BRI, The Chinese bid for Syria’s Reconstruction

Chinese interests in Syria

Last April, a delegation from the Chinese-Arab Friendship Association, an organization founded by the State Council of the People’s Republic with the aim of increasing political, cultural, economic and commercial partnerships between China and the Arab countries, met with the Industry Minister of the Assad government, Ahmad al-Hamo, to discuss the possibilities for China to invest in the post-war reconstruction of the country.

The Chinese government has long expressed its interest in increasing the scale of its investments for the reconstruction of Syria. Beijing has already sent $2 billion in industrial investments to Syria and further $23 billion were allocated through the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum (in addition to $90 billion sent as humanitarian aid throughout the area, Syria included).[1]

The reason for such a huge effort from the Chinese government, bound to intensify, must be sought not only as a humanitarian impulse, but mainly for the crucial impact that Syria has in Chinese projects to expand westward in the Eurasian continent. As a matter of fact, Syria is the crossroad where the land and sea routes of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative meet.

BRI: The New Silk Roads

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is the gigantic project, launched by the Chinese President Xi Jinping in September 2013, to connect the main industrial production centers of the People’s Republic with the countries to the West, through a series of connecting infrastructures that extend over the whole of Eurasia.

The BRI already covers 71 counties, on three different continents and including almost the whole of Asia, 65% of the world’s population, three-quarters of global energy resources and 40% of the world’s GDP. In the 2017 the annual trade of China with its partners in the BRI exceeds $1.4 trillion. The main vectors of this huge exchange network are two: by land and by sea.

The land way, the Belt or “New Silk Road”, starts from Xi’an, already the end of the medieval silk way and today a crucial economic center of the country, and creates a network of  railways and highways that connects Mongolia, the “Stan countries”, Iran, Turkey, Russia to finally reaching Duisburg and Rotterdam in Europe.

The maritime route, the Road or “String of Pearls”, consists in ports and naval bases located in a series of countries, mainly facing the Indian Ocean, which allow Chinese ships to call and export in such countries. Starting from Hong Kong, the Chinese economic and commercial capital, the “String” connects with Cambodia, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Pakistan, Iraq, Kenya, Djibouti, North Sudan and finally reach the Piraeus port in Athens. Beijing has also proposed to the Italian government to extend the connection to Venice, mainly because of the ancient connection of the lagoon city with the Silk Road.

One of the main problems of the People’s Republic is to connect the “Belt” with the “Road”. For China it is crucial to be able to bypass the choke points represented by the straits that separate the South China Sea from the Indian Ocean (Malacca, Sunda and Lombok) that, being controlled by the US, prevent the Chinese maritime power to fully develop. A first important asset in this sense is represented by the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which connects by land Eastern China to the port of Gwadar in Pakistan, in turn connected to the String of Pearls.

Why Syria?

In this perspective, Syria becomes a crucial junction within the BRI: a possible development of its transport and port infrastructures, properly connected with each other and with the Belt and Road Initiative, would allow China a further maritime outlet for its land trade and a formidable trade post in the Mediterranean. A further advantage is represented by the increased quantity of goods that China could deliver into the Mediterranean, overcoming the further bottleneck of the Suez Canal.

Syria also has at least two important factors that represent opportunities to be exploited by Beijing: the country’s urgent need to obtain funds to be allocated to reconstruction and development and the simultaneous disengagement of the United States from the Middle East, an empty space not filled by the EU. Syria is therefore an extremely interested and receptive partner to the proposals of the Chinese government, which finds itself at the same time freed from any diplomatic controversy that could slow down its action.

Although the Chinese interest in Syria is mainly economic in nature, it is not to be excluded that Beijing will also increasingly intervene in anti-terrorist cooperation activities, both in Syria and in the rest of the Middle East, mainly with the perspective of safeguarding its numerous investments and to protect, if necessary, the infrastructures of primary interest to China.

A further advantage that China could obtain from Syria’s connection to the BRI is the possibility of further developing its commercial network in Africa, where the Middle Kingdom[2] has numerous interests and has already implemented numerous development projects and investments.

If Beijing succeeds in extending its control over Syria more systematically, by filling the void left by the US and EU, this will prove to be a very important factor in its path of expansion westward. Syria could represent the keystone of the entire BRI, bringing it to a fundamental checkpoint, managing to bypass most, if not all, of the blockades that have bottled China within its natural borders so far.

BRI: The Forbidden City opens its doors

Behind what is supposed to be one of the largest infrastructure investments in history (with an estimated cost ranging from $1 trillion to $8 trillion[3]) there are certainly economic reasons, but it represents for Beijing a formidable tool to increase the political weight of the People’s Republic in the international forum.

Until recently, China has suffered certain isolation in the international diplomacy, being considered an “economic giant, political dwarf”. The path taken by the presidency of Xi Jinping, whose powers were further strengthened in February, aims primarily to use the leverage its ever-growing economy to increase China to the rank of a full superpower.

It should not be forgotten that China’s second-ranking position is something “recent” in the country’s history. At least until the 19th century, China rightly considered itself a superpower within East Asia and beyond. The path taken by the People’s Republic has been, since almost its inception, to regain ground, first in Southeast Asia and today trying to project its power towards the rest of the continent and beyond. In this framework can also be read the various territorial disputes that China has with its neighboring countries over the islands in the Chinese South Sea, crucial in Beijing’s expansion projects for their military value in protecting its maritime trade routes.

Conclusions

China thus finds itself with an enormous economic and financial potential to exploit, but at the same time is limited in its actions by the opposition to any further expansion, mainly from the US and its allies. The BRI is trying to unhinge this situation by investing in developing countries or in need and, in return, by gaining international prestige.

Syria could therefore be the unattended “back door”, especially since the US administration has focused its attention on the Pacific (Obama’s Pivot to Asia), leaving plenty of room for maneuver to other players in the region like Turkey, Iran, Russia and, of course, China.

Moreover, the European Union has shown not only of being unable to fill the gap left by the US in the Mediterranean, but some countries have shown themselves to be extremely interested in the BRI, providing useful support to the Beijing projects.

It is still unclear how the Western countries will address the issue. The containment action that the United States is implementing in the Pacific may not be sufficient to restrain China’s expansionist push, and this could lead to a renewed US interest in the Middle East. However, until now, the Trump administration has not shown any sign of wanting to move in this direction.

China’s success in including Syria in its economic, commercial, financial and political network could really allow China to be increasingly connected to the European market, an opportunity of extreme interest to it. What is certain is that ships flying the Chinese flag will be a more and more common sight in the Mediterranean.

Marco Battaglia

BA in Contemporary History, University of Rome “La Sapienza”


References

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Notes

[1] Beijing has so far allocated $20 billion in loans to promote projects and jobs, a further $3 billion in special loans for the financial sector and $2 billion in industry and infrastructure investments. Moreover $90.6 million will be sent as a humanitarian aid to Syria, Yemen, Jordan and Lebanon. [see here]

[2] Literal translation of the ideograms forming the word “China”: Zhōngguó (中国), from 中 zhōng (“central”) and 国 guó (“state, realm, kingdom”).

[3] According to the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Chinese Global Investment Tracker, approximately $340 billion has been allocated in investments up to 2018. [see here]