Page 1 of 2 China tests its mettle in Syria
By Chris Zambelis
Solidifying the People's Republic of China's burgeoning relationships with the
countries of the Middle East remains a top priority for Beijing. The impetus
behind China's resurgent efforts to extend its influence within the Middle East
stemmed from Beijing's pursuit of energy resources to sustain its rapidly
As the world's fastest-growing consumer of oil and third-largest net importer
of oil, energy will continue to be the most important motivating factor shaping
China's foreign policy toward the Middle East in the foreseeable future. The
looming global economic downturn will also prompt China to seek out new
consumer markets for Chinese-made goods amid rising consumer fears and
shrinking global demand from developed markets.
The determinants of Chinese strategic thinking toward the Middle East, however,
transcend the issues of energy security and market access, and in many respects
have changed dramatically, especially since the Cold War. China is widely
recognized as a rising power that is becoming increasingly confident in
exerting its newfound leverage to assert its interests and shape geopolitics in
Consequently, China is keen on projecting its influence in the Middle East, a
region where it was largely relegated to the sidelines amid the Cold War
rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. Throughout much of the
Cold War, China viewed the Middle East as an opportunity to showcase its
revolutionary credentials by criticizing its more powerful Soviet rival, albeit
from afar, for not doing enough to empower countries such as Syria and the
peoples of the region (or, in some cases, for acting as an imperial power, in
its view, on par with the United States and the West).
China's controversial decision to export intermediate-range ballistic missile
systems and related technology to Syria and other states in the region in the
late 1980s and early 1990s represented Beijing's first significant inroads as
an actor in the Middle East with the potential to shift the balance of power on
the ground. Moscow's refusal to augment Syria's missile capabilities with a
long-range capability during the waning days of the Cold War drove Damascus to
seek other partners to bolster its military capabilities.
Consequently, Chinese arms sales at the time contained an ideological component
that sought to fill the void left by the decline of Soviet influence in Syria
and the Middle East. Furthermore, a key factor behind the missile sales (and
other arms sales) to Syria and other countries, however, was to fund the
People's Liberation Army.
Beijing's move to supply Syria and other countries in the region with advanced
missile capabilities prompted Washington to impose sanctions on China on the
sale of computers and other areas under the auspices of the 1987 Missile
Technology Control Regime (MTCR), which forced the Chinese to renounce their
intentions to follow through with the missile sales to Syria. Despite Chinese
and Syrian denials, serious questions remain regarding the full extent of
China's support for Syria's missile programs.
Since the early 1990s, and especially amid China's rapid economic expansion,
Beijing's approach towards Damascus has since experienced a marked shift in
priorities and behavior, a shift shaped largely by China's efforts to present
itself as a mature and responsible actor in international affairs.
China's increasingly diversified and booming economy also will allow it to
depend less on weapons sales, especially if such sales threaten to undermine
China's political and diplomatic position in the international arena, as was
the case in its bilateral relationship with the United States in the early
1990s over its dealings with Syria. Despite this shift in Beijing's behavior,
China remains a major supplier of arms to countries whose intentions have come
under US and international scrutiny. This time, however, China is able to
export arms from a position of strength to bolster its geopolitical objectives,
as opposed to economic necessity.
Outside of the military realm, Beijing's influence has grown significantly in
recent years, commensurate with its increasing economic power. Beijing's
efforts to engage the region are also reinforced by a resounding welcome from
both the state and popular sectors, as regional governments and publics are
eager to see an end to what is widely viewed as a harmful US hegemony in the
Middle East. These sentiments prevail even in countries that count the United
States as a strategic ally. China's attempts to forge close and multifaceted
ties with key Middle East states such as Syria, a country with modest oil
reserves relative to its neighbors and a struggling economy, reflect the
increasing complexity of China's foreign policy toward the region and show that
Beijing's concerns extend beyond oil and markets - particularly in the case of
Business as usual
In accordance with Beijing's strategy toward the Middle East, Chinese Vice
President Hu Jintao's January 2001 meeting with Syrian President Bashar
al-Assad helped initiate a new chapter in Sino-Syrian relations that would lead
to the expanded trade and closer bilateral ties both countries share today.
