A Reluctant Chinese Dragon in West Asia: Evidence from Syria

International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES[1]) from Ljubljana, Slovenia, regularly analyses developments in the Middle East, the Balkans and around the world. Dr Mohamad Zreik, PhD of International Relations prepared analysis entitled “A Reluctant Chinese Dragon in West Asia: Evidence from Syria about the Chinese investment and political involvement in Syria.

● Dr Mohamad Zreik 

A Reluctant Chinese Dragon in West Asia: 

Evidence from Syria


Diplomatic and commercial ties between China and Syria have been established for decades. When Hui Liangyu visited Syria in 2009, he met President Bashar al-Assad. A statement from Assad to the Syrian people stated that China would work to improve mutually beneficial relations and partnership between the two countries in a variety of areas. According to the vice premier, China has had diplomatic relations with Syria for more than 50 years. In 1956, Syria became the first Middle Eastern country to recognize China. Zhou Enlai's advocacy for Sino-Arab cooperation during the 1955 Bandung Conference impressed Syrian leaders.

Energy security, geostrategic ambitions, internal stability, and great power status are among China's objectives in the Middle East. In order to maintain system stability, China has been involved in the Middle East as a “companion” stakeholder state. A severe dilemma in the Middle East was on display for China after the Arab uprisings stunned it. China was alarmed when the United States applauded the Arab uprisings. Rather than welcoming them, the Chinese government has restricted local media coverage out of fear of a Chinese uprising.

In October 2011, China and Russia thwarted the European Union's Syria sanctions resolution. The option of Assad's resignation was rejected by China and Russia on February 4, 2012. On February 16, China and Russia abstained on a UN resolution condemning Syria. Another resolution condemning Syria’s crimes was vetoed by China and Russia on March 1. On July 19, China and Russia voted against a UN Security Council resolution that would have imposed sanctions on Syria for failing to implement a peace plan agreed upon in March. One-eighth of the Security Council's members, including the United States and the United Kingdom, voted in favour of the resolution; Pakistan and South Africa did not.

At the beginning of Geneva 2 meetings on January 22, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi put up China's view on the Syrian crisis in five points. China opposes any attempt to inflame Middle East tensions. Oil supplies to China are at risk if the situation in Syria worsens, raising the possibility of a regional confrontation. Trade and energy imports are negatively impacted by regional instability. Both economic and political interests can be safeguarded by rejecting the use of military force. The purpose is to prevent Western accusations of direct interference in countries' internal affairs and to protect China from such influence.

Beijing had hoped for a political solution to the Syrian problem at Geneva 2 in order to keep the region and the international community stable. Although Beijing's efforts in Syria have been widely criticized, the Chinese government is still trying to maintain its international image and deploy its soft power. For China's political and economic interests, the world's perception of it is critical.

The Syrian War: A Place to Vent Tension Between International Adversaries

China avoids conflicts with other countries. Because of the policy of non-interference, China supports its allies from the side-lines. With the help of Russia, the Syrian-Chinese agenda has challenged US control in the region. The Syrian conflict demonstrated the antagonism between China and the United States. China has increased its influence in the Middle East at the expense of the United States. China opposes American leadership and unilateralism. As a condition for the NATO bombing of Libya in 2011, China changed its policy of silence and began to raise the voice in Syria.

When the Arab uprising occurred, the Security Council made an effort to resolve conflicts and ease tensions. China decided to intervene politically and take part in Syria, e.g. China refused to support a UN Security Council resolution that asked Syria's president to step down.

The Middle East has been China's primary oil supplier since 1995. Saudi Arabia and Iran have a role to play here. While Iran came in fourth, Saudi Arabia was China's leading oil supplier. With its growing reliance on foreign trade and oil imports from the Middle East, China places a high value on economic growth. As a result, the country makes significant investments in the region's stability. Chinese policy in the region may be complicated or even impossible if regional security is compromised, as it has been since the Iraq War. Iraqi oil imports have been hampered, and as a result, China is increasing its ties with Saudi Arabia and Iran.

