Syria and China sign cooperation agreements

Jun 29, 2004 02:00 AM

The visit of Syrian President Bashar Assad to China was a landmark event and came in part because of the pressures exerted by the United States against Damascus recently. The success of this visit opened a wide window for Syria toward the Far East.
Beijing has become the most important player on the economic world map and a strong ally able to provide its partners with technology and weapons. It also offers a large market for trade. From this point the visit of President Assad was a strong move to be followed up by Washington, which is the first to be concerned by all the messages released during this visit.

Assad, the first Syrian president to visit China since the two countries established relations in 1956, succeeded in opening a new chapter in the relations between the two countries. Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shara was clear in sending a message: "We are interested in bringing about a positive, important turning point in the process of Syrian-Chinese relations", he told.
Damascus wanted to tell Washington that there are always other alternatives than languishing under American sanctions. Syria seems to be searching for common denominators with China; it needs a strong partner during the coming period and China is the giant emerging on the international scene as an economic and political power. Even the US is trying to manage a kind of political and economic cooperation with Beijing in order to avoid clashes in the future or another cold war.

Assad's visit was part of a drive to prevent possible isolation following the imposition of US sanctions. That is why Assad started his counter-moves against any possible isolation with a visit to Spain, followed by that to China.
Syria is also seeking to conclude a crucial trade and aid agreement with the EU, which has been blocked by disagreement over an EU drive for a stronger commitment from Damascus over weapons of mass destruction.

During the visit to China, about 10 agreements, protocols and memoranda of understandingwere signed, including one on oil and gas cooperation. Syria, an independent oil producer with an output of about 550,000 bpd, was willing to provide China with oil but lacks "a sufficient output".
The oil sector is important for American companies, which tried to penetrate the Syrian market as a part of a global strategy aimed at getting the biggest share of the world oil fields. Syrian Oil Minister Ibrahim Haddad said earlier this month that Damascus continues to sell oil to American companies and encourages US investment in its energy sector, despite Washington's unilateral sanctions, which exclude energy investment, although the White House has said they could be tightened in the future. Stepping up its economic diplomacy in the Middle East, China will also provide a low-interest loan to Syria.

Economy and technology
Syria knows that the most important benefit it can get from Beijing is trade and economic cooperation. Damascus has tried to persuade Chinese investors to consider Syria-based ventures, and in the run up to President Assad's visit some 70 Syrian businessmen were in Shanghai, China's commercial capital to discuss prospects for such ventures.
According to Syrian figures, bilateral trade stood at about $ 320 mm in 2003, including $ 20 mm in Syrian exports. Syria has proposed several industrial ventures to Chinese entrepreneurs and is working with the Chinese government on an agreement to eliminate double taxation. For its part, China can benefit from Arab agreements that would allow Chinese firms to produce goods in Syria and export them to neighbouring Arab markets tax-free beginning in 2005.

On another level, Syria can buy military technology, but only if it pays the price. Chinese President Hu Jintao told his Syrian counterpart that his country was ready to sell Damascus (relatively) modern weapons if it could get the price in cash. The Syrian army is seriously short of modern weaponry and military technology.
The Soviet Union used to be Damascus' chief arms supplier, but Moscow would now like Syria to pay for former arms purchases before it resumes supplies. Moreover, President Vladimir Putin is cooperating with Washington as much as his interests allow him. He may feel that his divergences with the Bush Administration over Iraq are sufficiently troublesome without adding an additional embroilment by active support of Syria.

Diplomatic cooperation
China, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, could play an important role in sensitive issues of great importance to Syria, particularly the Arab-Israel conflict and the American occupation of Iraq.
According to statements released after meetings between Syrian and Chinese officials, the views of Damascus and Beijing on these matters were either "identical" or "very close". They both expressed "disquiet" -- a strong word in the diplomatic lexicon -- at Washington's unilateralist foreign policy, a fact which indicates that China may be ready to provide a kind of “shelter” to countries needing support against what Americans call "the only superpower".

President Assad has made his wise move; observers will wait for the feedback from Washington and the change it is going to make in the positions and conditions of Syria.
From this point, many countries will start calculating the level of danger.

Source: Monday Morning
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