Thanks to China, Assad's regime is still standing, but it's a sad, sad situation
Discourse Power | September 29, 2023
Greetings from Jerusalem,
Today's issue focuses on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's recent visit to China, where he met with Chinese President Xi Jinping and signed a joint declaration establishing a Strategic Partnership between the two countries.
Three recommendations before we begin:
The ChinaMed Project of the University of Torino launched a new newsletter, the. Their most recent issue, written by Dr. Andrea Ghiselli, assistant professor at Fudan University's School of International Relations and Public Affairs, examines Chinese scholars' reactions to Assad's visit. Today's issue supplements Andrea's piece with longer translations for an in-depth look. I encourage you to subscribe.
The good folk at the German Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) published this week a new report, titled, Image Control: How China Struggles For Discourse Power. Beautiful infographics by the MERICS team, as usual, which I will definitely use in my future discourse power presentations.
Check out my article on Assad's visit in the most recent issue of Discourse Power, and if you've been a subscriber for a while, please show your support by forwarding this free newsletter to your colleagues and on social media.
Disclaimer: Some troll asked me this week who funds me, so in the spirit of full disclosure, I work full-time at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), Israel, a non-governmental think-tank affiliated with Tel Aviv University that is mostly funded by private donors. A breakdown of our funding sources is available here.
The Diane and Guilford Glazer Foundation, which has generously funded China-related academic projects in the PRC and the US, indirectly pays my salary as a researcher at the INSS Israel-China Policy Center. They have no bearing on our research. Except for honoraria for articles I write, I receive no financial support from my second affiliation, the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub.
I do this newsletter for free for the benefit of the China studies community.
Next week is the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, the Mid-Autumn Festival, and PRC National Day, so happy holidays to those who celebrate!
Joint Declaration of the People's Republic of China and the Syrian Arab Republic on the Establishment of Strategic Partnership
Full text translated from the Chinese version, signed September 22, 2023 (my translation):
At the invitation of President Xi Jinping of the People's Republic of China, President Bashar al-Assad of the Syrian Arab Republic came to China from September 21 to 26, 2023 to attend the opening ceremony of the 19th Asian Games.
The two heads of state met in a cordial and friendly atmosphere, exchanged in-depth views on China-Syria bilateral relations and international and regional issues of common concern, and reached a broad consensus.
The two heads of state praised China and Syria's traditional friendship and agreed that China and Syria share a relationship of trust and justice 信义之交, coming to each other's aid in times of need 患难之交.
They unanimously proclaimed that China and Syria should establish a strategic partnership and comprehensively promote friendship and cooperation in various fields for the betterment of the two peoples.
First, the two sides will continue to firmly support each other on issues involving each other's core interests and issues of great concern 重大关切问题. The Syrian side firmly adheres to the one-China principle. It recognizes that the Government of the People's Republic of China is the sole legitimate government representing the whole of China and that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China. It supports China in safeguarding its national sovereignty, unity, and territorial integrity, and firmly opposes interference by any force in China's internal affairs.
It supports all efforts made by the Chinese Government to realize national reunification, China's position on Hong Kong-related issues, and its efforts to safeguard national security under the framework of "one country, two systems". It firmly believes that Hong Kong affairs are purely an internal affair of China, and strongly condemns the illegal acts of outside forces interfering in Hong Kong affairs and China's internal affairs.
Syria firmly supports China's position on Xinjiang, reaffirming that Xinjiang-related issues are not human rights issues, but rather counter-terrorism, de-radicalization, and anti-secession issues [The Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas expressed the same support in June when he signed a similar Strategic Partnership declaration with Xi. No strings attached, right?]. The Syrian side firmly supports China's counter-terrorism and de-radicalization efforts and resolutely opposes interference in China's internal affairs under the pretext of Xinjiang-related issues.
China firmly supports Syria in safeguarding its national independence, sovereignty, unity, and territorial integrity. It supports the Syrian people in taking the path of development in line with its national conditions, supports the policies and initiatives adopted by the Syrian government aimed at safeguarding the country's security, stability, and development, and opposes interference in Syria's internal affairs by external forces.
China rejects undermining Syria's security and stability and opposes the unlawful military presence, illegal military operations, and illegal plundering 掠夺 of Syria's natural resources. It urges the countries concerned to immediately lift all illegal unilateral sanctions against Syria.
