Is it China’s turn to wield influence over Lebanon?

Is it China’s turn to wield influence over Lebanon?
1 / 3
Is it China’s turn to wield influence over Lebanon?
2 / 3
China's military donated to the Lebanese Army surgical face masks, goggles, protective clothing and other medical supplies needed in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. (Xinhua news agency photo)
Is it China’s turn to wield influence over Lebanon?
3 / 3
Lebanon’s Culture Minister Abbas Mortada (2nd left) and China's Ambassador Wang Wang Kejian (2nd right) signing a cooperation agreement last month in Beirut. (Xinhua news agency photo)
Short Url
Updated 12 August 2020

Is it China’s turn to wield influence over Lebanon?

Is it China’s turn to wield influence over Lebanon?
  • China’s ‘donation diplomacy’ pays off in crisis-plagued Lebanon as it also battles a coronavirus pandemic 
  • Economy projected to shrink by 12 percent this year, with 75 percent of the population under the poverty line

BEIRUT: Over the past 10 years, the commercial landscape of the Middle East and North Africa has undergone a gradual but radical change. Gone are the days when goods from the West filled the shelves of corner shops and supermarkets. They now stock the full gamut of Chinese-made products, from cellphones to air-conditioners and from school stationery to washing machines.

Few countries in the region exemplify China's emergence as a competitor to the West's global manufacturing dominance as clearly as Lebanon, with its economy in tatters and foreign currency reserves exhausted. 

When the first case of COVID-19 was recorded on February 21 in Lebanon, Chinese authorities rushed to deliver medical assistance to the government.

The promptness of the response created the impression in some circles that China was seeking to gain a strategic foothold in Lebanon, which had long been viewed as a political playground for major powers and the Middle East’s gateway of sorts to the West. 

A call sounded by the Hezbollah chief, Hassan Nasrallah, in November last year, and repeated a few weeks ago, to “go to China to save Lebanon financially and economically,” has left many wondering whether Lebanese politicians are aligning their country too closely with the Asian power.

Even by the standards of the calamities that struck it in the 20th century, Lebanon has never been more vulnerable than it is now amid the coronavirus crisis.

The economy is projected to shrink by 12 percent this year, while half the government’s budget will go to service a debt burden that has reached 170 percent of GDP. The share of Lebanon’s population below the poverty line is believed to have jumped to 75 percent from the pre-pandemic level of 50 percent.

Armed Forces guard a demonstration against the poor economy. Analysts fear poor economic conditions make Lebanon ripe for exploitation. (AFP)

Against this grim backdrop, some Lebanese politicians, economists and academics are arguing that Beirut has lagged behind other countries in strengthening ties with Beijing, just as it was late in giving diplomatic recognition to the Communist-led People’s Republic of China.

“Lebanon recognized the People’s Republic of China only after Henry Kissinger’s secret trip to the country in 1971,” said Dr. Massoud Daher, head of the Chinese-Lebanese Friendship and Cooperation Committee, referring to the former US secretary of state and national security adviser. 

Nearly 50 years on, it seems the shoe is on the other foot.

In the last week of May, the People’s Liberation Army made a direct donation to the Lebanese Army to boost the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. The items included surgical face masks, goggles, protective clothing and other medical supplies.

The coronavirus gear was handed over as part of an agreement that was signed by Wang Kejian, China’s ambassador to Lebanon, and General Joseph Aoun, the Lebanese Army Commander. 

“The Chinese donation clearly reflects the solidity and depth of the relationship between the two peoples and the two armies,” Wang said. 

“China is ready to work with the Lebanese people and army to overcome the difficulties and troubles. After all the difficulties and obstacles have been cleared, new roads and horizons will open up.”

China's military donated to the Lebanese Army medical supplies needed in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. (Xinhua photo)

By contrast, in an op-ed last month that appeared to encapsulate the view from Washington, Danielle Pletka, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote: “While the Islamic Republic of Iran is still calling the political shots, vultures from Beijing are circling, eyeing tasty infrastructure assets like ports and airports as well as soft power influence through Lebanon’s universities. Meanwhile, Lebanon as a sovereign nation collapses.”

