By Dr. Mohamad Zreik*
As soon as the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, China and the Middle East faced a series of challenges. In recent years, China’s influence in the region has expanded due to its economic interests in energy, trade, infrastructure construction, and diplomatic contacts with the region’s countries. This is linked to President Xi Jinping’s Belt-Road Initiative (BRI), which was announced in 2013 in response to the increasing middle class’s needs for infrastructure and economic exchanges. As the world’s largest consumer of oil, China’s relations with major oil exporters such as Saudi Arabia and Iran are frequently scrutinized. However, part of the BRI involves the construction of new channels to promote trade through the expansion of existing infrastructures.
It is predicted that the Middle East will become a major region for industrial upgrading in the near future. Chinese economic interests and influence may be threatened by the region’s instability. With its dynamic structure, Iraq has been noted by Keskin and Braun (2016) as an intriguing country with implications for China’s engagement in the area. Lebanon is sometimes neglected because of its complicated political situation and the presence of international influence. As it turns out, Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, as well as Christians, and Kurds, find themselves at odds with each other.
The security situation is another stumbling block in the face of the Sino-Lebanese partnership. Foreign interventions, extremist groups, and the complexities of the Syrian crisis have all been faced by Lebanon and Syria. For the BRI, Lebanon is strategically located in the Levant region and has direct access to the Mediterranean Sea, making it ideal location for the Chinese project.
Through a literature review of academic papers, government documents, and news-paper articles, this paper aims to examine China’s diplomatic approach and interests toward Lebanon. An in-depth look at China’s relationship with Lebanon and Syria since it was established as the People’s Republic of China is presented here. It covers the period from 1949 to the present to give a greater sense of how ties and problems have evolved through time. Additionally, the non-intervention policy and the sway of other important countries are considered in Lebanon.
A Review of Bilateral Relations for the Era (1949-2000)
During the second half of the 20th century, China’s connections with Lebanon are described here. The People’s Republic of China was created in 1949, when the Chinese Communist Party seized control of Beijing and became the country’s most powerful government. China is pursuing a peaceful diplomatic strategy and openness towards Lebanon. China has always been a friend of Lebanon at all stages, despite Beijing’s little interest in the region during this time. Shichor’s works are the primary source of information on China’s early contacts with Lebanon, as he has been a pioneer in the field of Chinese relations in the Middle East.
In 1949, Lebanon did not recognize the Communist Party as the central authority of China, following the founding of the PRC. China contributed troops to the Korean War to defend North Korea and fight against US forces, prompting Lebanon to label China an aggressor in the conflict in 1951. The United States had advised Lebanon to delay a vote on a resolution that would have excluded Taiwan as representative of the Republic of China (ROC). Both the parliament and the government were divided on Lebanon’s position, which sparked a lot of discussion in both. In the early 1950s, Lebanon’s attitude toward the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was hostile, Lebanon was Western-oriented, and the Lebanese government extended alliances with the West, led by the United States.
Following the Bandung Conference in 1955, China negotiated ten trade agreements, including one with Lebanon, which sparked a positive shift in China’s outlook. China’s Islamic Association’s head met with the leaders of Lebanon back in 1956. In the early 1950s, Lebanon had stronger links with Taiwan than it has now. So for many years after this event, the interests of the Chinese Communist Party (PRC) in Lebanon remained low-key. There was a lack of trust between the PRC and Lebanon due to a series of incidents. China and extreme groups in Lebanon had been suspected of colluding at the time, but there was no proof to back this up.
China, on the other hand, objected to Lebanon’s 1969 measures against the Palestinians. Reactionary authorities in Lebanon were accused of collaborating with Israeli aggressors to target Palestinian guerrillas. The two countries continued to work together on trade deals despite these issues. When China surpassed Taiwan in commerce in the late 1960s, the two countries formed a tighter relationship. For a long time, diplomatic contacts between Lebanon and China were limited because of the on-going civil war and political killings in the country. During that time, the relationship was mostly founded on economic considerations.
Beijing viewed Lebanon as an export partner for Chinese commodities when diplomatic relations were established, but they also saw Beirut as the Middle East’s banking and commercial capital. In Beirut, China opened a branch of the National Bank of China in 1972; as a result of the first visit by Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Khalil Abu Hamad to China later that year, the two countries signed a new trade deal for reciprocal most-favoured nation treatment, mutual transit facilities, and an expansion of mutual commerce in the following year. However, the civil war in Lebanon delayed Beijing’s intentions in 1976. Russia has been blamed for aggravating, perpetuating and stoking conflict. China viewed the issue as one that should be settled by the people of the region, and not by outsiders. During that time, few efforts have been made to deepen ties with Beirut.
