The Big Game: Beijing’s Interests in the Middle East

Chinese ambassador to Syria Qi Qianjin said in Damascus on February 11, that China was preparing to play a bigger role in Syria. Syria is only part of the big game Beijing has pursued since the middle of this decade. It wants to make its mark as a global power responsible for the fate of the Eurasian continent.

What is interesting is not the Chinese ambassador’s statement per se. He did not say anything out of the ordinary. What is interesting is the reaction to it. The West did not respond at the time to Qi Qianjin’s interview with The Syrian Times six months ago, where he described Syria as “China’s key commercial partner” and declared his country’s intention to join the effort to rebuild Syria and implement investment projects. It is only now that the West has become agitated. Western media paid far less attention to the February 14 remarks by the Permanent Representative of China to United Nations Office in Geneva, Ma Zhaoxu, who clearly outlined the PRC position on Syria. This includes involvement in the political settlement of the conflict, the fight against terrorism, and humanitarian assistance to Syria. But what is so special about the ambassador’s brief statement? 

The West saw two challenges. First, Beijing supports Assad (“assistance to the Syrian government”) and will continue to act accordingly together with Russia. Second, China’s participation in “Syrian reconstruction” will offer stiff competition to Western businesses. While the West conditions its involvement in rebuilding the Syrian economy on various political caveats, Beijing is prepared to help Syria without preconditions, save for one: the political settlement of the conflict. This means that China will not only reap the biggest dividends from its participation in postwar reconstruction but will also strengthen its positions in the Middle East to a considerable extent. The US and Europe are not exactly pleased with this prospect. The Syrian Ambassador to China, Imad Moustapha, declared way back in July 2017 that the “Syrian government will give priority to Chinese companies in the investment and construction spheres” and that Syria expected these companies to “assume a major role in rebuilding the country.” Today his statement has acquired practical importance. 

As a matter of fact, China became actively involved in Syrian affairs two years ago as it embarked on a four-pronged policy. In March 2016, it appointed its Special Representative for Syria to “facilitate peace talks.” In April, it sent 300 Chinese military trainers to Syria. In August, it launched a project to create joint anti-terrorism mechanisms. In November, Beijing announced its intention to grant Damascus $70 million in humanitarian aid. During the same year, Syria was visited by several high-ranking business delegations from the PRC. 

But Syria is only part of the big game Beijing has pursued since the middle of this decade. It wants to make its mark as a global power responsible for the fate of the Eurasian continent. In 2015, it launched the Belt and Road initiative. In September 2016, Xi Jinping told the G20 summit in Hangzhou that China sought to create an “innovative economy” and a “community of common destiny” on the Eurasian continent. The Middle East is an inalienable part of China’s geopolitical and geo-economic construction, customarily referred to as the Belt and Road initiative. Syria fits easily in this construction, although it is a clear exaggeration to call it a “key element” of the path from China to Europe. 

Beijing’s economic interests in the Middle East are another incentive for more vigorous involvement. Nearly half of Chinese oil and oil product imports come from the region, and the stability of deliveries is directly related to political stability. In Syria itself, China’s economic interests are so far modest and its experience of cooperation with Syria is limited. Nothing on the order of billions in Chinese investment has been reached, nor have critically important levels of trade, as certain journalists are keen to point out. In 2016, China accounted for about 20% ($915 million) of Syrian imports and less than 1% ($3.3 million) of Syrian exports. Accumulated Chinese investment in the country stands at $11 million. Therefore, one should approach forecasts about China’s impending domination of the Syrian economy cautiously. In July 2017, China announced that it would invest $2 billion in the construction of an “industrial park” in Syria with 150 Chinese companies as residents. However, based on the history of Russian-Chinese relations, we know there is a gulf separating investment declarations from the amounts actually invested. Nevertheless, the $2 billion promised by China is just the beginning. Chinese business is ready to invest in road construction and oil production but its main condition is political stability in the country and a favorable investment climate, which will not be achieved overnight. 

Beijing-Damascus cooperation is even more important in the fight against terrorism. Following the war in Syria, this threat looms large for China. The exact number of returning Uighur fighters in Xinjiang, who belonged to different antigovernment groups in Syria, is not so important: whether it is 5,000, as Imar Moustapha claims, or 2,000-2,500, according to Arab sources. Whatever the number, the militants pose a real threat to China. In August 2017, Damascus and Beijing reached an agreement on coordinating actions in the fight against terrorism. In late November, China’s Night Tigers antiterrorist squad arrived at the Russian Tartus naval base in Syria. In the same month, it was announced that the Snow Leopards unit would be sent to Syria to man police operations. Russian-Chinese-Syrian cooperation in this area is the logical conclusion. 

Thus, the resounding ambassadorial statement only confirms China’s commitment to a number of domestic and foreign policy principles it has declared, and jibes with its global strategy. The fundamental importance of Beijing’s cautious participation in Syria is that this is the first global military conflict that China has allowed itself, albeit indirectly, to become involved in. This is just the latest confirmation that China is ready to bear the burden of a global power.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.