Syrian President Al Assad’s recent visit to China after two decades, is likely to help Beijing deepen its influence in the Middle East. Assad attended the opening ceremony of 19th Asian Games in Hangzhou, along with the leaders of South Korea, Malaysia, Cambodia, Kuwait, and Nepal.
What was different in Assad’s visit was that he and his wife Asma were given a red-carpet ceremonial welcome by China. Such welcome which is normally accorded to foreign heads of state and government. Assad had last visited China in 2004 to meet then-President Hu Jintao. It was the first visit by a Syrian head of state since diplomatic ties were established in 1956. In Beijing, Assad and Chinese President Xi Jinping signed a strategic cooperation agreement. Beijing’s foreign ministry said this would lift ties to a “new level.” Beijing maintained its embassy in Damascus during the war and has given Syria diplomatic backing on the UN Security Council where permanent members China and Russia have used to veto to protect Syria. Experts on Middle east affairs decoded the agreement stating that China is looking for a bigger role in the Middle East beyond just trade and business ties. It played an important role as it managed to mediate the restoration of ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia early this year. That was a big deal.
But Lina Khatib of London’s SOAS Middle East Institute is not too hopeful about China investing billions like the West could to rebuild Syria. But Assad is still getting something out of this visit. China made Syria a part of its Belt and Road Initiative last year which aims to strengthen China’s economic might through Asia and Africa. Experts said that by signing agreement, China with the help of Syria has tried to swipe at the United States, which has troops in northeast Syria and is expanding its military presence in Asia to counter China. So broadly, this visit was a snub to the United States especially by China. Experts further said that the timing of the China-Syria summit was important because the Global South — which includes Arab, Asian, African, and South American countries — has distanced itself from the US-led Western countries with the aim of promoting independence and a multipolar world order. Russia, which backed the Syrian government militarily during the war, and China seek to benefit from this shift away from the US-dominated unipolar international scene caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union. This was made manifest in the Beijing summit in August by the admission of the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, Argentina, and Ethiopia to BRICS, the grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. China has been Syria’s trade partner. Beijing pledged 2 billion US dollars in investments in Syria in 2017 but has not yet delivered.
Few experts said that Beijing may be unwilling on its own to breach Western sanctions — especially Washington’s 2019 Caesar Act — which punish any government, firm or individual investing in Syria or doing business with the Syrian government. However, Syria would gain if China were to join with others to break the iron grip of US/European sanctions. The cost of rebuilding Syria could be in the hundreds of billion dollars but leaving Syria in crisis is not an option. Experts said that on the global front, China seeks to court Arab governments to increase its influence in this strategic region. In March, Beijing had brokered a reconciliation accord between Saudi Arabia and Iran which had cut relations in January 2016. This seminal deal led to Iranian rapprochement with several Arab countries.
China has signed an agreement with Syria to join its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative in 2022. China has carefully built relations with Syria and became its trusted partner. Like Russia and Iran, China maintained ties with Syria even as other countries isolated Assad over his deadly crackdown on anti-regime demonstrations that erupted in 2011. Like Russia, China which is a member of the UN Security Council, has refused to support sanctions against Syria imposed by Australia, Canada, Europe, Switzerland and the United States. China has on at least eight occasions vetoed UN motions condemning Assad’s regime and aimed at bringing to an end the decade-old Syrian conflict that has sucked in neighbours and world powers. Unlike Iran and Russia, China has not directly supported the regime’s efforts to regain control of the country.
Why is Syria so important for China?
For China, Syria has a strategic importance because it is located between Iraq, which provides about a tenth of China’s oil, Turkey, the terminus of economic corridors stretching across Asia into Europe, and Jordan, which often mediates regional disputes. While Syria is a relatively small oil producer, oil revenue is pivotal to the Assad regime and for China, oil is important. State Chinese energy majors Sinopec Corp, Sinochem and CNPC had invested a combined three billion US dollars in Syria in 2008 and 2009 as part of Beijing’s efforts to acquire global oil and gas assets. These investments included Sinopec’s 2-billion US dollars acquisition of Tanganyika Oil, a small producer of heavy oil, and Sinochem’s nearly 900-million US dollars purchase of London-headquartered Emerald Energy, whose assets were primarily in Syria and Colombia. Sinochem stopped operations in Syria in 2011, according to its partner Gulfsands Petroleum.CNPC which was involved in producing oil at several small blocks, reportedly ceased production in 2014, following European Union sanctions and US deployment to Syria to combat Islamic State.