Second, the Syrian side highly values and actively supports the Global Development Initiative (GDI), the Global Security Initiative (GSI), and the Global Civilization Initiative (GCI) proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping. The two sides will actively cooperate in the implementation of these initiatives, join hands to promote the high-quality construction of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and jointly promote the building of a Community with a Shared Destiny for Mankind.
Third, the two sides are eager to expand exchanges and cooperation between their respective political parties, including parliaments and local governments, and to strengthen mutual exchanges of governance experience. The two sides will strengthen friendship and cooperation in various fields such as economy and trade, agriculture, culture, youth, and data.
China will continue to provide assistance to the Syrian side to the best of its ability and support the Syrian side in reconstruction and development. The Syrian side is grateful to China for its political support and selfless help, and for speaking up for the Syrian side in the UN Security Council. The two sides agreed to continue to strengthen counter-terrorism security cooperation and make joint efforts to combat terrorism.
Fourth, China supports and welcomes Syria's return to the League of Arab States (LAS), supports Syria in improving its relations with other Arab countries, and supports the unity and self-improvement of Arab countries in the region, including Syria.
The Syrian side highly appreciates China's diplomatic efforts to promote the resumption of diplomatic relations between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran and is grateful for China's active contribution to promoting the resolution of hot-spot issues in the Middle East and the maintenance of peace and stability in the region.
Fifth, the two sides highly valued the important role played by the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum (CASCF) mechanism in promoting collective cooperation between China and the Arab countries. They emphasized that they would actively cooperate in promoting the implementation of the outcomes of the first China-Arab Summit, carry forward the spirit of Sino-Arab friendship, and join hands in building a China-Arab Community of Shared Destiny in the New Era.
Sixth, the two sides support the promotion of the shared values of peace, development, fairness, justice, democracy, and freedom of all mankind. They respect the independent choice of peoples of all countries for their own paths of development and social systems suited to their national conditions and are firmly opposed to the politicization and instrumentalization of human rights, and to interference in the internal affairs of other countries on the pretext of democracy and human rights by any country.
The two sides will strengthen coordination and cooperation in regional and international affairs, jointly adhere to genuine multilateralism, defend the international system with the United Nations at its core, the international order based on international law, and the basic norms of international relations based on the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations.
[China and Syria] resolutely oppose all forms of hegemony and power politics, including the imposition of unlawful unilateral sanctions and restrictive measures on other countries. In doing so, they promote the construction of a new type of international relations and join hands in the building of a Community with a Shared Destiny for Mankind. (PRC Embassy in Syria)
“The strategic partnership will provide a more solid guarantee that the two countries will support each other's core interests and major concerns”
Liu Zhongmin, a professor at the Middle East Studies Institute (MESI) of Shanghai International Studies University (SISU), maintains that “Syria-China relations are entering a new historical era.”
Full translation of Liu’s op-ed to the Global Times published September 25, 2023:
“Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visited China to attend the 19th Asian Games and met with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The two heads of state jointly announced the establishment of the China-Syria Strategic Partnership, ushering in a new era in China-Syria relations.
“To begin with, the Strategic Partnership will be conducive to increasing strategic mutual trust between the two parties, "firmly supporting each other on issues involving each other's core interests and issues of great concern."
“China has long supported Syria's cause of national independence since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries in 1956. Syria's survival and development have been put to unprecedented test, particularly since the Arab Spring in 2011, after which China has provided tremendous political, economic, and diplomatic support to Syria.
“It was China and other countries [i.e. Russia] that vetoed Western proposals aimed at destabilizing the Assad regime at the United Nations, preventing Syria from experiencing a political tragedy akin to Libya.
“China has supported a "Syrian-led and Syrian-owned" 叙人主导，叙人所有 approach to finding a political solution to the Syrian crisis for more than a decade. It has consistently backed Syria in its efforts to maintain its national independence, sovereignty, unity, and territorial integrity, and has provided economic assistance to the country on numerous occasions to assist it in resolving its livelihood issues and rebuilding its economy in the aftermath of the war. Additionally, China has actively helped Syria re-engage the Arab world and strengthen ties with its neighbors.
