China’s Move towards Syria: Objectives & Prospects

EPC | 18 Aug 2021

A visit by China’s Foreign Minister to Syria on July 17, during which he met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and put forward an initiative to solve the crisis in this Arab country raised many questions about its objectives and implications. Among these questions: Will this visit be a turning point in the Syrian crisis? Will China become a major player in this issue? It goes without saying that it is no longer possible for new actors to enter the Syrian arena and that the solution to the protracted crisis is now dependent on an international consensus on the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2254, and accordingly there is no prospect for new initiatives. Therefore, the Chinese initiative to resolve may have other objectives.

The timing of the visit, and the Syrian regime's position on the Chinese move

Throughout the years of the Syrian crisis, China has always opposed everything it sees as interference in the internal affairs of Syria. It has so far rejected any UN Security Council resolution that it thought might be a prelude to overthrowing the Syrian regime or subjecting it to international tribunals. The reasons for this opposition are understandable and well-known. China rejects, in principle, any outside interference that imposes on any political regime the way it should deal with its people. This stems from China's endeavor to stifle any external attempt to interfere in Chinese affairs, whether with regard to the Uyghur issue or human rights in general in the Asian giant. Apart from that, China had no political, military, or even economic presence in Syria. Beijing's presence and role on the Syrian arena have been characterized by extreme caution, so what is the motive for this change at this time?

Beijing's move towards Syria comes at a time that cannot be a coincidence for Chinese foreign policy. It basically coincides with the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Undoubtedly, this withdrawal will ease the pressure on the Americans, but it will place a heavy burden on Afghanistan's neighbors, including China. More than that, this move coincides with a decline in US interest in the Middle East and plans to withdraw US forces from Iraq, as well as strategic weapons from the Gulf states. This gives the impression that China, whose foreign minister visited many countries in the region, is now trying to present itself as an alternative superpower capable of ensuring security and balances in the region, especially since it has good relations with Iran and the Gulf states[1].

Most important of all is that the Chinese minister's visit to Damascus follows a fundamental change in the US position towards the Syrian regime. The US administration is now demanding a change in the "behavior of the regime.[2]" Remarkably, China called on other parties to abandon the "illusion of regime change." The Chinese did not stop there, but rather put forward a new initiative that undermines Security Council Resolution No. 2254 and the outcomes it entails for a solution. It is understood from all of this that Beijing rejects all previous approaches to resolving the Syrian crisis, and calls for a new start in line with the changes taking place in Syria, especially the impossibility of removing the regime at the present time[3]. The Chinese initiative is based on four main points[4]:

  • "Syria's national sovereignty and territorial integrity should be respected". However, this principle conflicts with the presence of Iran and Turkey, China's allies and economic partners, in Syria.
  • “The well-being of Syrian people should be prioritized and the reconstruction process should be sped up”.
  • “A firm stand on effectively fighting terrorism should be upheld. All terrorist organizations listed by the UN Security Council should be cracked down and double standards should be rejected.”
  • “An inclusive and reconciliatory political solution to the Syrian issue should be promoted”.

In late October 2012, China announced a four-point initiative for a solution in Syria that relies on a temporary cessation of hostilities and the launch of consultations on a transitional period during which the Syrian government institutions would continue to operate. This proposal ignored the issue of whether or not Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would remain in power[5].

As for the Chinese minister's visit to Damascus, the Assad regime was keen to welcome the Chinese moves through an extensive media campaign and coverage of the visit. Assad wants the next stage in Syria to be a Chinese stage, after the two main players on the Syrian arena, i.e. Iran and Russia, failed to lead the reconstruction stage or provide something of significant value for this stage[6]. The Syrian regime expects China to enter forcefully into the Syrian crisis, as evidenced by its proposal for a solution. Had the Chinese leadership not been serious about getting involved in the Syrian crisis, it would not have presented an initiative for a solution. This means that the Chinese move will be followed by future steps on more than one level. The Syrian regime, which is internationally isolated, is interested in having a strong ally, economically and militarily, that counterbalances the Russian role, and creates a state of competition that Al-Assad can utilize and ease Russian pressure[7].

