China did not disengage from Syria when the country was plunged into turmoil in 2011, and contacts and communication between the Chinese government and the Syrian regime remained in place at the political level. China has also refused to condemn the regime in the Security Council and has used its veto power (alongside Russia) to protect it. But the Chinese-Syrian economic relationship clashes with American interests, which limits the extent of China’s influence in Syria.
China has chosen a middle path in the Syrian issue and does not want to play a direct role like that of Russia and Iran. At the same time, China does not want to relinquish the field in the Middle East, as it seeks to achieve balance in its relationships with Arab countries split over the Syrian situation. Thus, China’s short-term role in Syria remains offering humanitarian aid, with aid agreements signed in 2017 totalling $40 million, in parallel with its aspiration for a long-term economic role in reconstruction as part of its economic investment project, the Belt and Road Initiative.
On this basis, the Syrian coast, in China’s mind, will play the role of an ‘industrial linking port’ tying together the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea and the Mediterranean via Chinese investments in ports in the Gulf, Egypt, Djibouti and Israel.
Damascus welcomes the Belt and Road Initiative. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad spoke frankly about this project in an interview with the Chinese outlet Phoenix on 16 December 2019, saying that Syria could be a part of the initiative by developing its infrastructure with China’s help.
Talk is taking place in Syrian political and economic circles regarding two Chinese manufacturing cities in Syria in the post-war phase, for which contracts may be signed this year, along with Chinese reinvestment in the oil sector, since it has investments in oil fields in the governorate of Hasaka, Raqqa and the Syrian Badia.
The growing Sino-Gulf relationship, especially with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, is playing a role in this reliance on the Syrian coast. The UAE, in particular, which has recently strengthened its economic relations with China, is considered one of the countries enthusiastic about the return of relations with Syria and will be a catalyst in expanding the Chinese economic role alongside the Russian role.
Nevertheless, China cannot play any economic role in Syria without US approval, since the US has placed many sanctions on the Syrian regime over the past nine years. The US policy in Syria focuses on economically strangling the regime without seeking to overthrow it militarily, so as to avoid confrontation with the Russians.
Moreover, the United States’ Caesar Act cuts off all countries’ economic dealings with the Syrian regime. One of the provisions of the law stipulates the prosecution of countries, companies and individuals who deal with the Syrian regime, and Chinese companies will fall under this prohibition. American sanctions under the Caesar Act will extend to individuals, institutions, countries and companies that deal with any regime entities. This affects the contract signed by Chinese company Huawei with the Syrian Ministry of Communications in 2015 to maintain communications infrastructure, as well as entities that export materials for building and reconstruction.This could put China, whatever its ambitions may be, at odds with the US as well as European countries that line up behind US policy toward Syria.