China is turning towards the Middle East and is ready to play a major role in helping to rebuild war-torn Syria. The world’s second biggest economy has already pledged US$2 billion for reconstruction work at the aptly-named First Trade Fair on Syrian Reconstruction Projects in Beijing.
“China appears determined to take on a central role,” said Dr Gideon Elazar a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv and a post-doctoral fellow at Ben-Gurion University, specializing in Asian Studies.
“One factor motivating the country’s involvement is the One Belt-One Road Initiative – a planned attempt to establish and control a modern day Silk Road connecting China, the Middle East and Europe. This might mark a shift in the geo-strategic reality of the region,” he added.
Beijing already has strong ties with President Bashar al-Assad and sees a golden opportunity on the horizon now that Syria is edging towards peace after a brutal civil war.
More than 30 Chinese companies, including infrastructure construction giants China Energy Engineering Corporation and China Construction Fifth Engineering Division, are reported to have visited the country this year.
The main topic of discussions with provincial governors was major infrastructure projects.
“With the gradual collapse of ISIS and the impending conclusion of the Syrian civil war, it is becoming clear that China will (have a crucial part to play),” Elazar said. “Indeed, its involvement in Syria has been on the rise over the past several months.”
China’s state-owned news agency Xinhua confirmed in October that President Xi Jinping’s administration was ready to participate in rebuilding the shattered country.
In addition, the Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs has already approved a number of initial aid projects after the Syrian ambassador to China, Imad Mustafa, explained that Bejing’s projected role was a direct result of aid to Assad’s regime.
“China, Russia and Iran have provided substantial support to Syria during the military conflict,” Mustafa said. “Therefore, it is these three countries that should play a major role in the reconstruction of Syria.”
The costs will be staggering. After nearly seven years of war, Syria’s economy lies in tatters with about US$226 billion in cumulative losses from 2011 until 2016, the influential China.org.cn website reported.
Data from the World Bank in July showed that was about four times Syria’s GDP in 2010.
Still, the establishment of Astana-brokered safe zones has allowed Assad’s government to regain control of large swathes of territory, including areas containing strategic oil and gas fields.
“From the Chinese perspective, investment in Syria must be viewed within the larger context of the One Belt-One Road (Belt and Road Initiative),” Elazar said. “This is the heavily promoted, modern day version of the ancient Silk Road.
“It is likely that China is hoping to turn Syria into an important terminus of its economic web, perhaps centered around the Mediterranean ports of Latakia and Tartus,” he added.