The Syrian civil war has now entered its seventh year and appears to be drifting further and further away from a diplomatic resolution. What started out as a wave of protests and calls for reform, has led to one of the bloodiest and most unique civil conflicts in recent times. Alongside its numerous internal belligerents, the war has dragged in the region’s key players (Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia) as well as the majority of the world’s great powers.
Recently the news has been dominated once more by the rift in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) between Russia and the west. But one significant member appears to once more have slipped quietly under the radar of the attention of the belligerents and especially the western media: the People’s Republic of China.
The outrage in the West that met the news that Russia had once more vetoed an attempt to pass a UN resolution after the alleged gas attack in Douma, appears to have covered up the fact that the 8228th meeting of the UNSC not only demonstrated that Russia will likely veto any draft the West put forward (and vice versa), but that China is also content to remain out of the spotlight regarding the Middle East and its almost perpetual state of crisis and instability.
China’s ambassador to the UN, Mr Wu Haitao, made a point of expressing his government’s ‘deep concern’ at the news of a chemical attack; as well as emphasising that the Chinese remained ‘firmly opposed’ to any use of such a weapon and that an ‘impartial investigation’ should be dispatched to the site. Whilst this response may appear to show nothing of note, the bulk of the ambassador’s opening of his address was almost a carbon copy of his speech to the same delegates the previous week (3 days before the attack was alleged to have taken place). In this meeting on the 10th April, China followed up its words by abstaining in a vote for the US-led resolution and voting in favour for the equivalent introduced by Russia.
This is not to say that China is doing the bare minimum of abiding by its obligations as a permanent and founding member of the Security Council. It shows that the priorities of Beijing differ quite significantly to its counterparts not just in the West, but in Moscow as well. With Assad on the offensive, coinciding with the downturn in fortunes for both the western-backed opposition and Islamic State, it would appear that the Chinese are gearing up to rebuild and reshape Syria in a model that compliments their long-term goals for the region. If Syria is to return to peace then someone will have to assist the government in footing the bill for reconstruction; which is predicted to cost anything between $250 billion and an astronomical $1 trillion. The West will likely be unable to provide any substantial assistance given their opposition to Assad; likewise, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states will be looked on with suspicion. The Russians and Iranians will not have the financial clout to match the significant political and military support they have provided. As well as that, their respective economies are struggling under numerous sanctions imposed by the West. China, on the other hand, has the means, and importantly the desire to provide the immense investment and aid that Syria will desperately need. But this is not just a moral mission on China’s part. It is part of an immense Chinese project that covers not only the entire region but spans across several continents. Over the last two decades in particular, China has been steadily expanding its economic sphere of influence to rival that of the US. Massive investment in the impoverished, yet mineral rich, African continent, for example, has been described as a testing ground for investment on an even greater scale. In fact, total trade between China and the African continent topped over $200 billion in 2014.
This is far from coincidental given that in the same year, Premier Xi Jinping announced China’s highly ambitious and controversial ‘Belt and Road’ policy; a plan to recreate the ancient Silk Road, through the exporting of China’s entrepreneurs, corporations, culture and capital. This monumental plan has seen vast investment throughout the countries encompassing the ancient trading corridor from Istanbul to Persia and beyond to Southeast Asia. The strategy has led China to begin covertly forming successful relationships with the Middle East’s biggest traditional rivals.
China has also attempted to juggle strong relationships with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, two countries whose rivalry has led them to be involved in several proxy wars. Iran has always been the traditional pro-Chinese of the two, however Saudi Arabia has recently become one of the largest exporters of oil to China, second only to Russia. Chinese investment has also seen enormous projects further afield: an enormous new trading port in southern Pakistan, a rail link to Europe through Kazakhstan and central Asia, as well as upgrading existing railways in Iran.
So why isn’t China throwing its full weight behind Assad? Why doesn’t it also try and bring about a government victory so it can proceed with similar immense new projects? This once again does not fit into Beijing’s long-term foreign policy goals. Russia is looking to be sliding towards a second Cold War with the West and so it is aiming to score one over its rivals with an Assad victory. China in comparison is looking to make more of an impact on Syrian society itself. In an article in the Financial Times in 2017, David Pilling described how the Chinese projects in African countries like Nigeria, Ethiopia and Mozambique had brought about increased opportunities for local communities. Whilst the projects did labour governments with significant debt, there is a ‘begrudging recognition that China has mostly benefitted Africa’. It is likely that China will look to make the same impact in Syria, from rebuilding the ancient cities of Aleppo and Damascus (the latter of which saw the benefits of the ancient Silk Road), to investing in the shattered oil industry. Where Russia and Iran will be hailed as the saviours of law and order by Assad and the Ba’ath party, China will in all likelihood be the true winner in this, the latest episode in the scramble for increased influence in the Middle East.