On September 22, seizing the opportunity provided by the visit of Bashar al-Assad to Hangzhou for the 19th Asian Games, China and Syria announced the establishment of a strategic partnership. The joint declaration contains statements of mutual support regarding all the issues that are dear to both countries. These range from Damascus’ backing of Chinese policies in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, to Beijing’s promise to provide “all it can” to help with Syrian reconstruction.
While not directly involved on the ground in any meaningful way (especially compared to Russia), China has played a key role at the United Nations, repeatedly vetoing resolutions that could have undermined al-Assad’s position, even if this meant upsetting some of its Gulf partners.
Against this background, it is worth examining Chinese perspectives on al-Assad’s visit to China. What emerges is that the Syrian leader’s trip and Syria’s recent diplomatic successes are perceived as significant triumphs for Chinese diplomacy vis-à-vis both the Syrian issue specifically, and across the Middle East more broadly. However, despite Damascus’ aspirations, it is remains difficult to find concrete evidence suggesting that these recent developments will prompt deeper Chinese economic involvement in Syria.
In general, Chinese commentators believe that China’s long-standing diplomatic support for Syria, as well as its broader Middle East policy, have been fully vindicated by the recent developments. As Tian Wenlin, a researcher at the Chinese Institute of Contemporary International Relations, wrote:
“In contrast [to the United States], China has consistently advocated from a sense of justice, promoting peace talks, playing a constructive role as much as possible. What is most impressive is that China has vetoed many proposals made by the United States and other Western countries at the United Nations since the beginning of the crisis that sought to interfere in Syria’s internal affairs. […] The return of order in Syria and the improvement of its foreign relations are indirect evidence that China's policy of opposing foreign interference is correct and that China is a truly responsible major country.”
Besides the vetoes, analysts also emphasized how other Chinese actions have contributed, both directly and indirectly, to the survival of the al-Assad regime.
On the one hand, many consider the role played by Chinese diplomats’ visits to Syria and to other Middle Eastern countries aimed at facilitating Syria’s reinstatement as a full member of the Arab League. For example, in April, Ambassador Zhai Jun, the Special Envoy of the Chinese Government on the Middle East Issue, traveled to Damascus, while in June Ambassador Wang Di, the Director General of the Department of West Asian and North African Affairs of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, went to Doha to convince the Qatari leadership to stop opposing Syria re-admission to the League.
On the other hand, what is happening in Syria cannot, in the eyes of Chinese experts, be separated from what Chinese media usually call the “tide of reconciliation,” triggered by the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran that took place in Beijing in March.
For instance, Liu Zhongmin, a senior scholar at Shanghai International Studies University, argued that:
“China's promotion of the above-mentioned initiatives [the Belt and Road Initiative, the Global Development Initiative, the Global Security Initiative, and the Global Civilization Initiative] in the Middle East has had positive effects on the countries there, including Syria […] The emergence of reconciliation in the Middle East and the emphasis on development and transformation by Middle East countries are all closely related to China's initiatives. In the foreseeable future, the implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative, the Global Development Initiative, the Global Security Initiative, and the Global Civilization Initiative in the Middle East will certainly help Syria transition from turbulent conflict to peaceful development and long-term stability.”
According to Fudan University’s Sun Degang:
“With the resumption of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, relations between Syria and countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Turkey have improved, and Syria’s room for diplomatic maneuvering has been greatly improved. This will also help enhance China-Syria relations and deepen bilateral cooperation.”
Syrian media have long anticipated that China will play a key role in the reconstruction of the country. Recently, Chinese President Xi Jinping conveyed to his Syrian counterpart that “China supports Syria in conducting reconstruction.” The text of the newly established strategic partnership also includes Beijing’s support for the lifting of Western sanctions.
However, statements by Chinese commentators indicate that concrete support from China for Syria may not materialize immediately. Most analysts interviewed by Chinese media simply talked about the Syrian hopes and referred to a general alignment of interests between China and Syria within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative. Sun Degang mentioned some kind of possible coordination between China and Gulf countries with the latter providing financial support and the former leveraging its “advantages in engineering and construction.”
Wang Jin, a scholar at China’s Northwest University, reportedly stated that:
“due to the long-term sanctions imposed by Western countries, there are certain difficulties in cooperation between Syria and China, and it is necessary to understand rationally and steadily promote economic and trade cooperation.”
As expressed by Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Yu Guoqing, there is little hope that those sanctions-related problems will disappear any time soon.
These comments are not surprising. In previous issues of the ChinaMed Observer, we have often reported that Chinese analysts perceive there to be numerous obstacles, from American sanctions to Syria’s lack of modern logistic and financial infrastructure, that prevent any meaningful economic cooperation between Beijing and Damascus. In July 2021, Shanghai International Studies University’s Ding Long stated that:
“Based on objective reality, the two sides’ [China and Syria] statements to strengthen cooperation are mainly declarations of intention. If, how, and in what areas there can be cooperation surely need to be clarified further.”
The most recent comments made by Chinese analysts do not show a significant change in that assessment.
The analysis of Chinese media commentaries suggests that the Syrian leader’s trip to China and Damascus’ recent diplomatic achievements are considered as victories for Chinese diplomacy regarding both the Syrian issue and China’s broader Middle East policy. A strong sense of pride and responsibility shines through the words of Chinese experts.
Yet, these events do not seem likely to lead to a deepening of Chinese economic engagement in Syria. The tone of the statements made by Chinese analysts hardly differs from pessimistic ones that characterized the debate over past couples of years. In other words, it remains to be seen if and how much Sino-Syrian relations will change in the foreseeable future, especially in terms of trade and investment.
 Zhōnghuá rénmín gònghéguó hé ālābó xùlìyǎ gònghéguó guānyú jiànlì zhànlüè huǒbàn guānxì de liánhé shēngmíng (quánwén) 中华人民共和国和阿拉伯叙利亚共和国关于建立战略伙伴关系的联合声明（全文）[Announcement of the establishment of the strategic partnership between the People’s Republic of China and the Syrian Arab Republic (full text)], PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs, September 22, 2023, link.
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 Zhōngguó yào “quánmiàn jìnrù xùlìyǎ”? 中国要“全面进入叙利亚”? [Does China want to “go all-in” in Syria?], Global Times, July 20, 2021, link.