Since China’s historic “Belt and Road” initiative was announced in 2013, several countries in the region, including Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, have raised the question of moving east in order to benefit from this massive initiative, which is expected to break the vicious cycle of crises that these countries have been mired in for decades.
The Chinese initiative aims to connect China to Europe by constructing billions of dollars of infrastructure along the Silk Road. Ports, highways, railroads, and industrial zones are all included in this initiative. More than 120 countries are involved in this massive Chinese project, which aims to increase China’s exports to the world’s major markets.
On December 31, 1955, China and Lebanon signed a trade agreement in order to develop the goodwill between the peoples of Lebanon and China via commercial relations and economic cooperation between their two nations, on the basis of equal and mutually beneficial advantages. China’s “Belt and Road” initiative, which aims to connect Asia, Europe, and Africa via land and sea trade routes, is based on the idea that these connections are mutually beneficial to all parties involved.
The initiative is based on open collaboration and does not engage in protectionism; is devoted to mutual benefit and win-win and does not engage in a zero-sum game; moreover it does not interfere with politics. It doesn’t create new laws; instead, abide with international conventions.
Agreements on “joint promotion” were signed by the Chinese government and the Lebanese government in September 2017 to promote cooperation in this area. According to the Memorandum of Understanding, both countries will work together in areas of mutual interest such as transportation and logistics; infrastructure development; investments in renewable energy; and cross-cultural exchange.
Prior to the signing of this Memorandum of Understanding, the two countries signed numerous agreements in various fields, including the Maritime Transport Agreement (1996), the Activation and Protection of Mutual Investments (1997), the Economic, Commercial and Technical Cooperation Agreements (1997-2016), the Civil Air Transport Agreement (1997), a cultural agreement (2002-2005), and several agreements in this field that resulted on December 2, 2019 in laying the foundation stone for this Memorandum of Understanding.
Despite the growing ties between Lebanon and China, the Lebanese have yet to make a decision on whether to move east, more specifically to China, or keep the strong ties and bonds with western governments, such as the US and France, for political reasons related to the sectarian system, as well as economic and commercial interests of some actors or parties active in these areas.
When it comes to Lebanon’s relationship with China, some have shifted the focus from economics to politics, either by advocating a complete shift of the country’s economic focus from the United States to China, or by warning about the potential consequences of expanding relations with the Chinese side. In both circumstances, the connection shifts from national interests to ideological advantages. The Arab countries and Lebanon have never had an issue with China, neither in trade, culture, or politics; China has dozens of major projects in many Arab countries without these countries turning to the east or fearing any US encroachment.
China also contributes to the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Lebanon, in addition to its cultural, educational, and artistic agreements with Lebanon. We can see the positive return of the partnership with China in the tremendous progress in technological projects and infrastructure in Egypt, for example; or Algeria’s ports; Morocco’s industrial sector; Kuwait’s oil and communications industries; Saudi Arabia’s oil and communications industries; and the United Arab Emirates’ energy and agriculture industries.
“Sanctions were not threatened against Lebanon because of China’s growing trade ties with Lebanon, which amount to nearly $2 billion a year in exports to Lebanon compared to barely $60 million in industrial exports from Lebanon to China,” the American side said.
China is a powerhouse with the second-largest economy in the world, whereas Lebanon is a small nation with economic difficulties and a big trade imbalance. On the other hand, it is situated in a strategic location that allows it to serve as a gateway between the Middle East and Europe. So, there is the potential for significant economic and commercial entanglements between China and Lebanon, which might be beneficial to both nations.
More than ten billion dollars’ worth of development projects, including cleaning the Litani River and resolving the country’s electricity crisis were offered to Lebanon’s government by China. Other offers included getting China to participate in the oil and gas sector, turning Lebanon into a Chinese regional financial centre, and expanding the port at Tripoli. Because the United States has rejected any involvement for China in Lebanon, the Lebanese side was not enthusiastic about these initiatives.
Chinese ties with the Middle East are based on mutual benefit, common gain, cooperative growth and a win-win situation. China does not attempt to exert influence in the region. On the other hand, China’s new Ambassador to Lebanon, Qian Minjian, notes that Lebanon’s government and political parties have expressed a positive willingness to deepen practical cooperation with China within the Belt and Road Initiative framework; he stresses that the Chinese side always seeks to cooperate with Lebanon within the Belt and Road Initiative, with a commitment to do so.
Chinese and Lebanese diplomatic relations began in 1971, but commercial ties between the two countries date back to 1955, when the first trade agreement was signed between them, noting that these relations date back more than two thousand years ago.
Those who downplay China’s global economic, technological, and financial influence in contrast to the growing American influence and refuse to support Lebanon’s expansion or deepening of its ties with China on this pretext do not provide clear or logical answers about international expectations that China will hold the top economic position in the world. China’s strategic Belt and Road Initiative will have drawn dozens of countries and thousands of globally successful institutions and companies by 2030, parallel to the success of the United States and its Western allies in preventing this project from launching and progressing despite the campaigns they launched to stop it. As a result, the media and propaganda are likely to disparage it and doubt its merits for the countries participating in it.
Lebanon failed to accept or consider the Chinese offers or projects presented to it. Based on its long and distinguished history of relations with China in the economic, commercial, cultural and technical fields, and in order to avoid repeating Iraq’s failed experience in repudiating a strategic partnership agreement with China under the influence of the US; therefore, the Lebanese government should be more aware in dealing with the Chinese in the future and not miss more opportunities.
When there are objections or reservations about the interests of monopolistic powers and activities or external political demands, especially American ones, this means more political and economic confusion in Lebanon and a waste of a historical opportunity that may not be repeated while Arab or foreign alternatives remain conditioned by suspicious political demands, in addition to its lack of transparency and waving a new colonial era as a matter of economics.