China of course has also a longstanding military presence in Lebanon, in the form of a 410-strong unit serving with UNIFIL in the country’s south.

The soldiers of the unit perform operational and humanitarian duties involving medical services, disposal of unexploded ordnance, construction of UNIFIL protection facilities, road building and rehabilitation of schools and kindergartens in the border areas.

The Chinese Field Hospital at the UNIFIL headquarters, north of Marjeyoun, provides a range of medical services to local residents and to UNIFIL soldiers.

Even before the coronavirus aid started arriving, relations between Lebanon and China were warming, with the latter doing all the giving as part of its “soft power” projection.

Worshippers perform prayers during Ramadan while keeping a safe distance at a Mosque in Beirut. (AFP)

Last year, a delegation of Chinese businessmen visited Lebanon and held meetings away from the media gaze, during which they offered to fund a number of projects.

These included the Arab highway linking Beirut to Damascus and a parallel railway project connecting Beirut first to Damascus and then to China’s $900 billion new Silk Road, the trade corridor designed to reopen channels between China and countries of Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe.

The Chinese visitors also offered to construct highways going from Lebanon’s north to south and build solar power plants that would generate electricity at affordable rates.

Just last month, China signed a cooperation agreement with Lebanon aimed at establishing cultural centers in the two countries “on the basis of equality and mutual benefit.”

According to the agreement, signed by Ambassador Wang and Abbas Mortada, Lebanon’s Culture Minister, on behalf of their governments the centers will provide a “wider platform for cultural exchange and mutual learning between the two countries.”

In April, the Lebanese Ministry of Health received a donation consisting of protection gear and COVID-19 testing kits, given as part of Beijing’s “donation diplomacy.”

February saw a number of online training workshops conducted by Chinese doctors aimed at raising awareness of coronavirus risks among medical workers and volunteers in community clinics in Lebanon’s refugee camps.

About 80 percent of Lebanon’s needs are met through imports and, according to China’s state-run Xinhua news agency, 40 percent of the imports come from China.

The gross value of imported Chinese goods — typically electrical appliances, clothing, toys, cellphones, furniture, industrial equipment, candies and foodstuff — is estimated at $2 billion annually.

The trade imbalance is evident from Lebanon’s annual exports to China, which amount to no more than $60 million. 

Lebanon’s Culture Minister Abbas Mortada (2nd left) and China's Ambassador Wang Wang Kejian (2nd right) signing a cooperation agreement last month in Beirut. (Xinhua photo)

The influence of China can be gauged from social trends as well. In recent years, Lebanon has seen a growing interest among young people in learning Chinese.

Among other academic institutions, the Confucius Institute at St. Joseph’s University in Beirut and the Language Centre at the Lebanese University have Chinese language programs.

“Until 2003, Lebanon and China had only formal political relations,” Daher told Arab News, noting that in 1978 China adopted a policy of openness and reform as well as signaled its intent to expand its influence abroad in order to promote its industry.

“In 2006, we established the Chinese-Arab Friendship Association (CAFA). Since then, we have held more than 15 conferences sponsored by China in various disciplines in 23 Arab countries. The number of Lebanese merchants who have visited China stands at 11,000.”

According to Daher, China has signed four agreements with the Lebanese University and another with the Ministry of Culture.

“China had to wait for three years to be granted the permit to build its cultural center in Lebanon,” he said.

“The Chinese donated $66 million to set up Lebanon’s largest music center, currently being built by Chinese companies. The Lebanese state has only provided the land.”

Daher believes “the Chinese are taking the long view,” with the Lebanese economy and the military as well as the banks still tied to American institutions.

He dismisses the notion that China is seeking to gain control over Lebanon’s political and economic decision-making structures.

“China is not being able to get into Lebanon. Entry even through investment projects will be difficult since the Lebanese ask for their cuts, but the Chinese, like the Japanese, do not pay bribes from government money.”

Pointing to the interest reportedly expressed by Chinese firms to take over electricity and infrastructure projects in Lebanon, he said “the offers have not been approved, and China is forbidden from entering Lebanon in such ways.”

Daher puts it this way: “China is interested in marketing its products in such a way that both parties can benefit from. Lebanon is an economically distressed country and does not constitute an important market for China.