“In the 67 years since diplomatic relations were established, China has also received long-term support from Syria. Syria was one of the first Arab countries to establish diplomatic relations with China, and in 1971, it was one of the sponsors of the restoration of New China's legitimate seat in the United Nations. Syria has long been a staunch ally of China on issues pertaining to China's core interests. In short, the strategic partnership will provide a more solid guarantee that the two countries will support each other's core interests and major concerns.”
“Second, the Strategic Partnership will foster extensive cooperation between the two nations around the Global Development Initiative (GDI), the Global Security Initiative (GSI), and the Global Civilization Initiative (GCI), allowing us to work together to promote the high-quality construction of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Syria's Aleppo and Palmyra were historically important cities on the ancient Silk Road, and Syria and China signed a memorandum of understanding in January 2022 to formally join the BRI family 大家庭.
“History and practice have demonstrated that the GDI, GSI, and GCI are vital to the Middle East, which has long been plagued by conflicts, wars, external interventions, unbalanced development, and the "clash of civilizations." Furthermore, the region suffers from serious peace, development, security, and governance deficits 和平赤字、发展赤字、安全赤字和治理赤字.
“China's initiatives in the Middle East have had a positive effect on the realization of peaceful development, security and stability, tolerance and mutual understanding among Middle Eastern countries, including Syria. Its actions helped the region experience a wave of reconciliation, all of which are directly related to China's aforementioned initiatives. The continued implementation of the BRI, GDI, GSI, and GCI will undoubtedly assist Syria in transitioning from turmoil and conflict to peaceful development and long-term stability.
“Finally, the Strategic Partnership will promote greater cooperation between the two sides in the Middle East and on international issues. The parties reached a broad consensus in the Sino-Syrian statement on the establishment of a strategic partnership on Arab solidarity and self-reliance, appreciation and support for regional reconciliation, promotion of China-Arab collective cooperation, and the establishment of a China-Arab community of shared destiny; and both sides emphasized the importance of promoting the shared values of mankind [as opposed to universal values], respecting the paths of development and the social systems.
“It is especially noteworthy that Syria, which has long been subjected to sanctions imposed by the West and regional countries, has been able to weather the storm and re-enter the Arab world and the international community.
“This is due to China's and other countries' insistence on fairness in the Syrian issue, as well as the wave of regional reconciliation sparked by China's promotion of the resumption of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. As a result, the expansion of cooperation between China and Syria in Middle East regional and international affairs is unquestionably beneficial to Syria, as well as a valuable revelation to the Middle East and the world.
“Without a doubt, the development of a China-Syria strategic partnership will face a number of pressures and challenges due to Syria's complex internal and external situation, particularly the continued existence of Western intervention and sanctions.
“Nonetheless, Syria's initial stabilization, the continuous intensification of the wave of regional reconciliation, the strengthening of regional countries' strategic autonomy, China's more active and proactive Middle East diplomacy, and the maturation and completion of the China-Arab collective cooperation mechanism are all conducive to the development of the China-Syria strategic partnership.” (Global Times Chinese edition)
“The US has emerged as the greatest threat to developing countries in particular, and to global peace in general. In contrast, China…plays a constructive role to the fullest extent possible”
“Isn’t America ashamed?” asks Tian Wenlin, a professor at Renmin University of China’s School of International Relations, designating the US as “the biggest spoiler standing in the way of Syria's transition from stability to chaos.”
Excerpts from Tian’s op-ed to the Global Times, published by Xinhua News Agency on September 22, 2023:
“This crisis, which has resulted in the loss of life and souls in Syria, has been a regional crisis driven by external forces from the get-go. While the conflict appears to be between Syrian government forces and the opposition on the surface, it has been manipulated and interfered with from the beginning by external forces led by the United States.
“According to available information, the US has been secretly funding the Syrian opposition since the Middle East Partnership Initiative was launched in 2006. Many US think tanks have "Syria teams" or "Syria working groups" to communicate with the Syrian opposition.
“A number of Syrian National Council [i.e., opposition coalition] leaders are involved with American institutions specializing in "exporting democracy." Following the outbreak of the Syrian crisis, the Western media consciously defined the Assad regime as a "dictatorship" and the rebels as a "democracy movement," and only published news (much of it false) that attacked the current Syrian regime.
“It is precisely because the US and other Western countries have added fuel to the fire that opposition forces in Syria have grown from nothing to something, from weak to strong. They are now on par with government forces, and the conflict has devolved into a full-fledged civil war.
