CHINA’S FOREIGN POLICY TOWARD SYRIA
China has been increasing its influence in the Middle East each year. Although the Chinese presence in the Middle East isn't as loud as the American presence, the quiet presence of China in the Middle East seems long-termed, growing and strongly similar to the American presence in terms of oil interests. China has a lot in common with the US and its allies due to its energy demand. As one of the world’s fastest-growing economies and a challenger of the US, China needs more energy to keep its growth steady; thus, China tries to balance its relations with the Gulf countries and Iran as well as supporting the current Asad regime with Russia. According to John Calabrese (2014), “Chinese oil companies since the overthrow of the Saddam regime have emerged as the dominant actors in the energy sector. In recent years, China like many other countries that are dependent or grown increasingly dependent on oil imports has sought to alter the composition or in fact diversify their sources of supply.”
Energy and access to energy is a huge game-changer in international relations, and it is strongly related to geopolitics. In this context, the motive for China seems simple. China keeps a low profile on international matters and tries to keep its cooperation strong with the energy-exporting countries. Since Chinese will to receive an easy access to energy is an important factor in Chinese presence in the Middle East, there are also initiatives from China to create energy corridors that can fulfill Chinese demands. Initiatives like One Belt One Road Project seem to make China more promising in the region and keeps the Chinese presence lucrative for developing countries in the region. These initiatives both create better energy access to China and improving the economies of invested countries which in return makes these countries a good market for Chinese goods and services.
Alongside with the initiatives, China keeps its diplomatic ties close with authoritarian governments in the region. China agrees on closer strategic relations with Saudi Arabian King Salman, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Iranian President Hasan Rouhani, and Syrian Asad regime. It is safe to say that China is not trying to change the current governments of the Middle Eastern countries; furthermore, it doesn’t try to push any kind of ideology or conflict. Pushing ideologies and conflicts in the region is the main component of western powers’ foreign policies. On the contrary to the western approach, as Xi Jinping stated many times, China is in favor of stability in the region and global cooperation to secure its interests.
The Middle East is a strategic region for China and the rest of the world. This region provides routes toward Europe, Asia, and Africa. With its Suez Canal and Hormuz Strait, this region has more importance for China to complete the Belt part of the One Belt One Road Initiative. In 2013, when Chinese President Xi Jinping announced this initiative as ‘The Economic Belt’ in Astana he also announced ‘The Maritime Silk Road’ in the same year in Jakarta (Brona, 2018). One Belt in this project refers to the sea corridor from China to the Mediterranean Sea that goes through the Suez Canal. The Middle East is a passing point and the main energy supplier for many countries. China needs to keep Middle Eastern conflicts at a minimum level so that China can continue its strategic plans on this region (Baabood, 2016a).
China is following a smart foreign policy in the Middle East by not intervening in regional conflicts directly, and China slowly becomes a security partner for the Middle Eastern countries (Baabood, 2016b). It is not expected that China can replace other existing security guarantors in the Middle East, but China might become a new security guarantor in the region (Baabood, 2016c). China acts more reliable for the Middle Eastern countries since China doesn’t have a bad reputation like the US or other European guarantors in terms of military intervenes and operations under the name of the so-called promotion of democracy in the region.
Einar Tangen (2016) states that the Modern Silk Road Project depends on a peaceful coexistence strategy in the Middle East. He continues by saying that the current conflicted situation in the region is much like when the Christians were divided between Catholics and Protestants. The war takes 30 years and results in 1/3 of the death of the people before they finally came into the realization that they have to live with one another and wars are exhausting. Nevertheless, Europe and the Middle East are hard to compare. As a matter of fact, Middle Eastern conflicts are far more complicated, and these conflicts vary. It is not only the religious sects fighting over different interests but also ethnic groups, terrorist organizations, and civilians against governments. When we are considering conflicts in the Middle East though, the Syrian case undoubtedly appears first in the scene. This paper tries to comprehend the Chinese approach to the Syrian case and China in the Middle East.