For as long as the Middle East remains a viable market for China, and as long as China retains a significant stake in oil and gas resources, this growth will likely go slowly and remain concentrated on the economic side. China's Middle East policy is influenced by the rhetoric and actions of the United States. As Arab countries undergo major political transitions, the US's influence in the region has shifted and waned. There have been significant improvements in China's standing in global trade due to the country's growing diplomatic ties throughout Asia, Latin America and Africa. Despite the fact that China will not become a superpower any time soon, the Chinese government is cognizant of the US's waning influence.

As the Middle East has become more unstable and the United States' influence has decreased, China has sought to protect itself from the dangers of a power vacuum. Strategically, the Arab upheavals, particularly the Syrian crisis, appear to be a golden chance for China to strengthen its ties to the Middle East and North Africa and expand its regional ties and influence.

A number of governments in the Middle East are benefiting from an increase in Chinese investment and political involvement. To counter the growing tension in East Asia, China's leaders have turned their attention to the West. It was argued by Chinese policymakers that China has more opportunities to expand its geopolitical influence in Central Asia and the Middle East. Economic and military analysts agree that the Syrian crisis has decimated the Middle East and more specifically the Levant region for more than a decade.

Along with Russia, China has put a stop to US sanctions aimed at punishing the Assad regime. Government-opposition dialogue is China's preferred method of resolving conflicts. To become a major global power, China has taken actions since the end of the first decade of the 21st century, including regulating its relations with the United States. This strategy could alter the world order without compromising the stability of the economy or the freedom of trade. China was able to spread its reputation and achieve its goals across the globe.

There are indications that China is bolstering international processes and institutions in order to thwart the United States' plans. China's geostrategic interests are put at risk, but there are also opportunities presented by the turmoil in the Middle East. America's lack of confidence in the Middle East is compounded by US policies and processes, allowing China to take advantage of a historic opportunity. No evidence of Beijing's desire to surpass the United States as the world's military powerhouse has been found.

Chinese strategic advantages include the ability to exert influence over the United States in a future crisis in Asia or elsewhere. Even if hegemony can't be challenged head-on, the new power does so in a more subtle way.

China's Foreign Policy toward West Asia in the Post-Syria Crisis

Oil and markets are the two pillars of Chinese foreign policy, and the Middle East is a primary source of energy for China. Even while China's commerce with Syria is little, the country's oil reserves are not important enough to sway Beijing's geopolitical considerations. China used its veto power in the UN Security Council to block resolutions condemning the Assad regime for human rights abuses. Chinese actions appear to be in response to Western policies that were detrimental to its interests, rather than the Syrian conflict or its future.

China's resources and economic growth are impacted by the unrest in the Middle East. In spite of China's confidence that its Syria policy will not harm its economic cooperation with Saudi Arabia, noting that Saudi Arabia is the largest crude oil exporter in the region. Because of China's geopolitical and economic objectives, the veto dilemma becomes more and more bizarre. The commercial centre that is Syria has neither become an ally nor a significant trading partner for China.

In 2011, China sent $2.4 billion worth of goods to Syria, while importing $26 billion worth of goods back from the Middle Eastern nation. There were 30 enterprises with 100 employees from China, who had invested $20 million in Damascus by 2011. China has consistently supported the Syrian regime, as well as preventing UN Security Council action on Syria. China has used its veto power and criticized US intervention to safeguard its sovereign system against externally imposed regime change, resource security, and the stability of the Xinjiang autonomous region.

As a result of the conflict between the Sunni and Shiite factions in Syria, Beijing is concerned about the violence. People in north-western Xinjiang's Uyghur minority want to break away from Beijing. The involvement of numerous Chinese jihadi groups in Middle Eastern hostilities shows how deeply ingrained the organization is in the conflict. Alawite Assad must be supported by Beijing to avoid legitimizing a minority that could threaten the stability and credibility of the Chinese Communist Party.

