“China is ready to cooperate with Arab countries to build a higher-level China-Arab community with a shared future.” With these words, Chinese President Xi Jinping highlighted China’s wish to increase its economic presence in the Middle East during the 33rd Arab League Summit held in Bahrain on Friday, May 17.

Lebanon is not exempt from this growing interest. Lately, trade between the two countries has increased, partly due to Lebanon’s economic crisis, which has led to a growing demand for low-cost products. However, there is a significant trade imbalance: while China accounts for 14% of Lebanon’s imports, making it the country’s largest source of imports, Beirut exports very few goods to China.

The New Silk Road

Nevertheless, Beijing continues to invest in Lebanon, particularly due to its strategic crossroads location. Lebanon could become a vital link in China’s ambitious global project: The New Silk Road, also known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Behind this term lies the creation of major land and maritime trade routes, with the goal of enhancing exchanges across the entire Eurasian continent. To achieve this, China is heavily investing in logistics and communications infrastructure, such as roads, railways, ports and telecommunications.

Beyond the political aim of expanding the influence of the People’s Republic, the initiative also has clear economic objectives, mainly to secure Beijing’s supply routes.

The BRI also aims to boost exports and find new markets for Chinese companies, especially in the field of public works, as reported by the website Géoconfluences in a 2018 article.

The BRI follows several corridors. Two are land routes: one runs through Central Asia, Iran and Turkey; the other goes north through Russia to Eastern Europe. The maritime route crosses the Indian Ocean before splitting into two paths. One follows the East African coast to the southern tip of the continent, while the other goes up the Red Sea to reach the Mediterranean.

Currently, Lebanon is far from being a central link within the BRI, a fact that disappoints Waref Kumayha, President of the Lebanese-Chinese association Dialogue Roads. In an interview with This Is Beirut, he recalls that in 2017, “A cooperation agreement was signed between Lebanon and China, titled ‘the New Silk Road,’ covering logistics, energy infrastructure, sports and health.”

An Abundance of Donations

Kumayha voices hope that “this agreement will be activated so that Lebanon can benefit from this initiative on a mutually beneficial and win-win basis.” “We haven’t had  the chance yet to benefit from such an opportunity,” he adds. “We encourage Lebanon to grab this opportunity, as it could significantly contribute to resolving a good part of the country’s economic crisis.”

However, if Chinese-Lebanese cooperation is slow to materialize, Beijing is not standing idly by and is making moves in Lebanon through providing aid and donations. “Following Beirut’s port explosion on August 4, 2020, the Chinese government provided substantial help to Lebanon,” Kumayha recalls, highlighting its role in the restoration and reconstruction of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Another concrete indicator is the donation of solar panels to Ogero, of a value amounting to 8 million dollars. Imad Kreidieh, the General Manager of the public telecommunications and internet provider, states, “We were contacted by the Chinese Embassy about a month or two ago, informing us that the Chinese government had agreed to grant this donation to Ogero.” He further explains, “We expect that the entire equipment will be delivered to Lebanon around next August or September.”

The stated goal is clearly to reduce dependence on fuel, which is a significant financial drain for the Lebanese government. Yet, Chinese generosity also aligns with an economic purpose. By showcasing its expertise to a prominent public enterprise—as a side note, China is the leader in this market—it also hopes to attract new clients in the private sector.

The reconstruction of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs can also be seen from this perspective, with Chinese companies among the leaders in the construction market.

Lebanese Ports

But China’s real interest in Lebanon lies elsewhere, specifically in the logistical infrastructure of its two main ports, Beirut and Tripoli.

Beijing was one of the contenders for the tender to rebuild the port after the August 4, 2020 explosion. Its bid was supported by Hezbollah, given the close ties between Beijing and Tehran. However, this bid never materialized into concrete action, mainly due to Lebanon’s unprecedented economic challenges and regional instability.

A similar sentiment is echoed in Tripoli. “On several occasions, we sensed the willingness of China and Chinese companies to invest in Lebanon and Tripoli,” says Toufic Dabboussi, President of the Chamber of Commerce of this major northern city. “But the local and regional situation has prevented the realization of this project for now,” he notes.

It is worth mentioning that these infrastructures were renovated by the China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC), a state-owned enterprise, between 2011 and 2015. The import of a second crane by the Emirati company Gulftainer to the port of Tripoli in December 2023 also points to a renewed interest.

“The cranes are from China, but it is a private project,” explains Dabboussi. “The company Gulftainer took over the management of the quay at the port of Tripoli and imported the cranes from China, the first in 2015 and a second more recently,” he continues. He clarifies, “This is not a donation; this is an investment in the most traditional sense of the term.”

Chinese Ambitions in the Levant

While these are not donations per se, the shipment of cranes to the port of Tripoli serves as a testament to China’s growing economic influence and its willingness to invest in infrastructure with significant potential returns.

Tripoli’s port could serve as a vital link for the reconstruction efforts in neighboring Syria, which has been ravaged by war since 2011. This strategic positioning could alleviate pressure on Syrian ports like Latakia and Tartus.

This project could have a positive local impact, as attested by the example of the port of Piraeus in Greece. Acquired by the Chinese company Cosco Shipping in 2016, Piraeus quickly became a crucial link in the trade network between Asia and Europe. Its modernization led to increased cargo volumes, positively impacting the local economy. For Greece, this translated to job creation and a much-needed economic boost.

Potential Risks of the Belt and Road Initiative

However, the BRI raises transparency concerns. According to a report published by the American institute AidData in 2021, the Chinese initiative has been embroiled in several major corruption scandals in some recipient countries. While Lebanon was not explicitly mentioned, it already suffers from a notorious reputation for corruption.

Nonetheless, Chinese dominance tied to the BRI extends beyond its immediate sphere, particularly in economic terms. The initiative primarily aims to counter American economic influence. Unlike its competitor, China isn’t focused on expanding its cultural influence… Yet it is slowly but surely making its mark in the Land of the Cedars.

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