China and Syria
China in Syria is nothing new; in fact, China has been in Syria for quite some time. China has been trying to play a prominent role in Syria; especially, Russia and the US. As it was mentioned earlier, the resolution in conflict and stabilization in the region, as well as in Syria, has been in the interests of China. Beyond the political steps China has been taking in the region, Beijing is also very keen on keeping strong relations with the Asad regime, which can lead to a wider Chinese presence and influence in the postwar Syria. According to Labate (2014), “Beijing, along with Moscow, has used three times the veto power in the UN Security Council to block the U.S. proposals aimed to punish the Bashar al-Assad regime. At the same time, China has shown itself as a strong supporter of dialogue between government forces and opposition as a unique and desirable solution to the conflict.”
Nicholas Lyall (2019) describes the Chinese foreign policy in the region by reviewing the recent history of China. During the Chinese Mao era, mainly American and Russian approach to the region determined the Chinese foreign policy. Chinese approaches were still quite ideological at the time. In 1978, when Deng Xiaoping era begins, Chinese policies moved towards the economic benefits rather than ideologies (Lyall, 2019). As a result of the ongoing Cold War during this era, China still couldn't mark its presence in the region as a new external power. Primarily because the Middle East was a key region for the USSR and the US to compete. Nonetheless, with the end of the Cold War, China established diplomatic relations with all states in the region by 1992. Following by 1993, China became a net importer of petrochemical products; consequently, China became dependent on Gulf petrochemicals to continue its rapid growth (Lyall, 2019).
The importance of Syria for China is strictly related to the Chinese demand for energy. The growing tensions in Syria come with broader conflicts in the region, which is a threat to the Chinese economy. With its Two Centenary Goals, in order to keep its rapid growth, which has already been damaged by the trade wars, China has to continue its strategic partnership with key countries in the Middle East. Meanwhile, China has to be strong against the neighboring rivalries in the Asia Pacific region, China also has to have good relations with Syria and other Middle Eastern countries. In this context, China, unlike other countries, has a different approach to the Syrian conflict.
China protects its interests and reliability by not militarily intervening in Syria. This soft Chinese way of influence is followed by Chinese aid to the region and Chinese effort to invest. As it was pointed out various times when we compare the US and China, it is easy to see the difference since the US has a priority of building military bases in places they intervene, while China is playing a more subtle role. China is more associated with its humanitarian assistance to the Syrian army and its foreign aids in the region; however, China is doing much more than that in the region. China is providing military assistance to the Syrian army as well as conducting naval exercises in the Mediterranean with Russia (Maloof, 2016).
There are other challenges for China in terms of sustaining the ‘Chinese dream’ Xi Jinping called for in 2012 (BBC, 2013). Xi Jinping aims for a more united China with patriotism and with the required effort to become the world’s dominant power. One of the challenges China faces against its full unification is the fact that China, ethnically, is not all Chinese. The majority of Chinese people consider themselves Han people whereas a considerable amount of people in China do not associate themselves as Chinese. For example, Uighurs and Tibetans have been discriminated against for not going along with the picture Xi Jinping draws.
Former Pentagon official Micheal Maloof (2016) underlines that Uighurs want to break away from China, and they want to establish their own entity. Uyghurs consider themselves Turkic, and they are oppressed by China. Reuters (Blanchard, 2018) reports that: “There is no accurate figure of the number of ethnic Uighurs who have gone to fight with militant groups in Syria, and the Syrian ambassador to China told Reuters last year that up to 5,000 Uighurs are fighting in various militant groups in Syria.” It is unclear whether China is giving the actual numbers at all, but in such a case Syria gains another importance for China. Hence, China has been tightening its policies against its minorities. Gaining leverage in Syria can bring advantages to China over its minorities in the region as well as in China.
In 2015, China passed a counterterrorism law which enables China to conduct joint counterterrorism operations in overseas countries. Chinese noninterference policy is being stretched; thus, China deployed the “Night Tigers”, Chinese special forces, on Tartus in 2017 to combat the Uighur militants. China gives numbers and tries to legitimize its military presence in Syria. However, these developments for China are aiming to increase the military presence in the Syrian conflict. Increasing military presence is in the efforts of being more involved in post-war Syria, and it does pay off for China.