“Syria was once an oasis of stability in the Middle East, but a long-running civil war has caused the country to devolve from law to lawlessness, wreaking havoc on its vitality.
“Only after receiving Russian assistance in 2015 did the Assad regime turn the corner and retake control of the vast majority of the country. After failing to overthrow the government, the US resorted to a war of economic strangulation against Syria.
“The reconstruction of Syria's economy is expected to cost between $200 billion and $500 billion. At a critical juncture in Syria's economic reconstruction in June 2020, the US Congress started to implement the Caesar Act (the full name of which is the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act), which entails sanctioning all foreign investors seeking to participate in Syria's reconstruction. In doing so, the US is clearly attempting to obstruct Syria's economic recovery and is deliberately pushing Syria into the abyss of closure, hunger, and poverty.
“Simultaneously, the US has resorted to burning wheat fields as an economic weapon in order to create a food crisis in Syria. According to some media outlets, the US Army burned a large number of wheat fields in Syria in 2019 and 2020.
“Syria could have been food self-sufficient, but the ongoing war, combined with US sabotage, has turned Syria from a food exporter to a food importer, plunging the country into a severe food crisis. By 2021, 4.5 million of Syria's 12.4 million registered population, or two-thirds of the total population, will face food insecurity. Furthermore, the US has been stealing large amounts of oil from Syria and destroying the natural environment in a variety of ways.
“All of this demonstrates that the United States is the biggest spoiler standing in the way of Syria's transition from stability to chaos. On a broader scale, the United States has emerged as the greatest threat to developing countries in particular, and to global peace in general.
“In contrast, China has consistently advocated for justice in the Syrian conflict, promoting peace and negotiation and playing a constructive role to the fullest extent possible. The most impressive aspect is that, since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis, China has repeatedly vetoed at the United Nations a number of proposals by the United States and the West to intervene in Syria's internal affairs.
“As the situation in Syria gradually improved and the Assad government regained its footing, an increasing number of countries began to relax sanctions against Syria. Syria re-joined the Arab League in March 2019, and a number of Arab countries re-established diplomatic relations with Damascus.
“Assad attended the Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia in May of this year. This was his first invitation to an Arab League summit since the start of the Syrian crisis in 2011.
“The fact that the situation in Syria has improved from chaos to governance and that foreign relations have improved demonstrates the correctness of China's anti-foreign-interference policy, as well as that China is a truly responsible major power.” (Xinhua)
China *could help, but will it?
Shen Shiwei is an editor at China Global Television Network (CGTN), which is owned by China Media Group (CMG) and is directly controlled by the Chinese Communist Party's Central Propaganda Department (link).
According to Jesse Marks with Refugees International and the Stimson Center, Beijing is not even among the top 50 donors to the UN-led response in Syria, contributing an average of $1.8 million to the United Nations Humanitarian Response Plan and Regional Response Plan only six of the twelve years of war.
In July 2022, COAR estimated that China, an $18 trillion economy, had contributed more than $100 million in humanitarian assistance to Syria since the conflict began in 2011, in addition to tens of millions in in-kind support to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and an estimated 80 million USD to assist neighboring states dealing with conflict fallout. In February, it was reported that China would provide 30 million yuan ($4.4 million) in emergency humanitarian aid to earthquake-ravaged Syria.
Qin Yong, Vice President of the China-Arab Exchange Association (CAEA), revealed in July 2017 during the first Trade Fair on Syrian Reconstruction Projects that China plans to invest US$2 billion in Syria to establish industrial parks, with the goal of attracting 150 Chinese enterprises to participate.
However, data show Beijing’s trade and investment with Syria continue to languish and the generous pledge has "yet to materialize". Hard to blame Chinese businesses. Would you put your pension in a conflict-torn narco-state that is on the verge of war, plagued by natural disasters, and, despite glitzy rhetoric, shunned by its wealthier neighbors?
“The Global Civilization Initiative (GCI)…disproves the theory of clash of civilizations, the theory of civilizational superiority, and the theory of the centrality of Western civilization”
Professor Sun Degang, head of the Middle East program at Fudan University, views China-Syria relations as the embodiment of the GCI.
