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    Greater China
     Nov 6, 2008
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 expanding economy.

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 its favor.

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 Damascus.

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 

Continued 1 2  

A China base in Iran? (Jan 29,'08)

India seeks 'velvet divorce' from Iran

2. Send off the clowns

3. Nightmares at hyper-speed

4. The end of a subprime administration

5. Lesson redux

6. Big step across the Taiwan Strait

7. Business as usual with China

8. Chalco in the wings as Rusal stumbles

9. A strike against 'Iranophobia'

10. A repeat lesson for voters

(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Nov 4, 2008)


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