China's interests and goals in Syria

Talking about Chinese interests in Syria raises the following key question: “Does a weak economy in terms of wealth and markets, such as the Syrian economy, have real importance for a giant economy, such as China’s?” The answer to this question lies in the issues that were negotiated between the Chinese minister and Syrian officials. The Chinese minister offered to include Syria in China's Belt and Road Initiative. This offer was matched by Syrian officials' assertion that Damascus is willing to join the initiative and enhance cooperation with China in the fields of economy, technology, culture, and education[8].

This means that the Chinese economic interest in Syria is confined to a specific field, i.e. the Belt and Road project, thus limiting cooperation between the two parties to this area. Evidence for this is that sources close to the Syrian regime revealed that the Chinese have proposed a set of projects that can be implemented under the umbrella of the initiative, in the field of transportation, such as the rail link between the port of Tartous and the Iraqi border, and the construction of a land highway linking the south of the country to the north. The proposed projects also include electricity generation and the establishment of Chinese free zones in Syria (Hassia Industrial City, Latakia expansion), focusing on the regional dimension of these projects, in line with the spirit of the Belt and Road Initiative.

However, the same sources resent that Chinese investments in Syria are still below ambition. During the period from 2009 to 2019, China only launched two projects in Syria, the first was in 2011 to transport passengers and tourist groups, and the second was for the manufacture of water taps in 2019. It is noteworthy that the two projects were not mentioned in the list of projects implemented or under implementation. A project in 2006 for the production and assembly of tourist cars and pickups was included in the list of implemented projects[9].

China's primary interest in Syria lies in the latter's geographical location. Beijing is seeking to make Syria a part of the Belt and Road Initiative, to secure transport routes through Iraq and to Syria, which would give China access to the eastern Mediterranean. There is a belief that China may be planning to win a contract to establish its own port on the Syrian coast to serve its project aimed at controlling international shipping routes[10]. The importance of Syria for China is not limited to the economic aspect. There are other interests and reasons that may explain the reasons for the Chinese move at this time:

  • There are strategic-political reasons related to China's desire to convey a message to the United States of America that it is able to expand and fill the void after the American withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq. This Chinese approach is supported by the fact that China has strategic relations with Iran, the country that undoubtedly has the upper hand in Syria and Iraq. In this context, it is noteworthy that the Chinese move comes after reports of possible understandings between Russia and the United States of America regarding Syria, especially after the two parties agreed in the United Nations Security Council on the delivery of aid through the Bab al-Hawa crossing. Thus, the Chinese move appears to be an attempt to pre-empt any consequences of these understandings on Chinese interests in the region[11].
  • There are also security reasons related to the presence of Uyghur fighters in Syria, who may pose a potential threat to Chinese security if they return from Syria. China also believes that the United States' removal of the "Turkistan Islamic Movement" from the US terrorist list was a step directed against it. The Chinese minister's statements in Damascus included a reference to the need to unify the efforts of the international community "to combat terrorism and resolutely eliminate terrorist forces in Syria that are on the list of the United Nations Security Council." The reference in Wang's remarks to the Security Council list is a response to the new US position on the Turkistan Islamic Movement. The importance of this issue stems from a Chinese belief that the United States, seeking to weaken China, wants to make China's northwesternmost region of Xinjiang a soft flank of the Chinese regime. For this reason, the United States is espousing the cause of the Uyghurs as a "persecuted religious minority." China fears that the United States harbors plans to employ the Turkistan Islamic Movement and its fighters, who have gained extensive combat experience in Syria, to carry out military operations on Chinese soil, using Afghanistan as a launchpad, after the withdrawal of US forces from it, especially since this Uyghur party receives support from Islamist Afghan groups[12].

Obstacles to Chinese Engagement in Syria

  • Strong Competitors: Iran and Russia

In Syria, there is no longer any room for the introduction of new actors. This includes the political, military, and economic aspects. It is unlikely that neither Russia nor Iran will accept that China play any economic role or allow it to conduct "social engineering" in Syria, after the two countries have spent huge investments to bring the situation to what it is now. Despite the alliance between Iran and Russia with China, especially on the Syrian issue, Iran and Russia are fully aware that China's introduction will deprive them of the gains they expect to obtain from the reconstruction process. Moscow and Tehran prefer to bring in Western and Arab companies, because they believe that they can obtain greater benefits compared to those expected from China.

