There is, it seems, no regime too odious to be a partner of China. Being repressive and corrupt have long been useful assets for gaining the friendship of Beijing, but its recent embrace of the ‘Butcher of Damascus’, Bashar al-Assad, carries reputational and other risks for China – even when it doesn’t have much of a reputation to lose.
China has offered Syria membership of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and with it the promise of munificent investment in Syrian roads, railways, ports, telecoms, hotels and much more. The offer came this week from China’s foreign minister Wang Yi, who was the first high-profile guest in Damascus after Bashar al-Assad’s re-election as president. Assad claims to have won 95 per cent of the vote in a poll described by Britain and the EU as ‘neither free nor fair’.
For Assad, China’s largesse must seem like a perfect accompaniment to the Russian and Iranian guns and muscle that have kept him in power during a civil war that has claimed half a million lives. Syria is also likely to be seen by the West as a proving ground for an emerging anti-western alliance between Moscow and Beijing.
The BRI is a curious thing. It started life as a vast investment programme, promising trillions of dollars for infrastructure projects along modern day ‘silk roads’, trade routes encircling the globe. From the start it lacked any real coherence, and is better understood as a tool of influence for Beijing, serving its broader economic and geo-political goals, an umbrella under which all manner of projects are grouped. It is particularly adept at sniffing out ethical vacuums left where the more squeamish walk away.
It is massively over-hyped and under-principled – unencumbered by any of those troublesome notions of transparency, good governance, environmental protection, labour or human rights that usually accompany lending from multilateral institutions or the West. It has enabled China to export industrial overcapacity and capital, while shaping the world in its own image and according to its own interests, while pushing back against the West.
Projects are opaque, over-priced and riddled with corruption. They involve the import of Chinese labour, and saddle the recipients with large and possibly unpayable debts, with strategic assets often held by China as collateral. To many of the world’s pariahs the economic sense of loans is a secondary concern – either because they have their noses in the trough, or they are just grateful for the political cover and economic support they can’t get elsewhere. And pariahs do not come bigger than Assad.
On the surface he would seem a perfect partner. But China’s outreach to Damascus comes as a time when the BRI is feeling the strain. Investment is falling, and China’s ability to continue making the loans, and the debt strain on its clients, will certainly be exacerbated by the economic fallout from Covid-19. There are also political and security challenges emerging that would suggest that a headlong rush to Syria might not be wise.
Earlier this month in Pakistan, China’s ‘all weather friend’ and the biggest recipient of BRI loans, nine Chinese engineers working on a dam project were killed in a bus explosion in Kohistan province. In an effort to appease China, Pakistan initially described it as a mechanical failure, only later admitting that traces of explosive had been found. While Wang Yi was feting Assad in Damascus, angry Chinese diplomats cancelled BRI meetings in Pakistan. They brought in a team from China to investigate, while nervously assessing the security implications of the western withdrawal from neighbouring Afghanistan.
In Myanmar, another big recipient of BRI loans, angry protesters turned on China after Beijing blocked a UN security council resolution condemning the February coup, and at one point described the military takeover as a ‘major cabinet reshuffle’. Protesters besieged the Chinese embassy in Yangon, Myanmar’s main commercial hub, carrying placards reading ‘shame on you China’, ‘Myanmar’s military dictatorship is made in China’ and ‘China get out of Myanmar’. There were arson attacks on 32 Chinese-owned garment factories in an industrial zone of the city and threats against a key pipeline that carries oil and gas from the Indian ocean to China.
Passions were inflamed by reports that Myanmar’s military chief had shared bogus claims of electoral fraud used to justify the coup with Wang Yi, during a visit to Yangon by China’s foreign minister just three weeks before the takeover. This fed suspicions that Beijing was involved in the coup, or at the very least had been forewarned.
The security situation might have improved in Syria, but it is still far more volatile than either Pakistan or Myanmar. The civil war has left the economy in ruins. Assad is adept at playing off his erstwhile allies against each other, and seamless cooperation between Russia, Iran and China, each with their own interests and suspicions, is far from guaranteed. That’s before you get to the practicalities of building all the high profile BRI goodies, which in the eyes of opponents of the regime will have large targets drawn all over them. China’s road to Damascus will not be an easy one.
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