Chris Zambelis examines Sino-Syrian relations in the Asia Times, from China’s controversial decision to sell ballistic missiles to Syria in the late ’80s to the present day, with Chinese cultural centers opening all across the Middle Eastern country:
Since the early 1990s, and especially amid China’s rapid economic expansion, Beijing’s approach towards Damascus has since experienced a marked shift in priorities and behavior, a shift shaped largely by China’s efforts to present itself as a mature and responsible actor in international affairs.
China’s increasingly diversified and booming economy also will allow it to depend less on weapons sales, especially if such sales threaten to undermine China’s political and diplomatic position in the international arena, as was the case in its bilateral relationship with the United States in the early 1990s over its dealings with Syria. Despite this shift in Beijing’s behavior, China remains a major supplier of arms to countries whose intentions have come under US and international scrutiny. This time, however, China is able to export arms from a position of strength to bolster its geopolitical objectives, as opposed to economic necessity.
Outside of the military realm, Beijing’s influence has grown significantly in recent years, commensurate with its increasing economic power. Beijing’s efforts to engage the region are also reinforced by a resounding welcome from both the state and popular sectors, as regional governments and publics are eager to see an end to what is widely viewed as a harmful US hegemony in the Middle East. These sentiments prevail even in countries that count the United States as a strategic ally. China’s attempts to forge close and multifaceted ties with key Middle East states such as Syria, a country with modest oil reserves relative to its neighbors and a struggling economy, reflect the increasing complexity of China’s foreign policy toward the region and show that Beijing’s concerns extend beyond oil and markets – particularly in the case of Damascus.