Chinese President Xi Jinping and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made headlines on Friday when they announced the formation of a “strategic partnership” during diplomatic meetings in the southern Chinese city of Hangzhou. The declaration marks a significant step towards strengthening ties between the two nations amidst an increasingly complex international landscape.
- Location: The meeting took place in Hangzhou, which is also hosting the Asian Games for the upcoming weeks.
- Objective: The partnership aims to foster mutual support, promote amicable cooperation, and jointly uphold international fairness and justice.
- Significance: The partnership is one tier below what Beijing terms a “comprehensive strategic partnership”, indicating China’s commitment to its ties with Syria.
China’s Commitment to Syria
Xi Jinping emphasized China’s dedication to collaborating with Syria, especially amidst global uncertainties. Key takeaways from his address include:
- China’s ongoing support for Syria in opposing foreign interference and unilateral bullying.
- An expressed intention to help with Syria’s post-war reconstruction.
- Plans to initiate several infrastructural projects, particularly along the ancient Silk Road.
- A focus on strengthening collaboration via the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to contribute positively to regional and global peace and development.
The Belt and Road Initiative, which Syria joined in 2022, aims to provide infrastructure funding to developing regions, positioning China to expand its influence across these areas.
Assad’s Rare International Appearance
Bashar al-Assad’s visit to China represents his first journey outside the Middle East, except for Russia, since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011. This war began after a severe crackdown on anti-government protestors and has since:
- Resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands and the displacement of millions.
- This led to a decade-long diplomatic isolation for Syria due to Western sanctions.
- Seen Assad’s government reclaim most of Syria’s territories.
However, recent times have observed a change in Syria’s international stance:
- Al-Assad’s government has been renewing ties with Arab neighbors that once supported Syrian rebels.
- In May, the Arab League, which had suspended Syria over a decade ago, agreed to readmit the nation.
- Regional powers like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have been proactive in reincorporating Damascus into regional affairs.
China’s Expanding Middle Eastern Influence
China’s involvement with Syria represents a broader strategy to enhance its global influence and present an alternative to the US-led international order. Noteworthy advancements include:
- Brokering a deal in March between Saudi Arabia and Iran, ending a seven-year-long diplomatic rift.
- Challenging Western dominance by offering financial and diplomatic support to nations like Syria.
- Using platforms like the UN Security Council to back allies, exemplified by China’s eight vetoes against resolutions opposing Assad’s regime.
The Wider Implications for the Middle East
Syria’s changing dynamics in the Middle Eastern landscape include:
- Previously, many of Syria’s neighbors initially supported rebels trying to overthrow Assad.
- However, with backing from Iran and Russia, Assad’s regime has regained control over much of Syria.
- One concern for the Arab League is Syria’s controversial drug trade, especially the amphetamine Captagon. Saudi Arabia, impacted by this trade, reportedly offered Syria $4bn to compensate for the trade’s loss, although this claim is contested.
Looking Forward: Potential Outcomes
The strategic alliance between China and Syria is poised to produce multiple ripple effects in the broader Middle Eastern and global spheres:
1. Economic Revitalization of Syria
The Chinese commitment to Syria’s reconstruction, especially through infrastructural projects under the Belt and Road Initiative, offers hope for Syria’s war-torn economy. The influx of Chinese investments can accelerate rebuilding efforts and enhance livelihoods for millions of Syrians.
2. A Challenge to Western Diplomacy
China’s growing influence in the Middle East and its direct support to Syria could potentially counterbalance Western efforts to isolate nations like Syria. With China backing its allies firmly, nations under Western sanctions might find alternative avenues for diplomatic and economic engagements.
3. Strengthened China-Arab Relations
This strategic partnership may pave the way for enhanced China-Arab collaborations. By taking active roles in resolving longstanding regional disputes, like the one between Saudi Arabia and Iran, China solidifies its reputation as a key diplomatic player in the region.
4. Security Concerns and Implications
The alliance also raises pertinent questions regarding regional security. As China extends its support to Syria, concerns regarding potential military collaborations, intelligence sharing, and defense pacts may arise among global stakeholders.
China’s growing diplomatic engagement in the Middle East is reshaping regional dynamics. The strategic partnership with Syria not only solidifies bilateral ties but also underscores China’s increasing sway in the Middle Eastern theatre. With Syria emerging from its decade-long isolation and China eager to expand its global influence, the partnership heralds an era of renewed collaborations and potential regional shifts and geopolitical realignments.