Beijing and Beirut at Cross-Roads

This week marks the 50th anniversary of China and Lebanon establishing diplomatic relations in November 1971. Much has changed since then for both Beijing and Beirut, but the history of the relationship is revealing of some key forces driving both countries’ foreign relations.

China is building closer relations with Middle Eastern states, part of a wider push to establish itself as a leading diplomatic force on the international stage. Lebanon, on the other hand, is struggling both politically and economically, and its newly returned Prime Minister Najib Mikati is seeking “quick fixes” to alleviate massive domestic problems. Both Beijing and Beirut may have reason to deepen ties in the future and the half-century anniversary of Sino-Lebanese relations provides an opportunity to reflect on their diplomatic trajectories.

China and Lebanon’s Diplomatic Roots

China and Lebanon first established diplomatic relations on November 9th, 1971. This came at an important juncture in Chinese diplomatic history. First, Beijing’s Communist government had just succeeded in a long-drawn-out struggle to wrest China’s seat on the UN Security Council away from the Nationalist government-in-exile in Taipei. A year earlier, Canada and Italy had formally extended diplomatic recognition to the PRC, reviving a process that had stalled during the Korean War and paving the way for non-Communist countries to engage with Beijing. This precipitated a wave of new diplomatic partnerships and during the 1970s every few months saw new countries formally establishing relations with China – Lebanon being one of the first to do so.

Second, since 1966 China had been rocked by the Cultural Revolution, a period of widespread ideological radicalism and violence that impacted every aspect of life. Foreign policy was not spared. Iconoclastic denunciations of socialist and capitalist countries were common, several foreigners were attacked, and all but one of China’s ambassadors were recalled – hardly a political atmosphere conducive to building new relations. However, the mysterious death of Lin Biao in September 1971 marked a turning point in the fever pitch that had seized the country and gradually Beijing’s relations with the outside began to normalize.

While Beijing was emerging from a chaotic period, Beirut was entering an era of turmoil. During the early 1960s, Lebanon used its position between the oil-rich Arab Gulf States and the West to establish itself as a major financial center. However, in 1966 one of the country’s most influential financial institutions, the Intra Bank, collapsed, precipitating a national financial crisis. The 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and a coalition of Arab states led to a massive influx of Palestinian refugees, further straining Lebanon’s socio-economic fabric. Domestic tensions and fractures intensified, as exemplified by the narrow 1970 elections. Throughout the first half of the 1970s, Lebanese leaders struggled to stave off collapse, although conditions would ultimately devolve into civil war.

Against this backdrop, Beirut looked outward for economic support. From 1972 it negotiated a trade agreement with the European Economic Community, although progress stalled. Diplomatic relations with China in 1971 paved the way for a trade agreement in 1972 following a visit to Beijing by Foreign Minister Khalil Abu Hamad. Lebanon was by no means the first Arab state to formalize relations with China, and Beijing had already managed to cultivate strong regional ties. The governments of Egypt, Syria, North Yemen, Iraq, and Algeria had all found it geopolitically and ideologically expedient to cultivate closer relations with China’s communist leaders. Lebanon’s westward orientation and distrust of Beijing’s Arab Nationalist allies had delayed official relations being formed until the early 1970s. The outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War, however, would effectively further suspend the deepening of Sino-Lebanese ties until the early 2000s.

China’s Ambitions in the Levant

Although conditions are very different today than they were in 1971, it is nonetheless tempting to see certain parallels in Sino-Lebanese relations. For much of the last decade, China has been deploying its vast economic and political resources to reshape the international system. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which merges infrastructure development with foreign policy, reflects Beijing’s desire to project influence outward. China’s Middle East policy plays an ever more important role in these ambitions.

All three volumes of The Governance of China, the seminal collections of speeches and articles of Xi Jinping, emphasize the importance of Sino-Arab relations. The latest edition includes a 2018 speech in which Xi outlines a “Sino-Arab future-oriented strategic partnership of comprehensive cooperation and common development” formed around broad tenets. This rhetorical flourish was accompanied by the proclamation that just over 100 million USD in financial aid would be provided to Jordan, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon, with an additional 20 billion USD in loans extended to Arab states. Chinese overtures are not limited to the financial, even as Confucius Institutes have been closing in North America and Europe, they have been proliferating in the Middle East.

There is a lot to unpack when examining Sino-Arab relations and it is easy to gloss over-complicated and nuanced issues, but some general observations can be made. One benefit of relations with Arab states is that it fits well with Beijing’s preferred development narrative, which presumes a mutually beneficial collaboration between equal partners, as opposed to an extractive or exploitative relationship attributed to Western imperialism. China has also mobilized diplomatic support among leaders in the Muslim world to deflect criticism of its human rights record in Xinjiang and Hong Kong by organizing letters of support for its policies. Moreover, the Chinese economy draws heavily on energy imports from the Middle East and a large share of Sino-European trade passes through the Red Sea.

Lebanon is attractive to China, not least for its geographic proximity to major trade arteries linking Europe to East Asia. Moreover, its geostrategic location close to Syria and Iraq could provide a potential springboard for connectivity projects spanning the Levant. Beijing has been wary of becoming drawn into regional rivalries, hedging between traditional rivals such as Israel and Palestine, or Saudi Arabia and Iran. By comparison, Lebanon provides a comparatively ‘safe’ space from a geopolitical standpoint. Although the country’s population is small, Lebanon is influential owing to its cosmopolitan legacy and educational institutions. It is perhaps unsurprising that Lebanon was the first Arab country to host a Confucius Institute.

Crisis and Opportunity

Since 2019 Lebanon has been experiencing a financial collapse, the significance of which is difficult to overstate. One report characterized the economic situation as one of the most severe crises in a century and a half. Already constrained by the war in neighboring Syria and the ascendence of Hezbollah, Lebanon suffered a series of setbacks over the past two years. A plan to tax WhatsApp calls was met with widespread anger, the COVID-19 pandemic withered the economy, and a massive port explosion drove in 2020 drove public fury to new heights. Corruption allegations have dogged Lebanon’s political class, and western donors have been adamant in making the point that financial support can only come following major governance reforms. The economic meltdown, combined with the fractured political landscape, has prompted speculation that Beirut may increasingly turn to Beijing for support. There may indeed be some room for China and Lebanon to find some areas for “Win-Win” cooperation, particularly when it comes to infrastructure development.

But Lebanon’s economic and political woes are severe. Increasing incidents of ‘hunger crimes’ have been reported, while UNICEF has warned of an incipient water crisis. As things stand it is difficult to envision how Beirut can recover without significant help from abroad. Even if the most serious immediate problems can be overcome, Lebanese leaders will still need to restore faith in government, tackle corruption and generate prosperity for a population a quarter of which is under the age of 16, to say nothing of navigating climate change and a volatile geostrategic neighborhood. Beirut is in talks with the IMF after defaulting on loans last year, and Prime Minister Mikati has appealed to Arab states for aid, but a conflict with Gulf states has constrained his options. Given this backdrop, it is not hard to see Chinese economic or technical support as a windfall for the embattled government.

Chinese officials often cite the successes of the Chinese development model as an example for other countries to follow. How this can be applied to the case of Lebanon is not immediately clear, but it is possible to envision the small country serving as a kind of foreign policy laboratory. Whether Beijing and Beirut can find ways to harmonize their goals remains to be seen, but the challenges appear daunting. How the relationship develops going forward may prove instructive both for those seeking to understand China’s ambitions in the Middle East and the opportunities.