Chinese diplomats have been in contact with the Syrian opposition and have attempted to negotiate. Increasing China's economic clout alongside Russia is a priority for the United Arab Emirates, which has strengthened commercial ties with the country and hopes to mend fences with the Syrian government. Some scholars believe that as long as the West sees China as an autocratic country with a poor human rights record, Arab countries will always support the West.

The Belt and Road Initiative in the Middle East: An Opportunity to Advance China-Syria Relations

China hopes to gain access to new markets and develop global supply chains through the Belt and Road Initiative. China's involvement in the Middle East has increased. It enjoys cordial ties with nations on both sides of the conflicting regional divides. Because it connects Europe, Africa, and Asia, the Middle East is a strategic region for China. The Bosporus, Dardanelles, Bab al-Mandab, and Strait of Hormuz carry the majority of Chinese shipping.

Access to the Mediterranean from Damascus will help China with its BRI projects. Beijing's BRI economic corridor connects China, Central Asia, and West Asia, reducing China's dependence on the Suez Canal. Syrian ports Latakia and Tartus may be suitable for China's communications and infrastructure developments in the Mediterranean. As the eastern Mediterranean's primary maritime hub, Tripoli, Lebanon's port should be serviced by a restored railway between Tripoli and Homs.

President Assad stated in 2019 that “friendly countries like China, Russia, and Iran will have priority” in Syria's lucrative reconstruction projects for the regime's international allies. Iran's economy has been severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and US sanctions, reducing its ability to fund Syria's reconstruction. A 4.5 percent drop in Iran's GDP in 2020/21 owing to its economic repercussions. Russia's public resources are anticipated to remain insufficient as the country faces a prolonged recession and a record number of pandemic cases. In addition to the recent conflict with Ukraine which will negatively affect Russia's effective presence in Syria.

Russia and Iran are less “capable” of rebuilding Syria because their companies are primarily focused on the oil industry, not reconstruction. Equipment for power generation, construction, food processing, and manufacturing are all necessities for Syria's economy. When it comes to meeting infrastructure demands in emerging countries, Chinese companies have a leg up on their counterparts in Moscow or Tehran.

The ongoing conflict has brought with it a need for urgent infrastructure development. This unique opportunity for China to penetrate an underdeveloped economy as the war winds down is provided by Western sanctions and the absence of financial rivalry or expertise from Iran and Russia. If Bashar al-Assad's regime is victorious in the Syrian crisis, it will be an important aspect of China's West Asian policy. Syrian and Chinese officials met recently to discuss Syria's national reconstruction efforts and China's ability to play a big economic role in Syria's future. As part of the Belt and Road Initiative, China has declared its willingness to assist with Syria's rehabilitation.

Although Chinese officials have supported rehabilitation and investment initiatives, very little has been done on the ground thus far in terms of implementation. While the security situation in Syria remains tense, Beijing is reluctant to invest there.

For the time being, large-scale investment is likely to be discouraged by the threat of foreign involvement from Turkey or the United States and the tightening of US sanctions. Adverts in China appear to focus on headlines and photos rather than genuine developments. The remaining third of the country, which is rich in natural resources and will be required to repay large loans, has yet to be retaken by regime forces. Beijing will make it a regional priority if it can help to stabilize Syria and bring an end to the conflict diplomatically; in the long run, this would help China achieve its geostrategic objectives and support long-term stability in this region.

About author:

Dr. Mohamad Zreik has PhD of International Relations, he is independent researcher, his area of research interest is related to Chinese Foreign Policy, Belt and Road Initiative, Middle Eastern Studies, China-Arab relations. Author has numerous studies published in high ranked journals and international newspapers.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect IFIMES official position.

Ljubljana/Beirut, 26 June 2022    

[1] IFIMES – International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies, based in Ljubljana, Slovenia, has Special Consultative status at ECOSOC/UN, New York, since 2018.