For Iran, it may seem less harmful, given that Tehran has largely limited its interests to controlling areas of a strategic nature in eastern and southern Syria, for purposes that are not largely economic. Also, China's presence in Syria may change the facts in favor of Iran in light of the latter's competition with Russia and thus ease Russian pressure on it. But things look very different for Russia. Moscow is aware of the danger posed by China's influence in Syria because it has come to consider this Arab country as part of its very own security and economic interests, and an essential component of its geopolitical project and Eurasian sphere of influence, and therefore will not allow China to share its influence in Syria. In fact, Russia had previously obstructed a Chinese project to build a railway linking China with Uzbekistan, because it saw it as an encroachment on its back yard[13].

Russia did not hide that it was disturbed by the Syrian regime's cheers for the Chinese minister's visit and the high hopes it placed on this visit. This was evidenced by articles written by Rami al-Shaer, widely seen as an adviser to the Russian Foreign Ministry, which are described as messages sent by the Kremlin to the Syrian regime. Al-Shaer said: "The naive moves to replace Russia with China, and even removing some banners expressing friendship and cooperation between the Russian and Syrian peoples from the Syrian streets, and replacing them with Chinese banners, seem to be a pathetic political move.[14]"

It was noted that the visit of the Chinese Foreign Minister accelerated Russian and Iranian moves aimed at extracting more concessions from the Syrian regime, which does not oppose the introduction of more investors, hoping to benefit from the competition between them. Russia has dispatched a large delegation comprising representatives of 30 federal executive bodies and organizations, headed by Chief of the Main Operational Directorate of Chief of National Centre for State Defence Control Lt. Gen. Mikhail Mizintsev to reportedly discuss the refugees' issue. On the sidelines of the visit, 10 agreements were signed in the fields of economic and trade cooperation[15]. Iran also sent its parliament speaker, Muhammad Baqir Qalibaf, to Damascus, who announced at the end of his visit an agreement to activate an economic cooperation agreement between the two countries, which Iran was complaining that the Syrian government was deliberately delaying[16].

  • Economic Obstacles
  • For Chinese companies, investing in a country (i.e. Syria) where the local currency is constantly devalued, security is fragile, business life is dominated by warlords and local figures with ties to the regime, and is mired in systemic corruption and lack of accountability, is nothing but an adventure.
  • Chinese companies, which have huge investments in global markets, especially in the West, will not put themselves in the position of accountability, prosecution and loss, for a small portion of an uncertain profit in a country buckling under Western sanctions affecting the countries and companies that deal with it[17].
  • There is no economic feasibility in investing in Syria due to the small market on the one hand, and the fact that Russia and Iran control the lucrative economic assets in this country on the other hand. Also, rebuilding the infrastructure does not seem profitable.
  • Chinese companies also worry that they may not be able to recover the cost of their investment. There is fear that Syria will not be able to repay the loans it borrows, in light of indications that Syria will not be able to provide good economic returns to China and other countries for years to come[18].
  • The fact that China's financial commitments to the region have reached their limits. According to the American Enterprise Institute, which monitors Chinese capital around the world, investments in the Middle East have fallen since 2018 — the year President Xi Jinping pledged $23 billion in loans to the region as a whole at the China-Arab Cooperation Forum[19].
  • For China, Syria's maritime advantage appears to be captured by both Iran and Russia, both of whom control the country's seaports. This undoubtedly leaves no room for China to take any advantage of Syria's coasts. It seems that China is well aware of this matter, so it is focusing on alternative ports in the region, especially the port of Tripoli in Lebanon, which may turn into the most important port in the region after the explosion in the port of Beirut last year[20].
  • China is examining Assad's management of the rivalry between Iran and Russia. Needless to say, the Syrian regime is using both parties for economic and political gain. Also, Beijing realizes that it will lose in this game because its companies will have to navigate Syrian, Russian, and Iranian interests. Since the Chinese have not been very much involved in Syria in the past, they would also have the disadvantage of being less familiar with the local terrain[21].

Conclusions

The timing of the Chinese Foreign Minister's visit to Damascus and its simultaneity with a new term for the Syrian president seemed to be a political development. Most of the analyzes also drew perceptions that contradict the current reality of Syria, as they are not consistent with the conditions of Chinese engagement or with the standards adopted by Chinese companies. China's proposal for a political solution does not mean that the Chinese political leadership is convinced that this initiative may constitute an entry point for China to become a primary actor in Syria, as much as China wanted to convey a message of condemnation of the US position on removing the "Turkistan Islamic Movement" from the lists of terrorism, and exploiting the Uyghur issue to undermine China.

