Civil war-torn Syria recently joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a move analysts say reflects China’s growing interest in the Middle East.
Through the BRI, China has invested and built infrastructure on multiple continents to realize its vision of land and sea trade routes linking Asia to the rest of the world.
By claiming Syria, experts say, China can increase its influence in the Middle East, achieve its goal of re-establishing its ancient Silk Road trade route and perhaps gain additional energy sources.
The agreement between China and Syria, finalized on January 12 at a ceremony in Damascus, “would help [Syrian President Bashar] Assad to come out of his diplomatic isolation. That would help Assad get more investment, said Ibrahim Al-Assil, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.
China’s interests in the Middle East
Syria’s admission to the BRI is part of a wider Chinese strategy to check influence in the Middle East, experts say.
“Syria’s location provides enormous leverage for China. When an international player, if it has leverage in Syria first, it can gain some leverage over so many of its neighbors We’re talking about Turkey, which is important to China. We’re talking about Iraq, where over 10% of China’s oil comes from. We’re talking about Israel. We’re talking about Jordan. We’re also talking about of some world powers in Syria, such as Russia and the United States, more geo-economic interests than just pure economic interests for China to increase its investments in Syria,” Al-Assil told VOA.
By December, 17 countries in the Middle East and North Africa had joined the BRI. Experts say including the Middle East in the initiative is rooted in Chinese history and is a symbolic move for Beijing.
“China is trying to reconstruct the ancient Silk Road, and Syria was part of the Silk Road, so that’s something that was emphasized in the announcement that China made with Syria,” said David Sacks, a researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations. VOA.
There are also economic interests.
“China became a net importer of energy in 1993, and in 2017 it became the largest importer of crude oil in the world, and nearly half of that oil, 47% to 48%, comes from the Middle East. East. And that is why the Middle East is going to grow in importance over the next decade for China,” Al-Assil said.
Filling American Gaps
Syria’s participation would help China’s strategy in the Middle East, as the United States leaves a smaller footprint in the region. In December, the United States ended its combat mission in Iraq and moved to an “advise, assist and enable” role for Iraqi forces.
“For China to have more leverage in the region, it needs to look at where the United States is pulling out and try to increase its diplomatic presence and its economic presence in those gaps, or those sub-regions of the Middle East, and this is where Syria comes in,” Al-Assil told VOA.
Diplomatic relations between Beijing and Damascus date back to 1956 and ties between the two countries continued during the Syrian civil war.
China, along with Russia, has repeatedly exercised its standing veto in the UN Security Council to block resolutions imposing sanctions on the Syrian government over the use of chemical weapons.
In 2016, the Chinese military agreed to support the Assad government with training and humanitarian aid, according to Chinese news agency Xinhua.
Syria and China are also sharing intelligence due to China’s fears of radicalized Muslim Uyghurs from China fighting in Syria.
Syria’s inclusion in the BRI “brings the greatest contribution to economic reconstruction and social development in Syria,” said Feng Biao, Chinese ambassador to Syria, according to Xinhua.
China’s risky investment
However, any form of Chinese investment in Syria is a risk due to the country’s dire financial situation, analysts said.
“I don’t think the Chinese will be able to get a real return on investment inside Syria. The economy is still broken, the country is fragmented, corruption is deep in Syria’s institutions. Syrian state, and that’s not going to change.” soon with the current conditions,” Al-Assil said.
“It seems highly unlikely that Syria will be able to repay large infrastructure loans in the future,” Sacks told VOA.
Some analysts say Syria’s participation in the BRI reveals how China and its longtime ally Russia present a united foreign policy front. Moscow entered the Syrian conflict in 2015 in support of the Assad regime.
“I don’t think it will force a rethink of American policy toward the country,” Sacks said. “But what this clearly shows is that China and Russia are increasingly acting in concert on the world stage, and this is becoming increasingly clear in Europe, Central Asia and now in the Middle East as well. .”
Others, however, including Al-Assil, say closer China-Syria ties could drive a wedge between Beijing and Moscow, referring to the Chinese foreign minister’s high-profile July visit to Syria and to the adverse reaction from Russia.
“The Russian reaction was not encouraging as they felt the regime was not coordinating with them and the regime was trying to seek support from other major powers,” Al-Assil told VOA.
Russian media, Al-Assil added, criticized the Chinese decision and stressed that Assad’s future was tied only to Russia and that “Russia would have the upper hand”.
Whether it’s investing in diplomacy or infrastructure, China is taking a risk in Syria, experts say, but it’s all part of Beijing’s broader strategic calculus in the region.
Elizabeth Lee of VOA contributed to this report.