US withdrawal from Syria leaves China’s plans for investment up in the air, analysts say
- Beijing anticipates opportunities during Syria’s reconstruction to advance its ‘Belt and Road Initiative’
- US departure might suggest a shift in Washington’s focus to the Indo-Pacific region
US President Donald Trump’s surprise decision to withdraw US forces from Syria will leave China’s intended investment into the country’s reconstruction in uncertainty, analysts said, adding that the move might also suggest a stronger strategic focus by Washington on the Indo-Pacific region to put pressure on Beijing.
Experts said it remains unclear when the troop withdrawals will be completed but the departure is likely to prolong instability in Syria and delay its reconstruction.
“Trump is restarting the game and all parties there will make their own moves. China is watching closely how changes in the Middle East would affect its own interests there,” said Wu Xinbo, director of the Centre for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai.
China has kept its distance from the Syria conflict but is interested in promoting its economic presence in the war-torn country under the “Belt and Road Initiative”, according to Wang Jian, a Middle East expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing.
“Chinese companies and investment cannot hurry now,” he said, adding that security would be a major concern with the withdrawal of US troops.
“If the security situation worsens, it will affect China’s intended economic cooperation in the region. Security risks may also spill over to other countries such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the UAE where China has extensive economic interests.”
Although China is the world’s biggest oil importing country and heavily relies on energy imports from the Middle East, it does not have a military presence in the region.
Chinese businesses used to invest in and trade with Syria before the civil war broke out in 2011. Bilateral trade between China and Syria amounted to US$2.4 billion that year. Almost all Chinese companies have since pulled out or suspended operations there.
But should the situation stabilise, Chinese companies will return and Beijing is keenly interested in reconstruction. Analysts said the belt and road plan emphasises trade and infrastructure construction, and that both will be urgently needed when reconstruction begins. According to United Nations estimates, the seven-year military conflict has wiped out nearly US$400 billion worth of assets in Syria.
Analysts said also that Chinese businesses were likely to be welcome in a post-war Syria as they have been in Iraq. In a recent interview with Xinhua, Wafiqa Hosni, Syria’s state minister for investment affairs, said the Assad government considered China, which has taken a stance similar to that of Russia at the UN Security Council concerning Syrian issues, a “friendly country”.
China, meanwhile, has already taken steps to establish an early foothold in the Syrian market. Last year, it convened its first “Syria Reconstruction Projects Fair” in Beijing, putting forward a US$2 billion plan to build an industrial estate in the country that could accommodate as many as 150 companies.
in September, China sent a delegation of 200 companies to the 60th Damascus International Fair, most of which are state-owned enterprises looking to tap in Syria and build a working relationship in its reconstruction process.
John Lee, a professor at the University of Sydney in Australia and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, said the troop withdrawal may also signal a rethinking of Washington’s Indo-Pacific policies.
“It represents a shift in strategic thinking [in the US] that the Middle East is becoming less important to America as more attention is being directed towards the Indo-Pacific,” he said.
“The US already views China as its primary and long-term challenge. This is brought out in the National Security Strategy, National Defence Strategy and in the speech by Vice-President Mike Pence.”
The US military’s Pacific Command has been renamed Indo-Pacific Command, and plans to upgrade equipment and weapons systems and enhance exercises with its regional allies. More specifically, it has increased patrols in the South China Sea to challenge China’s territorial claims.
In the past two years, the US navy has carried out eight freedom of navigation operations near the China’s controlled islands in the South China Sea.
However, Wu from Fudan University believes the use of US military forces in the Indo-Pacific will be limited. Their purpose, he said, was mainly to maintain a presence and profile of the US in the region for its allies and to pressure China.
“It’s unlikely that the US will take China’s South China Sea islands by force or force China to give up its ‘Maritime Silk Road’ plans,” he said, referring to Beijing’s strategy to boost infrastructure connectivity throughout Southeast Asia, Oceania and East African countries.
“I am not convinced the US will actually use military means in this region.”