In recent weeks China has offered indications of a future role in Syria, comprising not only infrastructure investment and trade as the conflict appears to wind down, but also a novel desire to increase cooperation on the counter-terrorism front.
On Aug. 5, the Chinese Embassy in Damascus released a letter written by Ambassador Qi Qianjin, which pointed to Beijing’s enduring rhetoric of using infrastructure investment and reconstruction deals to rejuvenate Syria and the region.
Ambassador Qi described Beijing’s aims to develop railways and seaports to create greater economic interconnectivity. Increasing cooperation with Syria helps China’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) ambitions in the region and its promises of financial injections into the Middle East.
At a China-Arab States Cooperation Forum in July, Beijing pledged US$20 billion in loans for infrastructure development, accompanied by a nearly US$100 million package dedicated to humanitarian assistance for Syria and Yemen.
As the 60th Damascus International Trade Fair recently concluded, China pushed narratives that it is committed to building steel plants and power plants in Syria, producing Chinese-brand cars in Homs, adding that Chinese tourists are already returning to Damascus.
All of this is geared towards exuding an image of a China that is focused on the economic revitalization of Syria and its people. Ambassador Qi’s letter also touched on a new area for cooperation: the security sphere.
Qi Qianjin’s letter
The ambassador’s August letter affirmed China’s willingness to participate indirectly in the conflict and to hold a greater stake in Syrian security. “[We intend] to strengthen our cooperation with Syria on the political, military, economic and social levels,” he stated in his letter.
Hua Chunying, the Chinese ministry of foreign affairs spokesperson, has denied that China plans to be involved “in some way” in the Syrian conflict as the ambassador earlier suggested in an interview with Syrian newspaper Al-Watan.
Analysts have interpreted Ambassador Qi’s letter as an illustration of strategic ambiguity, which allows China to hold high-level discussions about strengthening military ties with Syria while also retaining a level of deniability regarding its actual role.
China has, meanwhile, expressed interest in developing a sea port in Tartus, a connectivity goal that extends to China’s political and military ambitions.
Indirect measures such as personnel deployment, increased arms and equipment sales and training military forces would allow China to participate in the conflict without actually being on the ground, still adhering to its domestic principles and international norms.
Ambassador Qi’s letter said China was committed to helping resolve the Syrian issue by “tightening international cooperation in the eradication of extremism.”
Chinese state press releases and narratives put forward by Ambassador Qi, Special Envoy Xie Xiaoyan and Ambassador to the UN Ma Zhaoxu up to that point had consistently denounced the existence of extremism and terrorism in Syria but have never included a Chinese determination to participate in their “eradication.”
Xie Xiaoyan corroborated Ambassador Qi’s narrative of China’s willingness to participate in counter-terrorism efforts at a media briefing following the initial release of the letter. This language demonstrates a similar level of strategic ambiguity but also a desire to be more proactively involved in military assistance.
While such language may appear to be unprecedented, it is grounded in Chinese domestic law and possibly foreshadows a burgeoning Chinese military footprint in Syria and the broader region.
In 2015, China passed its Counter-terrorism Law, which allows Beijing to take all necessary measures to put down any activities or behavior it deems threatening to state security and sovereignty. These threats can be summarized by the oft-recited Chinese goal of ridding itself of “the three evils” – terrorism, separatism and religious extremism.
The law was created in response to seven terrorist attacks in China between the start of 2013 and the summer of 2014, five of which were in Xinjiang and all of which were affiliated with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which is active in Syria.
It now serves as a cornerstone for the Communist Party’s handling of ethnic minority issues, affording a domestic justification for action that is considered before international normative frameworks to which China is a signatory.
This domestic legal precedent allows China to hold a selectively expansive interpretation of what constitutes a threat. Given Ambassador Qi’s determination to increase counter-terrorism cooperation, it is possible China may expand its self-defense and safeguarding of national interests beyond its borders.
As an unwavering supporter of non-intervention and the peaceful resolution of disputes, China has a lot to lose in regard to reputation if it were to change face, especially as the Syrian conflict is winding down.
More likely is the idea that China is laying a foundation where it has increased capabilities to work with Syria and other regional powers on military-to-military exchanges, training and equipment sales.
China’s reported goal of helping counter extremism would also allow the PRC to flex its military assistance muscles and support the sanctity of sovereign states, lending to their future willingness to collaborate with China on infrastructure deals and multilateral issues.
While ardently reiterating it is abiding by its tried-and-true non-interventionist principles, China is also firing off subtle signals that indicate its military footprint is increasing.