China and Postwar Syria
It is worth noting that Bashar al-Asad said when it comes to reconstruction in Syria; Russia, Iran, and China will have the priority (Maloof, 2016). Considering the fact that oil and gas mainly came from Iran and the Gulf states, Syria hasn’t been the major target for China. Nevertheless, after the One Belt One Road Initiative, Syria became essential for Chinese interests. Besides the Suez Canal, the Levantine region has the potential to become an alternative route for China (Lyall, 2019).
The modern Silk Road project of China offers to link Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. Frantzman (2019) reports that Bouthaina Shaaban said: “The Silk Road is not a silk road if it does not pass through Syria, Iraq, and Iran.” on Al-Mayadeen TV. These opinions are dominant in the Levantine region, and countries are hoping to be a part of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), including Syria. These opinions are made clear, also because the Syrian regime is concerned about further operations Turkey might conduct in the region. These efforts are made to assure external support the Syrian government will receive.
On the other hand, Syria is quite significant when it comes to BRI. China is supporting the Asad regime despite all the negative evidence against its governance. China does not operate by any moral principles, they are just pragmatists. China does whatever works. By keeping the Syria-Iran-China alliance, China, in reality, is preventing western influence to take over in the region. The prevention of a pro-western influence in Syria, can and most likely would end up creating troublesome situations in the region for Chinese interests. By using its veto power along with Russia, China has shown its side in the conflict. Even though China prefers not to get involved in conflicts, China is lowkey starting to get more and more involved with the crisis both politically, diplomatically and, even militarily.
As a part of the BRI, China chose Tripoli to become a Special Economic Zone. Furthermore, the Tripoli port is set to be an alternative to Suez Passage (Lyall, 2019). For this plan to work, China plans to reconstruct the Tripoli-Homs railway and to secure the project China has to secure Syrian ports (Lyall, 2019). China donated 800 electoral power generators to Syria’s largest port, Latakia, in 2018 (Lyall, 2019). These growing funds and helps China is providing to Syria shows that China will be a permanent partner to Syria as well as an important actor in the region.
n 2017, China hosted the “First Trade Fair on Syrian Reconstruction Projects,” in Beijing, in which China announced that it is committed to contributing $2 billion for rebuilding the Syrian industry (Lyall, 2019). In 2018, mainly state-owned, more than 200 Chinese companies were present at the 60th Damascus International Trade Fair (Lyall, 2019). At the fair, China focused on reconstruction in Syria from different aspects, including Huawei’s commitment to rebuilding Syria’s telecommunications system by 2020 (Lyall, 2019). China is waiting for adequate stability in Syria, to start Chinese businesses in the field, and China is making sure that it is ready to involve in post-conflict Syria.
The reality of the reconstruction process is that western powers are not planning to take part in it, which leaves the estimated $400 billion reconstruction cost to Russia, Iran and China (Lyall, 2019). The sanctions that have been shaking the economies of Russia and Iran, leaves China as the only country with enough resources to reconstruct Syria (Lyall, 2019). This argument is debatable since China has been receiving trade sanctions from the US, and countries like Turkey might also want to take part in the reconstruction process in the Nothern side of Syria. Moreover, this price tag is too high for any state even though China is the biggest ally for the Asad government in terms of reconstruction at this point.
Notwithstanding, the efforts on physical construction are one side of the reconstruction process, we know that there are political implications in all this as well. Reconstruction in Syria has different aspects, and China is aware of it. China’s deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, Wang Min said: “We believe that the international community should fully respect Syria’s sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity, the independent choice of the Syrian people, as well as the result of political dialogue among various parties of Syria. (People's Daily Online English Edition, 2012)”
In conclusion, Chinese foreign policy is unique, and it does have smart power features. If we need to look at the developments from the realist theory, it is safe to say that China is protecting its interests in the name of altruistic foreign aids, peaceful noninterference or stability in the region. China can benefit from these elements, and it seems that China is willing to keep its efforts steady, whereas, in reality, China doesn’t ignore the opportunities when they arise. China ignored when the Asad regime was found to use chemical weapons on civilians. China has and will have an important role in the Syrian conflict, yet how it can be shaped with new developments stays unclear.
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