Furthermore, Assad's visit to Beijing in July 2004 marked the first visit by a
Syrian leader since the establishment of relations between both countries in
1956. The Syrian leader's trip occurred against the background of the US
invasion and occupation of Iraq and increasing US pressure on Syria for its
alleged role in facilitating elements of the Iraqi insurgency. Syria was one of
the first countries in the Middle East to recognize China, a milestone
frequently touted by leaders in both China and Syria as a symbol of the
enduring friendship shared by both countries. Since Assad's landmark 2004 visit
to Beijing, high-level contacts between Chinese and Syrian dignitaries have
become commonplace, especially contacts within the business sectors.
Reflecting the pattern of Beijing's relations elsewhere in the region, Chinese
oil giants have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Syria in recent
years to modernize the country's aging oil and gas infrastructure, and have
entered into joint ventures with Syrian energy firms in the areas of oil and
gas exploration and oil refinement.
In a recent development, the China Petrochemical Corporation (Sinopec)
announced its US$2 billion purchase of Canada's Tanganyika Oil Co Ltd, a firm
with major operating interests in Syria's oil industry. Chinese investments in
Syria also encompass the electricity, construction, telecommunications,
agriculture, transport and tourism sectors.
In an effort to further boost Chinese investment in Syria, Damascus has
proposed the creation of a Chinese Industrial Zone and a China Telecom Park.
The bilateral trade volume between both countries reached $1.87 billion in
2007, up almost 33% from 2006, a figure that is expected to double by 2011.
China has since become Syria's single-largest trading partner. To demonstrate
the rapid expansion of Sino-Syrian trade relations, the bilateral trade volume
in 2000 was only $174 million. Despite this impressive expansion in trade, the
overall volume of Sino-Syrian trade remains relatively small compared with
China's trade relations elsewhere in the region.
However, the steady upward trajectory of trade relations in recent years
suggests that trade ties will continue to grow. While Syria welcomes Chinese
investment, a growing Syrian trade deficit has also caused some Syrians to
resent the growing "Made in China" imprint on their country, especially as
cheaper Chinese-made goods squeeze out their Syrian-produced counterparts in
the local markets mostly as a result of preferential trade agreements and
excessive undervaluing of the yuan.
Culture and soft power
The rapid expansion of Sino-Syrian trade relations is augmented by a bilateral
effort to foster closer cultural ties between both countries that go beyond
business and diplomacy. The diplomatic discourses of both countries, for
instance, regularly extol the virtues of their ancient and proud histories.
Having endured colonialism, occupation and foreign interference in its domestic
affairs, Syria and other developing countries in the region look to China with
a sense of pride.
As a developing country in its own right, China has charted an independent path
toward economic development and modernization that serves as a model worthy of
emulation in the developing world, a point frequently touted by Beijing. For
countries such as Syria, China's experience provides a viable alternative to
the Western-led economic development models championed by the United States and
former European colonial powers that once occupied the Middle East, models that
are often viewed as neo-colonial institutions. China's case is also bolstered
by the fact that it does not have a legacy of colonialism in the region.
Chinese cultural centers are also opening up across Syria, and Syrians are
increasingly learning Chinese. China is also promoting Syria as a tourist
destination for its citizens, a gesture that is welcomed in Damascus. Tourism
revenue is a crucial source of hard currency for cash-strapped Syria. A steady
stream of Chinese tourists traveling to Syria help to alleviate Syria's trade
imbalance and is seen as a sign of goodwill by the Chinese toward Damascus.
Testing ground for Chinese diplomacy
While China is eager to make its presence felt in Syria and the wider Middle
East, it is careful not to overplay its hand, given that