Also, China, which has been cautious over the past years of the Syrian crisis, does not seem to be taking a step into the unknown when it calls for abandoning the "illusion of overthrowing the regime" in Syria. In fact, this is based on Beijing's realization that the international situation has already changed, and no one is calling for the downfall of the regime, but rather a change in its behavior at best. But this does not mean that the next Chinese step in Syria will be to invest billions of dollars in the reconstruction process in Syria. There are many objective obstacles, including: poor economic feasibility and returns from this investment, Russia’s and Iran’s control of Syria’s main economic assets, as well as the lack of an appropriate environment for investment due to the security chaos and systemic corruption in Syria.

Apart from the expectations and analyzes that accompanied the Chinese minister’s visit regarding the future of the relationship between the two parties, the following can be concluded:

  • The visit to Damascus was one of several stops for the Foreign Minister as part of a tour that included several other countries in the region, which also saw the signing of agreements and projects within the Road and Belt Initiative. This does not, therefore, make the agreements signed between Syria and China unique.
  • Upon examining the signed agreements, it becomes clear that China will seek to limit its activities in Syria to sub-projects that serve the Belt and Road Initiative, without incurring economic and political costs for reconstruction in the rest of Syria.
  • The political dimension of this visit is far more important. China wanted to send a message to the Americans, and perhaps the Russians, that it is a player with capabilities that might change the facts in the region if it is ignored or its security interests are tampered with.

References

[1] “The Limits of Direct Chinese Engagement in the Syrian Issue”, Harmon Center for Contemporary Studies, July 27, 2021. (Arabic)

[2] Same source as above.

[3] Ibrahim Al-Jebin, “China is moving forward to fill the void and Al-Assad is playing with fire”, Al-Arab Newspaper, July 27, 2021. (Arabic)

[4] "Chinese Foreign Minister reveals a 4-point proposal to solve the Syrian issue", Russia Today, July 18, 2021. (Arabic)

[5] "A Chinese initiative to solve the Syrian crisis ignores the fate of Assad", Anadolu Agency, February 1, 2012. (Arabic)

[6] Ibrahim Al-Jebin, “China is moving forward to fill the void and Al-Assad is playing with fire”, Al-Arab Newspaper, July 27, 2021. (Arabic)

[7]"The Chinese role in Russia... "messages" to America and support for Assad in exchange for the acquisition", Al-Hurra TV website, July 20, 2021. (Arabic)

[8] "China affirms "cooperation" with the regime in the Belt and Road Initiative", Syria TV, July 20, 2021. (Arabic)                

[9] Ziad Ghosn, "Beijing Knocking on Damascus's Door: Is It Time for Economic Support?", Al-Akhbar Lebanese newspaper, July 19, 2021. (Arabic)

[10] Mustafa Muhammad, “China is letting go of its guard in Syria with Russia’s encouragement”, Al-Modon website, July 19, 2021. (Arabic)

[11] Same source as above.

[12] Samer Khair Ahmed, "Syria and Chinese Calculations" - Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, July 23, 2021. (Arabic)

[13] Ibrahim Al-Jebin, “China is moving forward to fill the void and Al-Assad is playing with fire”, Al-Arab Newspaper, July 27, 2021. (Arabic)

[14] Rami Al Shaer, "Damascus' Slip toward Illusions Begins with a Single Step?", Zavtra, translation of Russia Today website, July 21, 2021.

[15] “Russia signs new economic and educational agreements with the Syrian regime”, Nedaa Post, July 27, 2021. (Arabic)

[16] "Iranian-Syrian economic agreements will be implemented within 3 months", Al-Modon website, July 30, 2021. (Arabic)

[17]Mahmoud Othman, "Chinese Foreign Minister's visit to Damascus... messages and goals", Anadolu Agency, July 26, 2021.

[18] "Will China rebuild Syria?", Al-Quds Al-Arabi, 10 July 2019.

[19] "The Limits of China's Role in Russia", Nedaa Post, 6 June 2021. (Arabic)

[20] Ali Noureddine, “China in Tripoli and the “Silk Road” through Lebanon’s Trains and Ports”, Al-Modon website, June 26, 2019. (Arabic)

[21]Mahmoud Othman, "Chinese Foreign Minister's visit to Damascus... messages and goals", Anadolu Agency, July 26, 2021.

 

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