Assad’s China visit a beginning of a new era of relationship - GulfToday

Assad’s China visit a beginning of a new era of relationship

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (right), shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar Assad before their bilateral meeting in Hangzhou, China.  AP

Chinese President Xi Jinping (right), shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar Assad before their bilateral meeting in Hangzhou, China. AP

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s journey to China has achieved far more than deepening close relations between Damascus and Beijing. Having been ostracised and isolated during his country’s civil and proxy wars, Assad began his visit in Hangzhou where he — along with the leaders of South Korea, Malaysia, Cambodia, Kuwait, and Nepal — attended the opening of the 19th Asian games. Assad and his wife Asma were given a red-carpet ceremonial welcome normally accorded to foreign heads of state and government. Syria was among the 45 countries participating in the games. Syrian athletes took part in five of 40 sports: equestrian, weightlifting, boxing, wrestling and athletics. Around 12,500 athletes — the largest number ever — took part in the sporting events, some unique to Asia, which were held at 56 venues, some purposely built for these games. Syria attended for the 11th time, its most recent participation was at the 18th games in Indonesia in 2018.

Assad’s appearance at the games boosted to a new personal and national level in Syria’s normalisation process, which began formally with his participation in the May Arab summit in Riyadh. While Assad travelled frequently and far before the war, since then he has visited Russia, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Saudi Arabia and China. This was his first trip to China since 2004.

On the political front, Assad and Chinese President Xi Jinping signed a strategic cooperation agreement. Beijing’s foreign ministry said this would lift ties to a “new level.” Beijing maintained its embassy in Damascus during the war and has given Syria diplomatic backing on the UN Security Council where permanent members China and Russia have used to veto to protect Syria.

The timing of the China-Syria summit is important because the Global South — which includes Arab, Asian, African, and South American countries — has distanced itself from the US-led Western countries with the aim of promoting independence and a multipolar world order. Russia, which backed the Syrian government militarily during the war, and China seek to benefit from this shift away from the US-dominated unipolar international scene caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union. This was made manifest in the Beijing summit in August by the admission of the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, Argentina, and Ethiopia to BRICS, the grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. It is notable that four of the new members are from West Asia, raising BRICS’ profile and influence in the region and the international community.

On the economic front, China’s offer to help reconstruct Syria and battle sanctions is also timely as the government is struggling to contain economic melt-down. This has driven 90 per cent of Syrians below the poverty line. Before the war, the overall poverty rate was 24.8 per cent. Electricity is provided for only a few hours every 24 hours and food, water, and fuel prices have soared while the Syrian currency has plunged in value. While war damage, destruction, and dislocation form the background for the current dire situation, Western sanctions are largely responsible for preventing reconstruction. Sanctions amount to economic warfare on targeted populations and inflict collective punishment, which is illegal under international law.

Beijing pledged $2 billion in investments in Syria in 2017 but has not yet delivered. Beijing may be unwilling on its own to breach Western sanctions — especially Washington’s 2019 Caesar Act — which punish any government, firm or individual investing in Syria or doing business with the Syrian government. However, Syria would gain if China were to join with others to break the iron grip of US/European sanctions. The cost of rebuilding Syria could be in the hundreds of billion dollars but leaving Syria in crisis is not an option.

Lebanon, which hosts 1.5 million Syrian refugees, and Jordan, more than a million, can no longer afford their presence and are eager for the situation in Syria to reach the level of economic recovery needed to resettle the refugees. Ankara has begun to deport Syrians to Turkish-occupied Syrian enclaves along the border, the northwest district Afrin seized by Turkey in 2018, and the western sector of Idlib province held by al-Qaeda offshoot Hay ‘at Tahrir al-Sham. Syrian economic migrants seeking to leave their country are not welcome in the neighbourhood and have been forced, once again, to board unsafe boats with the intention of reaching southern Europe where they are also unwanted.

On the global front, China seeks to court Arab governments to increase its influence in this strategic region. In March, Beijing brokered a reconciliation accord between Saudi Arabia and Iran which had cut relations in January 2016. This seminal deal led to Iranian rapprochement with several Arab countries. The US — which has tried to limit its responsibilities in this region — has belatedly tried and failed to counter China. Over the decades Washington has committed so much destructive meddling in regional affairs to convince the Arabs to follow the US lead in everything and always.

In 2013, China launched its Belt-and-Road global infrastructure initiative involving investment in strategic projects in countries and international organisations. This project has 155 members, including Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, South Sudan, Sudan, Tunisia, Turkey, the UAE, Palestine, and Yemen in this region. The World Bank has estimated that the project can increase flows in these countries by 4.1 per cent and reduce the cost of global trade by 1.1 percent to 2.2 percent. Belt-and-Road has created a construction boom in African infrastructure, enabling credit-starved countries to build hydropower projects, airports, roads, and railways.

In an attempt to undermine China’s initiative, the Biden administration is promoting a far smaller plan to create a trade corridor connecting Europe via West Asia with India by rail and sea. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen touted the proposal during the recent G20 leaders summit in New Delhi.

The US proposal, dubbed the Partnership for Global Infrastructure Investment, would link India, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel, and the EU, with the objective of reducing cargo travel time from India to Europe by 40 per cent. Bypassed Egypt, which depends on revenues from east-west shipping through the Suez Canal, Lebanon, which has traditionally played a key role in Levantine trade, and Turkey, which rejects being left out, have already objected.

While the projected route of the US backed project is shorter than the long Suez Canal searoute, there is even a shorter, more practical sea-land route along the Red Sea to Kuwait then by land through Iraq and Turkey to the Mediterranean. This route could be even shorter if it went through Syria rather than Turkey.

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