“The problem is that the money of the Lebanese people is blocked in banks and the economy is in recession. China sells us its products at attractive prices, but how can the products be marketed in a country whose purchasing power is declining on a daily basis?”

Still, with tensions between China and the US rising over Beijing’s donation diplomacy in the latest of many disputes, Zhang Jian Wei, director general of the Department of West Asia and North Africa at the International Liaison Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, said: “We do not intend to replace the United States in Lebanon and we do not have the capacity to do so because China is still a developing country. Even if China becomes more developed economically, it will not seek to fill any vacuum in Lebanon.” 

Wei hinted that China’s cooperation with Arab countries is bothering some countries, such as the US, which “is taking all measures to contain China’s influence.” 

“The US is the largest developed country in the world, with which we do not want a trade war. But if the American insisted, we will fight it till the end,” he said.

For all the deepening, multidimensional ties with China, Daher says Lebanon is tied to the US until further notice.

“It can neither open up to China, nor free itself of American influence,” he said.

“Since the political class is capitalist, rentier and sectarian by nature, it sticks to quotas and avoids reforms.

“If Lebanon decides to change for the better, then it must open up to China. If the situation remains the same, Lebanon will go bankrupt.”




Several people hurt after train derails in Egypt

Several people hurt after train derails in Egypt
Updated 3 min 30 sec ago

Several people hurt after train derails in Egypt

Several people hurt after train derails in Egypt

CAIRO: Several people were hurt in Egypt after eight train carriages derailed in Qalioubia province north of Cairo on Sunday, the province's verified page on Facebook said.
Twenty ambulances rushed to the site, it said.
Some local media reports said some people had been killed in the accident.
Officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.


Iran asks Interpol to arrest Natanz ‘sabotage’ suspect – media report

Iran asks Interpol to arrest Natanz ‘sabotage’ suspect – media report
Updated 18 April 2021

Iran asks Interpol to arrest Natanz ‘sabotage’ suspect – media report

Iran asks Interpol to arrest Natanz ‘sabotage’ suspect – media report
  • National television has published a photo and identified the alleged saboteur as Reza Karimi
  • A Red Notice is a request to law enforcement worldwide to locate and provisionally arrest a person

TEHRAN: Iran has asked Interpol to help arrest a suspect in a sabotage attack on its Natanz nuclear facility which it blames on Israel, a local newspaper reported Sunday.
National television has published a photo and identified the man as 43-year-old Reza Karimi, saying the intelligence ministry had established his role in last week’s “sabotage” at Natanz.
The broadcaster said the suspect had “fled the country before the incident” and that “legal procedures to arrest and return him to the country are currently underway.”
Neither state TV nor other media provided further details on the suspect. The intelligence ministry has not issued an official statement.
The ultraconservative Kayhan daily reported in its Sunday edition that “intelligence and judicial authorities” are engaged in the process.
It added that “after his identity was established, necessary measures were taken through Interpol to arrest and return” the suspect.
Kayhan did not specify what form of Interpol assistance had been requested.
As of Sunday noon, Interpol’s public “red notice” list online returned no results for Reza Karimi.
A Red Notice is a request to law enforcement worldwide to locate and provisionally arrest a person pending extradition, surrender or similar legal action, according to Interpol’s website.
A “small explosion” hit the Natanz plant’s electricity distribution system a week ago, according to the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran.
The Iranian foreign ministry accused arch-foe Israel of an act of “nuclear terrorism” and vowed revenge.
Israel has neither confirmed nor denied involvement but public radio reports said it was a sabotage operation by the Mossad spy agency, citing unnamed intelligence sources.
The New York Times, quoting unnamed US and Israeli intelligence officials, also said there had been “an Israeli role” in the attack.
Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh last week indirectly accused Israel of attempting to scuttle talks underway in Vienna aimed at reviving a landmark nuclear agreement.
The talks are focused on bringing the US back in to the accord after former president Donald Trump withdrew from it in 2018 and reimposed sanctions on Tehran, and to bring Iran back into compliance with key nuclear commitments it suspended in response to the sanctions.