Excerpts from Sun’s interview with Southern Metropolis Daily (SMD) published online on September 23, 2023:
According to Sun Degang, "heads-of-state diplomacy 元首外交 plays a leading role in the development of Sino-Syrian relations." He believes that China and Syria have similar perspectives on defending national sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as a shared understanding of the global trend toward multipolarity.
At present, the great changes unseen in a century that the world is facing are accelerating, and the uncertainties and unstable factors facing global peace and development are increasing. Sun believes that the Syrian president's visit to China will help deepen political mutual trust between the two countries in the midst of a "wave of reconciliation" in the Middle East.
"The foundation of China-Syria political mutual trust is very solid." Sun Degang told SMD reporters that the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year and that Syria has always supported China's BRI, as well as the Global Development Initiative (GDI) and the Global Security Initiative (GSI). Furthermore, it has consistently supported China on matters pertaining to Xinjiang and the South China Sea.
China has also firmly supported Syria in safeguarding its national sovereignty and territorial integrity, and has on many occasions in the United Nations Security Council voted to uphold justice and defend Syria's national sovereignty and territorial integrity.
According to Sun, China's promotion of normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran has resulted in a "wave of reconciliation" in the Middle East, which will bring peace dividends to Syria.
"At present, the Syrian government forces have taken control of the vast majority of the country, and post-war reconstruction is on the agenda, I think the Syrian president's visit to China focuses on cooperation with the Chinese side on pragmatic issues," observed Sun.
According to Sun Degang, the visit will help China and Syria strengthen cooperation in the fields of health, education, and sports, in addition to deepening political mutual trust and strengthening economic and trade exchanges.
"The Syrian president's visit to China to attend the opening ceremony of this Asian Games releases a signal - the hope that China and Syria can strengthen cooperation in the field of humanities."
“China-Syria relations are closely linked by the common attributes of Eastern civilizations, and there is great potential for cultural cooperation between the two countries.
“The Syrian side fully appreciates China's Global Civilization Initiative (GCI), which promotes mutual respect among different civilizations and disproves 破解 the "theory of clash of civilizations," the "theory of civilizational superiority" and the "theory of the centrality of Western civilization". In Sun Degang's view, China-Syria humanities exchanges are a vivid embodiment of China's GCI.” (Souther Metropolis Daily)
“Not only is Syria still standing, but it is also rejoining the international community and breaking its diplomatic isolation, as evidenced by the visit to China”
According to CASS’ He Wenping and Northwestern University’s Wang Jin, “China is the best partner for post-war reconstruction and economic cooperation.”
Wang Jin is an associate professor at Northwestern University's Middle East Institute and He Wenping is a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) Institute of West Asian and African Studies.
Excerpts from a Global Times interview with Wang and He, published September 22, 2023:
“According to Wang Jin, the Syrian government has now shifted its focus to how to better pursue internal development, and Assad hopes to reach an agreement with China on a number of pragmatic cooperation projects, as evidenced by the composition of the accompanying delegation [it included the Foreign Minister, the Economy and Foreign Trade Minister, the Presidential Affairs Minister and the Special Adviser to the President.]
“Wang says that Syria may hope that China will continue to support Syria's political reconstruction process in the same way that it has in the past. Economically, given that Syria's economic situation is bleak and its currency is rapidly depreciating, Syria likely hopes that China will provide additional assistance.
“It could, for example, receive more Chinese aid in infrastructure construction and more attention from Chinese businesses in terms of investment. China and Syria complement each other in terms of trade, with Syria prioritizing China's agricultural facilities and technologies and China's demand for Syrian agricultural products.
“He Wenping told the Global Times that Assad had previously traveled to Russia and several Middle Eastern countries, but that this visit to China was the farthest he had ever traveled diplomatically.
“Not only is Syria still standing, but it is also rejoining the international community and breaking its diplomatic isolation, as evidenced by the visit to China. Syria signed a memorandum of understanding on BRI cooperation with China last year, according to He Wenping, and China is the best partner for post-war reconstruction and economic cooperation. (Global Times Chinese edition)
Playing in the Background
Discourse Power is written by Tuvia Gering, a researcher at the Diane and Guilford Glazer Foundation Israel-China Policy Center at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) and a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub. Any views expressed in this newsletter, as well as any errors, are solely those of the author. Follow Tuvia on Twitter @GeringTuvia