Page 2 of 2 China tests its mettle in Syria
By Chris Zambelis
the region remains within the US sphere of influence. China is aggressive when
pursuing investment opportunities and access to markets, but it is less
amenable to undertaking other actions that could potentially increase tensions
with the US.
China's approach to relations with staunch US allies such as Egypt are
emblematic of its careful balancing act in its Middle East diplomacy. In the
case of Sino-Egyptian relations, China knows its limits, and is content with
expanding economic and cultural ties without appearing to directly threaten the
strategic relationship Egypt maintains with the US. Beijing is well aware that
it is in no position to match Washington's commitment to Egypt, not to mention
contend with the fallout in US-Sino relations
that would result through an effort to lure Cairo away from Washington.
While China is awash with cash, for instance, there are no indications that
China has ever seriously considered outbidding the annual $2 billion military
and economic aid package the United States provides Egypt. Despite persistent
rumblings of budding Chinese-Egyptian military contacts, Beijing instead
focuses on building business and cultural ties with Cairo.
However, the dynamics at play in the Sino-Syrian interface are far more
complex. Syria is entangled in a web of rival interests and regional tensions
and conflicts that are sure to affect China down the line, especially as
China's footprint in the Middle East grows in the economic and political
spheres. Given Syria's tense relationship with the US, Beijing's ties with
Damascus raise a host of issues for China. Among others, Washington is likely
to see expanding Sino-Syrian ties as a move meant to check US power in the
Middle East, thus prompting a potential US response in Asia or elsewhere.
Syria is also at the center of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The current status of
the Golan Heights, for instance, a region in southwestern Syria that was seized
and occupied by Israel during the 1967 war, and unilaterally annexed in 1981,
remains a serious obstacle to an Israel-Syrian peace agreement. Further
complicating matters is the presence of over 18,000 Israeli settlers living
among the approximately 20,000 Syrians who remained in the region following the
Israeli occupation. The international community does not recognize Israel's
claims over the Syrian territory. There is also is a strong consensus that any
future Israeli-Syrian peace would require Israel to return the Golan Heights to
Syria - an opinion openly supported by China.
The fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent loss of military and economic
support from Moscow left Damascus severely weakened in the face of its more
powerful neighbors and with few viable options to emerge out of its regional
isolation, save for its relationship with Iran. As a result, Syria is eager to
court China as an ally. In fact, the Ba'athist regime in Damascus looks to
China as a bulwark against US pressure against Syria, especially amid growing
pressure from Washington over what it labels as Syria's links to terrorism,
nuclear proliferation and related concerns.
Despite its controversial relationship with Israel, Syria's main rival in the
region, China also remains a stalwart supporter of the Syrian and Arab stance
when it comes to the plight of the Palestinians, as evidenced through its
frequent condemnations of Israel's occupation of Palestinian land and vocal
support for Palestinian self-determination.
Likewise, Syria is a vocal supporter of Beijing's "One China" principle that
defines Taiwan as sovereign Chinese territory. A pillar of Chinese foreign
policy in the Middle East and elsewhere is to shore up support for its "One
China" policy in order to isolate Taiwan and undermine its relations with the
US and other countries that recognize its independence.
Although virtually all of the oil consumed by Taiwan is derived from imports
(approximately 900,000 barrels per day), 80% of which originate in the Middle
East, the lure of Chinese investment and the prospects of forging close ties
with an emerging global power such as China vastly outweigh any benefits Syria
or other Middle Eastern countries may reap from recognizing Taiwan.
Damascus also expressed solidarity with Beijing over its handling of the riots
in Lhasa, capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region, in March, labeling the
Tibetan uprising as an act of "sabotage" that was intended to undermine Chinese
unity and stability. In fact, both China and Syria see eye-to-eye when it comes
to resisting efforts by the US and elements in the international community to
chastise each when it comes to their respective human-rights records. Beijing
and Damascus see such efforts as foreign interference in their respective
In addition to its role in the Arab-Israeli conflict, Syria's relationship with
Iran has also left the ruling Ba'athist regime isolated among its Arab
neighbors and Turkey. Syria is also a permanent fixture in Lebanon's complex
politics. Syria is also involved in a series of disputes regarding water rights
and borders with Turkey. Syria has also been criticized for its role as a
gateway for insurgents traveling to Iraq to fight US-led coalition forces.
Making matters worse, Syria is also home to over 1 million Iraqi refugees who
fled the violence and instability in Iraq. All of these issues directly involve
the US or close US allies, thus forcing China to tread carefully in its dealing
A view from Damascus
In an ideal scenario for Damascus, an emboldened China would serve to bolster
Syria's position beyond the trade and diplomatic spheres. This would include
closer cooperation in the defense arena to shore up Syria's antiquated military
through the sale of advanced weapons platforms.
Although China has a history of arms sales and transferring sensitive military
technology to Syria, to include missile technology, and to other countries in
the region, there are no indications that Beijing is planning to provide Syria
with advanced weapons platforms that would tip the regional balance of power in
the foreseeable future.
Doing so would escalate regional tensions and draw China closer to the
simmering conflicts in the region. While certain elements in China may relish
an opportunity to respond in kind to sales of advanced weapons systems by the
US to Taiwan and other American allies in Asia, a policy Beijing perceives as a
bid to contain China, by arming opponents of the US in the Middle East, Beijing
appears to be taking a measured approach when it comes to considering major
arms transfers to Syria.
However, in late 2007 a series of reports surfaced alleging that China was
prepared to sell both Iran and Syria its J-10 fighter jets. Ironically, the
design of China's J-10s contains technology used in the development of Israel's
Lavi fighter jets, technology which was sold to China after Israel ceased
development of the aircraft due to financial constraints. On a related note,
Syria is actively courting Russia in a similar vein to serve as a potential
partner analogous to the role Moscow played during the Cold War, especially in
the area of defense cooperation. Damascus has even gone as far as to invite
Russian forces to establish a naval base in Syria.
At a minimum, Syria hopes that China will one day use its position as a
permanent member of the United Nations Security Council to play a more
constructive role in any negotiations between Syria and Israel over a
comprehensive peace agreement, essentially serving as a counter to the US,
which supports Israel. Syria would also like to leverage its growing
relationship with China in a bid to improve relations with the US. Damascus
also hopes that closer Sino-Syrian ties will entice Moscow to increase its
stake in friendlier relations with Syria.
Sino-Syrian relations are poised to develop even further in the years ahead.
China will continue to look to Syria, in addition to the rest of the Middle
East, as a source of economic potential and as an opportunity to project
Beijing's influence in the region. However, as China's interests in Syria
expand, Syria's continued isolation and complex geopolitics will pose a series
of challenges for Chinese diplomacy that warrant closer consideration.
Indeed, the Sino-Syrian relationship will force China to make hard decisions
down the road. How China reacts to future regional and international crises
involving Syria will also showcase China's value as a potential partner and
ally for others looking to Beijing for support.
Chris Zambelis is an associate with Helios Global, Inc, a risk analysis
firm based in the Washington, DC area. He specializes in Middle East politics.
He is a regular contributor to a number of publications, where he writes on
Middle East politics, political Islam, international security and related
issues. The opinions expressed here are the author's alone and do not
necessarily reflect the position of Helios Global, Inc. He can be reached at