by Guy Burton

Wang Yi, China’s Foreign Minister at the Supporting Syria conference, 2016. Source: Adam Brown/Crown Copyright

Over the past year the Syrian government has scored a number of military successes, including in the east and south of the country. By early July it had taken back control of Deraa, which had deep symbolic since it was there that the Syrian uprising began in 2011.

With the momentum on President Bashir al-Assad’s side, the media and policy makers are now beginning to talk about whether or not the war in Syria is coming to an end and what comes after. Among the discussions is the question of reconstruction.

The challenge will be immense. Assad has suggested that the cost of rebuilding his country could be $195bn. The World Bank has estimated $250bn. The West is unlikely to provide much of this, given their antipathy towards Assad. At a conference in Tunis last year they discussed whether it might be possible to channel funds to civil society directly and cut the government out of the loop.

In response, Assad is looking towards his Russian and Iranian allies and ‘good friend’ China to take a leading role. Of the three, China has arguably the most to offer in hard cash.

But while wanted, China won’t be able to provide funds at the level Assad or the World Bank estimate. In July 2017 China proposed a $2bn investment through the China-Arab Exchange Association in helping to rebuild Syria’s industry. In July 2018 Beijing announced $23bn in new loans to help support projects and provide employment at the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum. But as it will be shared among the 22 Arab League members, it is unlikely that Syria will be a prime recipient.

How then, to explain Beijing’s modest involvement in this process? And what could be the repercussions of doing so? Here IR theory is useful, especially the three main schools of realism, liberalism and constructivism. All provide some useful insight into Chinese participation, although the constructivist account provides arguably the most dynamic of the three.

For realists the world is anarchic. States are self-interested and focus on their own survival. Cooperation with other states occurs, but only if they are threatened. In which case it’s hard to see how a Syria, weakened after seven years of war, could directly threaten China.

Rather than the Syrian state, it may be the groups that have emerged as a result of war, especially extremist Islamist groups, like ISIS. As well as seizing control of Syrian and (after 2014) Iraqi territory, the group denounced China’s anti-Muslim policies against its minority Uyghur population in Xinjiang province. It encouraged them to rise against the Chinese state and hosted at least 300 Uyghur fighters who travelled to Syria to join its campaign.

ISIS therefore offered China a pragmatic and self-interested reason to help Syria’s reconstruction. But realists may be skeptical about the depth of that commitment; third parties may contribute less if others offer more. And China has form here: it has expanded its commercial interests in the Middle East since 2000 without contributing to the US security umbrella, leading former US President Barack Obama to call China a regional ‘free rider’.

Liberals can use the ISIS threat to highlight their view of the world: that of an interconnected system where states are dependent on each other, making them more inclined to work with each other. In contrast to realists, their worldview is more optimistic. The more countries interact with each other economically, through trade and development, the less likely they are to come into conflict. The costs of doing so are higher, since the benefits accrued from increased trade will stimulate economic activity. Cooperation then, is a positive-sum game.

The liberal perspective has led to the establishment of international organizations like the EU, IMF and the World Bank. In addition to providing funds for the World Bank which then disburses them to poorer countries, richer countries can also provide direct bilateral assistance. Central to both approaches is the idea that this trade and aid will help countries develop and grow.

When it comes to Syria though, it’s questionable whether China can make much of a difference on either count. In 2015 it created a new regional development bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. While China is the founder and largest contributor, its share is diluted by the growing number of member states who will want a say in how its funds are allocated. Moreover, the bank hasn’t announced any projects in Syria to date.

Meanwhile, China’s bilateral economic ties to Syria are extremely modest. Even before 2011, trade and investment between the two was low, especially when compared to Chinese trade with the energy producing Arab Gulf states and Iran. Additionally, China’s political ties with Syria have been less close than those Damascus has cultivated with Iran and the Soviet Union/Russia. It’s therefore questionable whether there’s sufficient scope for Sino-Syrian trade to have much impact on the war, including alleviating its causes.

Constructivism offers a third perspective in which reality and identity is socially constructed. Syria’s ‘failed state’ has resulted in regional instability and disorder, which has presented China with both an opportunity and a challenge. As a threat, ISIS’s appeal to the Uyghurs blurred the lines between domestic and international politics. It also tapped into Beijing’s suspicion and fear of its Uyghur population and justifying its actions in Xinjiang as part of the wider, global war on terrorism. At the same time, the Syrian conflict gives China the opportunity to present itself as a responsible world power.

China’s emergence as a rising power with a global role to play in relation to conflict reflects another aspect of the constructivist perspective: that the ideas associated with established norms are never fixed, but always facing contestation.

Broadly, third parties can respond to conflict in two main ways: either to contain or manage it at one end, or to tackle and transforming its underlying causes at the other end. This latter approach, sometimes known as the liberal peacebuilding approach (and consisting of the new political institutions, constitutions, multiparty elections and financial support for civil society organizations) was much favoured by Western governments and agencies.

By contrast, China’s response to conflict has been more hands-off and avoiding interference in other countries’ internal politics. But rather than simply contain conflict, its remedy is to prioritise commercial activities to boost economic development and growth as a way of overcoming grievances. That approach is gaining currency in Syria, helped in large part by the relative strength of the Assad regime and the absence of a Western counterweight.

In sum then, the constructivist perspective provides a useful account of China’s participation in Syria’s reconstruction as well as a possible guide to how rising powers may approach other conflict settings. Both the realist and liberal accounts provide some explanation of why states like China might become involved in rebuilding failed states like Syria, but on their own they are incomplete. The constructivist view helps fill in the gaps by acknowledging the role of norms and how established ones can be contested and challenged, resulting in new ones emerging.

Guy Burton was Assistant Professor at the Mohammed Bin Rashid School of Government until 2018. His research interests include the politics and international relations of the Middle East, rising powers and conflict management. His most recent publication in Rising Powers and the Arab-Israeli Conflict since 1947 (Lexington, 2018) and he tweets at @guyjsburton 

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