When Chinese President Xi Jinping coupled his congratulations to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad upon his reelection with pledges of economic support for Syria, he placed Russia in a quandary. On the one hand, Russia is interested in economic assistance to Syria, because it realizes that the situation in Syria will remain tenuous unless the Syrian economy is revitalized. As the West wants no part of Assad, China is a country with tons of spare cash. However, Russia has witnessed Chinese penetration of countries that it regarded as lying within its zone of influence, such as former Soviet Republics or traditional allies such as Serbia. If this pattern were to repeat itself in Syria, it would be highly embarrassing, as Russia hoped to recoup its military investment in Syria with lucrative contracts in Syria's reconstruction. The expert interviewees in an article by Gazeta.ru's correspondent Lydia Misnik prefer to speak of cooperation between Russia and China, but they still acknowledge the likelihood of Chinese investments in the Syrian petroleum industry and the appearance of private Chinese military contractors – two areas that would put the Chinese in competition with Russia. Misnik's article follows below:
"Chinese President Xi Jinping assured Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad that China will provide economic assistance to Syria. He congratulated Assad on his victory in the elections and mentioned the friendly relations between the two countries. Gazeta.Ru investigated why Beijing is interested in investing in the Arab Republic and how Russia’s interests in the region will be considered."
The head of Syria's Planning and International Cooperation Commission (PICC) Imad Sabouni (L) shakes hands with Chinese Ambassador to Syria Feng Biao after signing an economic cooperation agreement in Damascus, Syria, on March 4, 2020.(Source: Xinhua.net)
"Chinese President Xi Jinping, in a congratulatory telegram to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in on his victory in the Syrian presidential elections, pledged that China will provide Damascus with all possible assistance in reviving the country’s economy, improving the lives of the population and in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
"The text of the telegram, published by China Central Television network, reads that the PRC firmly supports Syria in the defense of its state sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity.
"Xi Jinping pledged that Beijing will also contribute to promoting Sino-Syrian cooperation and bringing it to a new level.
"The telegram notes that China and Syria are traditionally friendly countries. The head of China stated that Syria was among the first Arab states, with which China has established diplomatic relations.
"'I attach great importance to the development of Sino-Syrian relations and I’m ready to work together with President Assad to build upon the 65th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between our countries (marked this year), for further promoting bilateral ties and attaining still greater successes', said the Chinese President.
"On May 27, Hammuda Sabag, Chairman of the People’s Assembly of Syria announced Assad’s victory in the elections. The elections were held on May 26. The incumbent president won 95.1% of votes. The Syrian 2012 constitution prescribes that the presidential term lasts seven years. The previous elections, in which 88.7% cast their votes for Assad, were held in 2014.
"Two years ago, China expressed its willingness to participate in the post-war restoration of Syria. This was announced in June 2019 by the head of the SAR [Syrian Arab Republic] Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Walid Muallem based on the meeting with the PRC Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi.
"'Since 2011, we are suffering from terrorism. Syria's Infrastructure and economic development sustained enormous damage. Hence, the international community is responsible for the country’s restoration. Our Chinese friends are ready to participate in the restoration of Syria,' said the diplomat.
"'China, indeed, has promised to join only humanitarian actions for the reconstruction of Syria. Basically, this is what the PRC is engaged in,' said Alexei Maslov Director of the Far East Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
"China was investing in Syria even prior the start of the armed conflict, and now it wants to restore its presence in the republic.
"'So far we can only speculate, but most likely China will use "soft power" elements such as educating and re-educating Syrian citizens in Chinese universities,' claimed the expert.
"Additionally, according to Maslov, the PRC won’t participate in rebuilding of the infrastructure (i.e. destroyed roads and cities) and won’t extend credits for such purposes.
"Neverthless, Alexei Maslov claimed that Beijing is interested in building oil and refining facilities in the region. However, according to the expert, this will happen only after China will be convinced that Syria is secure. The PRC won’t invest in a country where hostilities are ongoing.
Alexei Maslov (Source: Ru.sputnik.kg)
"'Apparently Russia and China coordinate their actions in Syria to some extent. I believe that China is not encroaching on Russian interests in the SAR, because Moscow, as far as I understand it, first intended to provide humanitarian assistance to Syria,' noted the specialist.
"'Russia has an interest in attracting investments to Syria, while China is one of the few countries that truly has considerable amounts of free assets. The PRC can invest in Syria if it would want to,' orientalist and political scientist Elena Suponina told Gazeta.Ru.
She specified that no country can solely rebuild the destroyed Syrian economy. Thus China’s desire to cooperate with Syria is useful not only politically, but economically as well.
"'The Europeans unfortunately are under American political pressure, and are in no hurry to get to Syria. So, it is safe to say that Damascus' only hope is Russia, China and the rich Arab Persian Gulf states. The latter in turn are also restoring relations with Syria,' stated the expert.
"According to Sergei Luzyanin, Professor at the Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs at the Higher School of Economics and Professor at the Department of Oriental Studies at MGIMO, regional cooperation has effectively emerged between Russia and China on the Middle East and North African countries, which intensified after Russia’s operation in Syria.
He explained that China’s interest in Syria can be inter alia explained, by the situation in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, which, according to the statements of the Chinese government, has increasing problems with the extremist Islamic terrorist organizations.
"'The illegal transnational migration of terrorist groups and agitation among various radical movements all of course have a detrimental effect on China. That’s why China conducts a very active economic and security policy in Syria (sometimes independently, and sometimes in cooperation with Russia),' stressed the expert.
"The expert acknowledged that possibly Chinese private military companies will work on contract in Syria.
"According to the expert, today’s 'good level' of China-Syria relations will improve following the SAR president's election and probably after the situation within the country stabilizes at least to some degree. After that Chinese economic policy in SAR will intensify."
Sergei Luzyanin (Source: Eastrussia.ru)
 See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 9059, Russian Report Sounds Alarm Over Chinese Economic And Demographic Penetration Of The Post-Soviet Space, December 1, 2020; MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 9328, TASS Analysis Shows That Russia Is Playing Second Fiddle To China In Traditional Ally Serbia, May 11, 2021.
 Gazeta.ru, June 1, 2021.