For the past seven years, China has been involved in the Syria conflict in various ways and to varying degrees. Although having refrained from taking a stake in the conflict the way Russia and the United States have by deploying troops to the country, China has made low-key but decisive moves.
Since 2016, China has been more intimately involved in conflict resolution efforts, as well as laying the ground for a future economic role in Syria, especially in the reconstruction process. Nonetheless, China’s role in Syria still lags far behind that of Russia, the US and regional powers such as Turkey and Iran. However, the recent rise in tensions with the US, Russian expansion into the Middle East, and the rapid development of the One Belt One Road Initiative might encourage Beijing to seek a bigger political and economic role in Syria.
Since the onset of the crisis, China has seldom been absent from international forums aimed at contriving a political resolution. It took part in drafting the June 2012 Geneva I paper, which outlined the contours of a political solution, and has been represented at many other critical junctures. In January 2016, in an unprecedented move given its reluctance to jump into complex foreign issues, China appointed a special envoy to Syria, with the main task of encouraging all parties to reach a political solution to the conflict.
China, however, did not join the Astana troika (Russia, Iran and Turkey), which is actively pushing for a political resolution based on understandings between the three countries. Nor did it join any efforts by the opposing camp (whether the Friends of Syria or any other initiative). It is true that the Astana powers have more direct stakes in the conflict than China, but the latter’s presence might give the troika’s efforts more influence on the international arena.
As Chinese-American tensions over trade continue to rise, and as the Astana group inches closer together in opposing US policy in Syria, China could lend more support to the trio, possibly turning it into a quartet. In January, the Chinese special envoy to Syria participated in the Sochi Conference, which was born out of the Astana talks. And the Russian and Chinese positions came even closer during visits to Moscow by the Chinese ministers of defense and foreign affairs either side of last week’s Ankara summit — an event partially provoked by anti-American grievances.
Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Wei Fenghe stated that his visit to Moscow was a signal to the US about the increasingly close military ties between Moscow and Beijing. His colleague, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, reiterated China’s views on the need to fight terrorism and find a political resolution to the conflict in coordination with Moscow. For the time being, it seems that the Chinese role in Syria will be subsidiary to Russia’s, yet Beijing may, in the near future, take on bigger and more nuanced initiatives.
China is already making important inroads into the Middle East, including opening a large naval base in Djibouti, where it can deploy thousands of troops close to the Mandeb Strait. And Beijing’s relations with key regional powers from Pakistan to Egypt continue their upward trend, at times challenging long-standing US ties. China’s economic growth requires more and more energy sources, so having an active presence in the Middle East, with its vast energy riches, is key to China’s energy security. The trade war with the US will only intensify this trend and China’s overall involvement in the region. Furthermore, China seeks to extend its One Belt One Road Initiative across the Middle East. Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, Egypt and other countries are necessary hubs for this massive economic network. Instability in Syria, which is reverberating across the region, hampers these grand Chinese plans.
Finally, China also has a key security stake in Syria. Thousands of Uyghur fighters, from China’s restive Xinjiang region, are currently fighting in Syria under the banner of the Turkistan Islamic Party, an Al-Qaeda-linked organization. China needs to keep an eye on these battle-hardened, troublesome elements and prevent their return.
The crown jewel of China’s Syria policy is, of course, participation in the reconstruction process. The reconstruction of Syria will cost hundreds of billions of dollars, and China wants its share of the pie. In 2017, the government announced several initiatives in this regard, including a $2 billion plan to build an industrial park for 150 Chinese companies, while Chinese businesses participated in the 59th Damascus International Fair in September 2017. Other expos were organized in China to promote Syrian businesses.
On the ground, the Chinese ambassador to Damascus Qi Qianjin has been waging a public relations campaign, with his country donating millions of dollars to several aid projects across Syria. The Chinese are undoubtedly trying to position themselves to play a key role in rebuilding the Syrian economy — perhaps with the ultimate aim of linking it to the New Silk Road.
On the economic front, China will also face an American challenge, as Western powers continue to impose financial and economic sanctions on Syria, which could hamper revitalization efforts. It is possible Beijing could challenge these restrictions by joining, or even by setting up, an international “club” for the reconstruction of Syria that could mirror the Astana troika’s political efforts. All in all, China will not remain wedded to its “peaceful rise” policy forever, and Syria is one theater where it could respond to mounting US challenges.
• Fadi Esber is a founding associate at the Damascus History Foundation. He is pursuing a doctorate in history at the London School of Economics.