Relations between China and Lebanon have been characterized by ups and downs throughout the 20th century, but overall it has been restricted. Economic connections between Beijing and Beirut grew in the 1970s, but the country’s internal instability prevented it from expanding its cooperation with Lebanon. Although China has a long history of supporting its neighbouring countries, its policy of non-interference in foreign disputes began early on. In uncertain domestic conditions, China has not been afraid to stand aside while staying supportive.
The Post-2000 Era: Emerging Bilateral Relations
This section illustrates the increased development of relations between China and Lebanon from 2000. It emphasizes on collaboration in trade, cultural exchange, and agreements struck in recent years.
The Chinese government began to expand relations with Beirut after 2000. During a visit of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Beijing to meet Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji in 2002, both countries expressed their determination to intensify cooperation on joint projects. It has led to an extended collaboration in numerous sectors.
In 2005, China and Lebanon signed a tourism cooperation deal. This deal was intended to stimulate investments in reciprocal tourism sectors and boost communication between tourist enterprises through the sharing of professional talents. The relationship also evolved to include academic and cultural exchanges, as Mandarin language courses are given at the American University of Beirut. There is also a Confucius Institute in Beirut at Saint-Joseph University.
However, exchanges in culture, tourism, and education are not the sole markers of closer diplomatic relations between both countries. In 2009, China welcomed more than 150 Lebanese professionals to attend seminars and symposiums in diverse disciplines including as business, finance, agriculture, press, and education. The website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China depicts 2014 as a year during which the relations with Lebanon advanced, resulting in stronger collaboration.
That year, the CPPCC Vice Chairman Luo Fuhe attended a reception marking the 70th anniversary of Independence Day of Lebanon. In 2015, Prime Minister Tammam Salam indicated that Lebanon aspired to be a trusted partner to China during the Arab- Chinese Businessmen Conference. Both sides consider the bilateral collaboration in culture, education, press, arts, and military as a method to extend the friendly interactions. It is important to note that the extended cooperation indicated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs came not long after the launch of the BRI.
The major interest of the bilateral connections appears to be closely connected to economic goals. A rise of economic linkages has been noted in recent years. In 2013, China became the primary trading partner of Lebanon. Beirut did making efforts to bring more Chinese investment with its participation at the Shanghai Expo in 2010. China helped Lebanon establish a mobile telecommunications network, solar heating systems, and monetary aid programs to Palestinian refugee camps.
However, efforts to boost further trades between the two nations have been hindered by the Syrian crisis, as the land routes for Lebanese exports were closed. Alternatives to establish secure and safe avenues for Lebanese exports had limited success. Out of total imports from Beijing, 73 per cent came through Beirut Port, limiting options to boost trades. The largest export product from Lebanon to China is steel. China exports to Lebanon electrical equipment, textiles, plastic items, and machinery. Lebanon imports $1.89 billion from China, representing 9.1 per cent of its total imports, while it exports to China $24.1 million, which is a little percentage of their overall exports of roughly 0.62 per cent. Even if the economic links are likely to develop in the future with the BRI, it is feasible to identify an important trade deficit between both countries.
Over the past few years, China and the United States have expanded their commercial ties. Beijing’s heightened interest in Arab countries in terms of commerce has included Lebanon. However, the BRI has the potential to exacerbate existing trade imbalances.
China in Lebanon: A Peaceful Partner
China’s policy of non-interference helped to promote peaceful development and conflict resolution at home. Beijing’s stance in bilateral conflicts is reflected in this section. Humanitarian aid and a push for quick domestic resolution were key factors in its success.
In 2006, China became entangled in an Israeli–Lebanese conflict initiated by Hezbollah. Both an Israeli anti-aircraft warship and an Egyptian merchant ship were hit by two Chinese-made C-802 missiles launched from the Lebanese coast by Hezbollah back in 2006. Hezbollah may have obtained the missiles from another source, but there is no evidence that China sent them.
A number of reasons were given by Shichor (2006) for China’s lack of interest in partnering with Hezbollah. First and foremost, it is considered a terrorist organization by the United States. As part of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), China has deployed more than 1,000 peacekeepers to Lebanon, which was announced by Wen Jiabao. Beijing has been alerted to the fact that Chinese peacekeepers have been injured or killed during this operation.