Chinese cars in Homs
From Sept. 6 to 15, more than 200 Chinese companies participated in the 60th Damascus International Fair. The fair is one of the oldest of its kind in the Middle East, but was suspended from 2011 to 2016 as protests against the rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad grew into an armed rebellion and civil war.
The re-established fair allows international companies to set up shop in a Damascus exhibition center, pitching deals either to Syria or one another. Russia had the most companies there, but it does not have the financial capability that China does to aid in Syria’s reconstruction.
The general manager of Syria’s Mallouk & Co announced at the fair that his car manufacturing plant in Homs was set to start producing Chang’an and Geely cars, both Chinese brands, in November.
With this announcement, China became the only international stakeholder aside from Iran with a set timeline to start car production in Syria.
Mallouk explained candidly that Chinese cars were much more desirable than those from Iran because they are more “fashionable, practical, and easy to operate.”
On Sept. 7, Syria’s Minister of Tourism, Bishr Riad Yazigi, announced that Chinese tourists were once again coming to Syria.
While pursuing tourism as a possible industry for increased China-Syria cooperation may appear problematic as much of the country is ransacked and at risk, the Syrian government continues to put out promotional videos for its tourism sector.
Tourism is a coveted industry for the Syrian government and by playing along in supporting its sector growth, Beijing is appeasing Damascus and helping to engineer its identity for a post-war Syria.
For China, the fair also offered a chance for its companies to strike deals and joint ventures with an eye on long-term partnerships with Syria’s key industries in the post-war period.
The State Grid Corporation of China showed interest in rebuilding Syria’s power generation infrastructure. A number of China’s electric power state-owned enterprises were reportedly interested in jointly shouldering the responsibility. Previously, Chinese tech giant Huawei promised to rebuild Syria’s telecommunications infrastructure.
As a majority of the Chinese companies at the fair were state-owned enterprises, it is likely that Chinese government-backed entities were looking to build working relationships which could lead to a public-private partnership (PPP) reconstruction ecosystem in Syria.
China’s PPP model is becoming progressively more opaque, as Beijing continuously eyes to increase its stake in its biggest private companies. Notably, rumors are circulating that Huawei is in the process of being acquired by the government, lending to the notion that the PRC aspires to employ private corporations to fulfill development and reconstruction goals in Syria and elsewhere.
Beijing is unfettered by the baggage that Assad’s ally Russia and his foe America hold: a legacy in Syria of violence, unflagging aggression and perceived unwillingness to make concessions for a chance at a political peace process.
The US-Russian rivalry in Syria has opened a path for China to covertly increase indirect military engagement, strike deals and still appear as the only major power acting as a responsible international stakeholder.
China will be remembered as the country that consistently called for collaboration at multilateral forums while also looking at investment deals and reconstruction projects aimed to aid Syria’s rejuvenation. While China’s ambitions are more self-interested than that, it remains an attractive strategic partner relative to Russia and the US.
At the same time, China has been able to maintain its position on the outside of the conflict while still supporting its political interests.
All of China’s post-war reconstruction plans with Syria depend on Assad staying in power, an outcome to which Beijing has been able to indirectly contribute.
China has exercised its veto in the United Nations Security Council for resolutions which sought to sanction external military forces intervening in the conflict, taking a back seat while Russia assisted the Syrian military in reclaiming much of the country.
Beijing has, meanwhile, raised the prospect of future military collaboration with Moscow through its participation in the Vostok-2018 joint military exercise.
At a Sept. 11 Security Council meeting addressing what threatened to be an imminent campaign in Idlib, Ambassador Ma espoused a familiar narrative: that the international community needs to work together to fight terrorism in Syria, that there is “no alternative” to a Syrian-owned political settlement, that Syria’s territorial integrity and sovereignty must be respected and that all stakeholders respect and abide by the United Nations as a mediator to the conflict.
Ma also threw a vote of confidence to the outcome of the recent Tehran summit, where Russia, Iran and Turkey sought an alternative diplomatic solution within the Astana process.
With a joint Russia-Turkey understanding now in place in Idlib, Damascus appears to have neutralized the threats against it, putting its ally China in an advantageous position.
Ambassador Qi has proclaimed in the past that “the Chinese people share the same suffering of the Syrian people” and that “when [China and Syria] jointly overcome the current crisis, the China-Syria friendship will be as strong as the Palmyra and the Great Wall.”
As Beijing maintains an ambiguous military footprint and its identity as a concerned stakeholder in economic revitalization, China will likely not only remain a “real friend” of Syria, but may also become its best friend.
Logan Pauley is a Herbert Scoville Jr Peace Fellow with the East Asia program at the Stimson Center, a think tank in Washington.