The relationship between China and Syria goes a long way back. Until the moment when the Syrian war broke out in 2011, Beijing was trying to tap into Syrian markets by becoming its largest importer. Chinese companies took part in a great many energy projects in the Syrian Arab Republic. China’s economic plans in Syria have always been more ambitious than those of Russia, and some of them have actually come to fruition. In particular, the Chinese National Oil and Gas Company invested a considerable amount of money in Syria, and was planning to invest more before the war started.
When the initial crisis was transformed in what initially looked like a civil war, Beijing did not remain indifferent, it vetoed time and time again all of the anti-Syrian initiatives proposed before the UN Security Council, effectively obstructing Washington’s armed aggression against Damascus together with Russia.
The Western proxy war against Syria has resulted in China suffering considerable financial losses. However, amid a situation Beijing didn’t want to aggravate relations with Washington, it chose not to send even a limited number of troops to Syria. However, since the Trump administration decided to start a trade war against China, Beijing is reconsidering its approach towards the Arab World in general, and toward Syria in particular.
As China transforms into an incredibly powerful geopolitical player, one that can survive a rivalry with the United States, it draws the rest of the world into cooperation with it, which will soon have global consequences. In this context, Syria can become a test of China’s resolve to more actively intervene in global events in order to promote and defends its own national interests.
Just recently, China’s ambassador to Syria, Qi Qianjin, reportedly stated that the Chinese military is willing to participate in some way alongside the Syrian army in the fight against terrorists in Idlib and in any other parts of Syria.
However, it can not be ruled out that it may be China’s intention to send its military to Syria to obtain some modern military experience, on top of the goal of providing humanitarian relief to the Syrian population and destroying terrorist forces. Just like Russia was able to test its top-notch military equipment by entering the Syrian conflict, Chinese armed forces can get a feel of how well they are prepared for actual deployment.
The statement that the Chinese ambassador made is particularly noteworthy as it was made at a time when Damascus was in need of serious assistance, as the assault of Idlib may prove to be a tough, as all of the anti-government militants have been fleeing all other parts of Syria to transform Idlib in a major stronghold. According to various estimates, the total number of militants entrenched in the Idlib Governorate reaches seventy thousand men. That is a formidable force by anyone’s standards, let alone the Syrian armed forces. On top of that, Idlib is one of the most densely populated territories in the whole of Syria, which means that skirmishes are going to lead to heavy casualties on both sides. So Damascus could benefit greatly from China’s assistance, in spite of the extensive support it has been receiving from the Russian Federation, Iran and Turkey.
As noted by Stratfor, China’s active military involvement in Syria would mark a substantial step forward in overall Chinese involvement in the Middle East and in a global sense as well. A military operation in Syria could open the door for further such Chinese involvements around the globe.
Although it is true that aside for operations under the United Nations peacekeeping mandate, China has largely avoided military operations beyond its borders, but its special forces have already visited Syria on numerous occasions to obtain info on Chinese nationals that came to Syria to join various radical militants groups and remain reluctant to surrender their weapons.
Therefore, it is safe to say that China has had a consistent military presence in Damascus, with some of its advisors deployed there being high-profile figures capable of taking matters into their own hands. Those advisers assist Damascus by providing training to Syrian soldiers, along with sharing their experience of countering Uyghur radical groups in the course of their anti-terrorist operations at home.
China has also started developing its non-military cooperation with the Syrian government, manifesting in major construction and reconstruction projects. China has also been investing into Syria’s healthcare, but officials so far have avoided mentioning large sums. According to yet another statement by China’s ambassador to Syria, Beijing is planning to increase investments in the war-ravaged Syrian economy. So it’s only logical that visits by representatives of Chinese companies have become a common occurrence in this Middle East Republic. In spite of the war, China remains Damascus’ largest trade partner, accounting for 80% of Syrian trade, according to the data presented by the Syrian ambassador to Beijing, Imad Mustafa. Last summer, there was a number of reports released to the general public stating that China was planning to invest 2 billion dollars in the reconstruction of Syria. To be more specific, China’s Huawei is going to be tasked with the rebuilding of destroyed Syrian telecommunications infrastructure. China’s authorities have also expressed their intention to build an industrial park in the Syrian Arab Republic, where a total of 150 Chinese companies are going to be represented.
Since wages in China have been growing steadily throughout the years, Chinese manufacturers are searching for ways to outsource jobs to overseas territories. Therefore, the state Syria is in today may become a viable opportunity for China that will also ensure industrial development of the ravaged Syrian state.
Beijing is equally interested in Syria’s natural resources, like in any other country. It’s no wonder that the largest manufacturer of all sorts of goods in the world is in urgent need of new resources. Even before the beginning of the armed conflict in Syria, China’s oil companies were acquiring shares of their Syrian counterparts at a steady rate.
But Syria is so much more than that to Beijing, since it also seeks a route to the Mediterranean that Damascus can provide it with. After all, out of all of its priorities, the One Belt, One Road initiative remains Beijing’s top priority. Within the framework of the project it is planned to build a transcontinental railway network that will connect Europe and Asia. One of the most convenient routes from a geographical point of view is through the Middle East region. In this case, a railway line can be stretched to the Mediterranean Sea through Turkey or Syria.
Among the challenges that can damage the economic and military cooperation between the two states, the most obvious one is the US. At the moment, radical militants supported by the Western coalition are occupying crucial Syrian border intersections, which are to be retaken if Damascus and Beijing are going to enjoy a steady rate of economic development. Therefore, China’s growing strength and presence in Syria will be largely directed against Washington’s regional designs.
Martin Berger is a freelance journalist and geopolitical analyst, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”