Chinese Deputy Representative to the United Nations Lui Zhenmin criticized Israel’s actions in 2006 because they were violating Lebanon’s sovereignty. Force should be used less frequently and the armed blockade should be lifted, Zhenmin said. Hezbollah’s military actions of crossing the Israeli-Lebanese border and launching missile attacks on Israeli cities were also opposed by China. Hezbollah’s acts were openly blasted for the first time in China’s history. They further accused the United States of manipulating the conflict to exert pressure on Iran and Syria and to spread democracy around the world. For China’s economic benefit, the crisis has been resolved quickly by words rather than deeds. Through its involvement in the United Nations and the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), China was able to play an indirect role in the Lebanon mediations. During Lebanon’s civil war, China has also provided financial assistance.
Both China’s role as a UN Security Council member and its involvement in the Syrian war had a significant impact on diplomatic ties. China has long advocated non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs and non-use of military force. When it comes to world peace and security, the United States’ vetoes on Syria resolutions are crystal apparent. In the past, Beijing rejected a resolution in Libya by exerting pressure on the Libyan government to ensure the safety of the populace. Responsibility to protect (R2P) was abstaining from voting on the resolution 1973, which triggered quick military action in Libya in 2011. The Chinese government remained, however, steadfast in its opposition to the use of force within the country. Beijing’s approach to R2P was informed by Libya. Multiple UNSC resolutions on Syria were vetoed by Beijing and Moscow together. Russia and China work together to avoid a military intervention that would topple the administration of Bashar al-Assad.
In 2011, when they rejected a resolution denouncing Syria, China and Russia exercised their first veto in their strategic collaboration on the Syrian conflict. President Bashar al- Assad’s resignation and cessation of violence against opponents were blocked by China and Russia in the UN Security Council (UNSC) in February 2012. Both countries voted against a UN Human Rights Council resolution condemning Syrian regime crimes in March of that year. Indeed, it opposed the Assad regime’s collective punishment and chose a more cautious R2P policy. Through impartial mediation, China urged all Syrian sides to stop all violence, especially against civilians.
As far as Beijing and Moscow are concerned, this posture reflects their fears of a strong military response. It’s worth noting, though, that China hasn’t always complied with Russia’s veto decisions in the Syrian issue. To strengthen its political role, it abstained on several occasions to align itself with Russia on resolutions. As in 2012, Moscow vetoed seven UNSC resolutions, while Beijing did so only twice in 2013. For the third time in as many years, China exercised its veto power over a United Nations Security Council resolution in 2017. Strategic collaboration on sovereignty, territorial integrity, and security in the region is offered by both countries.
Foreign meddling in the internal affairs of states, the use of force, and a confrontational posture were all opposed by China’s diplomatic position; as part of a diplomatic effort to mediate between Syria and the various opposition organizations, Beijing volunteered to participate. Beijing encourages non-interference in foreign disputes and a rapid return to stability. According to Sun and Zoubir (2015), China’s constructive engagement, is characterized by political involvement rather than military intervention. It supports a peaceful conversation as a solution while respecting the legitimate aspirations of the people.
A regional consensus on regional development promotes peace in the Middle East, allowing for the expansion of diplomatic discourse in the region. Acting as an intermediary and proposing constructive ideas are two of the key roles of this process. The Assad regime has received help from China. China provided humanitarian assistance to Syrians. As of 2017, Syria has the most individuals forced to flee their homes, and it received the most humanitarian aid. During the humanitarian crisis in Syria, the Chinese government provided 1,000 tons of rice and signed three agreements totalling $40 million in humanitarian relief as part of an emergency food aid programme to support countries.
More than a dozen international organizations, including the United Nations (UN), the World Food Program (WFP), and the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC), have already provided aid to Syria. However, China did not make the top 10 list of humanitarian aid donors, while Turkey and the United States were the first two. Many countries have contributed to the World Bank’s Lebanon-Syria Crisis Trust Fund to help those affected by this conflict. Syria received more than $10 billion in development assistance and government aid in 2017, according to the World Bank. China’s assistance appears to be limited in comparison to that of other countries.
The contributions of China to Lebanon have been minimal until recently, compared to other countries. This policy of non-intervention has resulted in good relations with all the countries of the region as well as close cooperation with Russia on the Security Council.
Lebanon: China’s Strategic Partner in BRI
With the BRI, China’s ties with Lebanon have a bright future. CCPIT signed two Memorandums of Understanding in 2017 with the Arab Chambers of Commerce to help expand the BRI to include Lebanon. Beirut received aid packages totalling more than $100 million from China as part of the 2018 China-Arab States Cooperation Forum (CASCF). China’s future bilateral relations with Lebanon may revolve around the BRI. That’s why it’s crucial to keep an eye on how things can change.
