There is, it seems, no regime too odious to be a partner of China. Being repressive and corrupt have long been useful assets for gaining the friendship of Beijing, but its recent embrace of the ‘Butcher of Damascus’, Bashar al-Assad, carries reputational and other risks for China – even when it doesn’t have much of a reputation to lose.
China has offered Syria membership of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and with it the promise of munificent investment in Syrian roads, railways, ports, telecoms, hotels and much more. The offer came this week from China’s foreign minister Wang Yi, who was the first high-profile guest in Damascus after Bashar al-Assad’s re-election as president. Assad claims to have won 95 per cent of the vote in a poll described by Britain and the EU as ‘neither free nor fair’.
For Assad, China’s largesse must seem like a perfect accompaniment to the Russian and Iranian guns and muscle that have kept him in power during a civil war that has claimed half a million lives. Syria is also likely to be seen by the West as a proving ground for an emerging anti-western alliance between Moscow and Beijing.
The BRI is a curious thing. It started life as a vast investment programme, promising trillions of dollars for infrastructure projects along modern day ‘silk roads’, trade routes encircling the globe. From the start it lacked any real coherence, and is better understood as a tool of influence for Beijing, serving its broader economic and geo-political goals, an umbrella under which all manner of projects are grouped. It is particularly adept at sniffing out ethical vacuums left where the more squeamish walk away.
It is massively over-hyped and under-principled – unencumbered by any of those troublesome notions of transparency, good governance, environmental protection, labour or human rights that usually accompany lending from multilateral institutions or the West.