China and Syria: A Key Piece of the Regional Geopolitical Puzzle?


Geopolitical discussions pertaining to Syria tend to primarily revolve around Russia and Iran, with China oftentimes receiving far less attention. A most peculiar state of affairs in light of the fact that China sees Syria as a critical element with respect to its long-term goal of exerting dominance in the Middle East, a region multiple orders of magnitude more difficult to tackle than let’s say Africa, where China has achieved impressive results.

From establishing geopolitical relations as of 1956 to the complex equation of the present, we need to understand that there are two main dimensions involved.

On the one hand, we have the economic dimension, with China seeing Syria as a region through which it can proverbially pivot to the Middle East. If we choose to see things strictly from the perspective of trade, the relationship between the two entities seems quite unbalanced in light of the fact that Syrian exports to China are all but non-existent, whereas Syrian imports from China are in the $2 billion per year zone.

However, there is more to the Syrian dimension that strictly trade, as evidenced by the investments China has been willing to make in Syria. For example, we have the elephant in the room, China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Syria’s role. That role revolves around China’s desire to essentially establish an alternative route to the Mediterranean than the Suez Canal through Lebanon and… of course, Syria. The same way, China has been willing to invest heavily in Syrian re-building efforts, for example by allocating roughly $2 billion toward an industrial park and all in all, it should come as no surprise that Beijing sees itself as a dominant force from a potential Syrian economic re-launch perspective. Of course, let us not forget the oil dimension, with the China National Petroleum Corporation being willing to commit to a joint venture with the oil company of Syria and the list of Chinese investment initiatives could go on and on.

The second dimension is that of security, with China being less than thrilled by the perspective of terrorism, with Syria representing a very dangerous variable. Up until the relatively recent past, its concerns primarily revolved around Afghanistan, concerns which have China’s Uighur minority in the spotlight (a we have referred to on more than one occasion). Whether we are referring to TIP (the Turkestan Islamic Party) or ETIM (the East Turkestan Islamic Movement) which were active in Afghanistan, concerns abounded. That changed along with the rise of ISIS in Iraq as well as Syria as of 2014, with concerns pertaining to thousands of Uighurs from the Xinjiang region enlisting and ultimately returning to China being considered most problematic.

As can be seen, we are not dealing with a magnanimous China which is only interested in helping, that rarely (if ever) happens in the pragmatic to the point of cynical world of geopolitics. Instead, we are dealing with a China which understands all too well that it cannot afford to ignore the Syrian situation and, on the contrary, needs to be involved so as to ensure that its interests are furthered.

Has it done just that in a very vocal manner?

Most definitely not.

As pretty much always when it comes to the geopolitical game, China has chosen the soft power approach rather than aggressive initiatives. But, make no mistake, its role in the region has been crucial because Russia and Iran alone are in no way economically well-positioned enough to ensure that Syria is covered when it comes to that dimension. With an economy barely above that of Spain and smaller than the Italian one, Russia is simply not able to deploy enough financial resources to handle a situation such as the one in Syria, let us not even refer to Iran. Instead, each nation ended up leveraging its own advantages, from Iran’s “on the ground” influence to Russia’s military capabilities and China’s… well, money.

Needless to say, China’s approach when it comes to Syria represents yet another element of discord as far as its relations with the West are concerned. As explained time and time again here on, China is not choosing the “soft power” approach because it believes in being let’s say elegant. Not at all, it is doing it because it understands all too well that for pragmatic reasons, it cannot “afford” to act as anything but a soft power at this point in time.

To put it differently, China is nowhere near robust enough economically to burn bridges with the West, especially in a context where more and more trading partners have expressed frustrations with respect to the problematic trade deficits they are constantly experiencing with China. As has been proven time and time again, China is not exactly the type of geopolitical actor that sees value in adding gasoline to an already-dangerous flame.

As such, China’s involvement in Syria represents a pragmatic bet. On the one hand, it is involved enough to make it clear that any re-building efforts need to revolve around the Chinese variable but on the other hand, it is not willing to go “all in” investment-wise at this point in time because, again, it cannot afford to irreparably burn bridges with the West.

Chinese Realpolitik 101, in other words.

It remains to be seen how China’s involvement in Syria will continue to unfold. From major players such as Huawei who are involved in various aspects of the Syrian re-building process (Syria’s telecommunications infrastructure when referring to Huawei, for example) to the Chinese government itself reaching for its proverbial wallet through the Belt and Road Initiative as well as other projects, it is clear that China intends to represent the dominant economic force in the region, with the West not being interested in threatening the status quo in question at this point in time. As always when it comes to geopolitics in general and especially Middle Eastern geopolitics, “volatility” is the operative word and the team will therefore continue paying very close attention to the Sino-Syrian equation.