Lebanon aims to be a major player in the effort. Investing in infrastructure in Tunisia makes sense because of its strategic location and easy access to the Mediterranean Sea. Beirut and Tripoli’s port facilities might be used as a regional hub for Mediterranean Sea trade. As a corollary to this reasoning, China has made significant investments in expanding the port’s infrastructure. That the Tripoli Municipalities Union is a member of China’s Silk Road Chamber of International Commerce is worth mentioning (SRCIC). SRCIC Chairman Adnan al Kassar said that the SRCIC is willing to lend Lebanon $2 billion at reasonable interest rates, according to Lebanese-Chinese relations. China’s ambassador to Lebanon Wang Kejian stated that his country was willing to assist Lebanon in developing its southern cities and communities. Chinese investment in the repair of Syrian infrastructure could be facilitated by the country’s proximity to Syrian territory.
Chinese officials have made it clear that they have no intention of undermining Moscow’s position in the region. With the BRI, Chinese interest in the Middle East has risen, which could lead to a more assertive diplomacy in the region, particularly in countries with sectarian differences and political crises. Syrian and Lebanese economic investments may be better protected as a result of this. However, it is possible that China and Syria’s diplomatic relations will be based on mutual economic interests. The prolonged conflict in Syria has limited China’s ability to assist in reconstruction efforts in Syria, as it has stated its willingness to do so.
Beijing held the First Trade Fair on Syrian Reconstruction Projects in July 2017 and announced a $2 billion investment in the country’s reconstruction efforts. As a result, it’s hard to tell exactly how much of that money has been received thus far. Russia, China, Iran, and Lebanon are participating in the trade fair. At the 60th Damascus International Trade Fair in 2018, more than 200 Chinese firms signed agreements to build steel facilities and power plants and to make Chinese-brand automobiles. Syria will welcome Chinese investment in its rehabilitation, President Assad said in an interview with Phoenix Television. In the future, he sees an increase in trade between the two countries. Syria’s acceptance of China’s invitation to join the BRI was widely applauded.
In 2018, China supplied to Syria’s main port 800 electrical power generators. China’s mega-projects are jeopardized by the Syrian crisis and international intervention. The stability of Syria will be a top priority for Beijing since economic links between the two countries are expected to grow significantly in the near future. An alternative route to the Suez Canal via China, Central Asia, and West Asia is provided by the Levant. The Levantine area is an important one for the BRI because of its importance.
President Michel Aoun and CCPIT Director Jiang Zengwei met in Beirut to discuss ways to improve bilateral relations. Among other things, the relationship intends to foster cooperation in the development of infrastructure, as well as investments in new energy and other key industries. Suleiman, a former Lebanese president, believes that the country needs more cooperation in the alternative energy sector. The Chinese government’s support for private investments in the Arab East could have a positive impact on Lebanon. Chinese enterprises are indeed being sought out for the expansion of its industrial market. Prime Minister Hariri cited China as an example of modernization to be emulated. This might make Beirut a logistics, economic, and business centre for China’s BRI in the region. He brought up the subject of Syrian and Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and said that China, with its policy of opening up, might provide support in this area. Suleiman made an interesting observation about how the two countries can work together in the future.
As Lebanon situated in a dynamic and complex region, the importance of the Lebanese-Chinese relations is increasing. Beijing has avoided direct involvement in the Lebanese civil war and other internal conflicts; using a supportive attitude to the government and a one-distance approach from all political parties. With China’s BRI program, Lebanon can be geostrategic ally, allowing for greater economic ties. Lebanese officials expressed an interest in playing a key role in the project. Domestic factors, however, still impede trade cooperation. The BRI’s expansion of bilateral ties with Lebanon could be a good opportunity for Beijing to learn more about the region. Mutual understanding could be fostered by academic and professional interactions. For Beijing to change its approach if its economic interests are put at risk, this may be a sign that the region is in danger. A prudent loan and support strategy by China is likely to take advantage of the lack of infrastructure development in Lebanon. It seems unlikely that nations like Lebanon will push China to change its policy of non-interference in the foreseeable future, despite its strategic importance to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
*Dr. Mohamad Zreik has PhD of International Relations, he is independent researcher, his area of research interest is related to Chinese Foreign Policy, Belt and Road Initiative, Middle Eastern Studies, China-Arab relations. Author has numerous studies published in high ranked journals and international newspapers.