyghur in Xinjiang province creates problems for its reputation with the Muslim world, and may be seeking to neutralise this through improved economic diplomacy.

Having Middle Eastern leaders support China’s policy on tackling what China calls its  ‘terrorism problem’ which is effectively the excuse used by Beijing to defend its activities in the province, will help China in its relationships with other Muslim countries, and with the international community at large.

Moreover, Beijing knows that thousands of Uyghurs have travelled to Syria to join Islamic State and other salafi-jihadi outfits, and it is concerned about their return. Co-operating with Assad could help the country if it is concerned about these individuals slipping back into China.

On the other side of the coin, the Assad regime especially values co-operation with China because the sanction regime that has been imposed on Syria is unlikely to be lifted anytime soon. China’s commitment to non-interference, which includes ignoring international sanctions, makes Beijing a natural ally in this case.

Moreover, Assad knows that Syria will need to contend with Iranian and Russian demands for concessions from his regime if he relies too heavily on them economically. Both have stood firmly with Syria, but having China in the mix may give Assad some leverage, as both China and Syria may hope to play these powers against each other, whilst also reminding the West that it should support Syrian reconstruction, or else let Iran, Russia, and China will do it.

Under Deng Xiaoping, Chinese foreign policy was governed by the dictum ‘hide your strength and bide your time’, but under Xi, China is no longer hiding anything, nor is it biding its time. It wants to achieve its place in the sun, and it wants to do so soon. China recognises that there are emerging opportunities in the international system, with the United States having a transactional President and Europe dealing with Brexit.

Beijing’s strategy, nevertheless, is careful, emphasising non-interference coupled with a commitment to developing economic relations. This strategy is working. Across the Middle East, Arab regimes are reaching out to Beijing, as these governments see value in working with China, especially as the United States is regarded as an unreliable ally and Europe lacks the hard power capabilities required to project itself in the region.

As the BRI gathers momentum and American foreign policy remains in flux, China’s advance into the region is likely to continue with Syria’s reconstruction at its forefront. Unfortunately, this comes with the side effect of greatly undermining any hope of democratic development in the region too.

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