By Sara Hsu
Even as the West favors airstrikes against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and steers clear of supporting the president in rebuilding Syria, China has stated that it is interested in reconstructing the war-torn nation, and Chinese firms are lining up to become part of the process. The reconstruction cost is expected to amount to $250 billion, according to the United Nations. China’s motivations are apolitical, and are not aimed at opposing the policies of Western nations. Rather, China is propelled by economic and security reasons to take part in rebuilding Syria.
Chinese firms interested in reconstruction include infrastructure construction companies such as China Energy Engineering Corporation and China Construction Fifth Engineering Division. In addition, a Syria Day Expo held in Beijing was attended last year by hundreds of Chinese infrastructure investment firms. At the First Trade Fair on Syrian Reconstruction Projects held last summer, officials pledged $2 billion for the reconstruction process. Chinese energy firms might have benefited as well, since before the Syrian war began, Syria’s main energy contracts were held with Western energy companies such as Shell and Total. However, Russia has been given exclusive rights to produce oil and gas in Syria.
Reasons for China’s support of Syria
China has previously provided funds to the Assad regime during the crisis, and does not appear to have any qualms about Assad’s brutal governance tactics. China has proven that it is often unwilling to involve itself in foreign conflicts unless it will benefit from intervention, even when worst practices are being carried out. A case in point was China’s support for Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, who likened himself to Hitler in the massacre of his own people. In recent years, China has attempted to engage to some extent in humanitarian crisis, with negative results. China initially supported a UN-backed and NATO-led intervention in Libya designed to prevent the killing of civilians under the Qaddafi regime, but when this turned out to involve the use of force, China strongly opposed the actions. This buttressed China’s refusal to take action in Syria.
Another major reason for this may be that Chinese officials are much in favor of Assad’s secular socialist politics, and are opposed to the spread of radical Islam, which they believe is igniting Uighur attacks against the mainstream Han Chinese in Western China. Some Uighurs have been said to go to Syria in order to learn how to fight, in order to bring violence back to China, although to some extent, China’s reporting on Uighur “terrorists” has been misstated. In any case, due to China’s perceived importance of the secular Assad regime, China has vetoed a number of resolutions in the U.N. to impose sanctions on or condemn Syria in any way since 2011.
China’s choice to fund Syrian reconstruction also appears to be economically motivated, in large part because Syria provides an important pathway along China’s Silk Road. On the ancient Silk Road, the city of Aleppo acted as a key market for buying and selling international goods, and the west coast of the country continues to provide access to the Mediterranean Sea. At present, Syria has the potential to be an important logistics hub. Not only that, but the construction of infrastructure itself will generate income for Chinese firms that have shown interest in taking part. This will aid Chinese firms, especially since the Asian nation is going through a period of slowing economic growth that has led to lower rates of infrastructure investment.
In addition, serious security will help ensure that Chinese investments in the region will remain intact. Some of these are located in Egypt, Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. The region is essential to Chinese investment in energy and infrastructure, and is viewed as an important crossroads between Asia and Europe. The security of this region can help to stabilize Xinjiang, home to Uighur separatists that China views as a threat to security and an important node on China’s new belt and road.
China and the West
The U.S., Europe, and Gulf Arab allies are steering clear of funding reconstruction in Syria, as they believe that the wrong side won the Civil War. These nations have called for Assad’s departure as a precondition for receiving reconstruction aid, as they believe Assad is responsible for myriad atrocities carried out on his own people. The U.S. took the side of moderate Syrian rebels. For his part, Assad has stated he will reject aid from nations that supported the opposition during the war. Syria has received aid from Iran, Russia, and China, and will likely continue to do so.
Despite the opposition of the West against Assad, China’s decision to support the current Syrian government does not appear to be motivated by anti-Western sentiment or the desire to compete for influence with the United States. There are those who rally around the Chinese flag due to opposition to the United States, for sure, but these include less powerful nations, like Syria or Iran, that are politically and/or ideologically opposed to U.S. hegemony in the region and in the world.
In conclusion, China’s position of support for Assad’s Syria underscores its security and economic interests in the region. While any measure of support for a particular regime may be viewed as political, China is attempting to refrain from engaging in directly political activities in the country and in the Middle Eastern region. China’s aim is to make economic gains through One Belt One Road, employing its own firms in the construction of much-needed infrastructure, and attempting to ensure security in order to do so. While the West may dislike China’s support of the Assad regime, China’s involvement in the reconstruction process is likely to bolster its role in the Middle East and strengthen its global soft power going forward.