Syria to hold presidential vote on May 26: parliament

Syria to hold presidential vote on May 26: parliament
Updated 18 April 2021

Syria to hold presidential vote on May 26: parliament

Syria to hold presidential vote on May 26: parliament

DAMASCUS: Syria is to hold a presidential election on May 26, the parliament speaker announced Sunday, the country's second in the shadow of civil war, seen as likely to keep President Bashar Al-Assad in power.
Syrians abroad will be "able to vote at embassies" on May 20, Hamouda Sabbagh said in a statement, adding that prospective candidates could hand in their applications from Monday.
Assad, who took power following the death of his father Hafez in 2000, has not yet officially announced that he will stand for re-election.
He won a previous election three years into Syria's devastating civil war in 2014, with 88 percent of the vote.
Under Syria's 2012 constitution, a president may only serve two seven-year terms -- with the exception of the president elected in the 2014 poll.
Candidates must have lived continuously in Syria for at least 10 years, meaning that opposition figures in exile are barred from standing.
Candidates must also have the backing of at least 35 members of the parliament, which is dominated by Assad's Baath party.
This year's vote comes after Russian-backed Syrian government forces re-seized the vital northern city of Aleppo and other opposition-held areas, placing Damascus in control of two-thirds of the country.
But the poll also comes amid a crushing economic crisis.
The decade-long civil war has left at least 388,000 people dead and half of the population displaced.

Cyprus meeting, Riyadh visit latest examples of regional coalitions coming together

Cyprus meeting, Riyadh visit latest examples of regional coalitions coming together
Updated 18 April 2021

Cyprus meeting, Riyadh visit latest examples of regional coalitions coming together

Cyprus meeting, Riyadh visit latest examples of regional coalitions coming together
  • Foreign ministers of Greece, Israel, Cyprus, UAE met in Paphos on Friday
  • ‘Greater Mediterranean region emerging based on new partnerships, initiatives,’ expert tells Arab News

ATHENS: Common interests are bringing together regional coalitions of like-minded countries in the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean — favoring stability, combating extremism and respecting international law — in bilateral and multilateral formats.

The latest examples of this diplomatic activism are the meeting of the foreign ministers of Greece, Israel, Cyprus and the UAE that took place on Friday; and the forthcoming visit of Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias and Defense Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos to Saudi Arabia.

The four-way talks in the Cypriot city of Paphos marked the first time that the UAE had participated in one of the multilateral forums that have been created in the eastern Mediterranean since 2010.

In Riyadh, Dendias and Panagiotopoulos will sign a Status of Forces Agreement that will pave the way for the development of a Patriot-2 antimissile battery in Saudi Arabia in order to help the Kingdom in its fight against the Houthi militia in neighboring Yemen.

“The evolving web of regional cooperation is creating a new narrative, one that is cracking the glass ceiling of the prevailing, restrictive narrative of our neighborhood as a region of turmoil, conflict and crisis,” said Nikos Christodoulides, Cypriot foreign minister and host of the Paphos meeting.

The four-way talks will benefit from the recent normalization of ties between Israel and the UAE, and could offer an opportunity for the latter to join other regional efforts.

“A partnership that comprises both Israel and the UAE is very important for regional stability,” said Dendias. “We also welcome other regional initiatives undertaken with the aim of regional peace, such as the AlUla Accord, as well as the Saudi initiative that aims at bringing peace to the conflict in Yemen.”

Spyridon N. Litsas, professor of international relations at the University of Macedonia in Greece, and at the Rabdan Academy in Abu Dhabi, told Arab News: “The meeting of Greece, the UAE, Cyprus and Israel in Paphos signals two main facts. Firstly, the UAE and Israel seem able and willing to jointly contribute to the stabilization of the region. Secondly, smart diplomatic deterrence is taking a more definitive shape, and is oriented toward countering Turkish revisionism in the region.”

Ankara’s actions in the eastern Mediterranean, and its support of the Muslim Brotherhood, have raised regional concerns.

“Alliances are formed either to balance the threat of an aggressor, or to balance the power of a revisionist actor,” Litsas said.

“Greece, the UAE, Cyprus and Israel prove that alliances can also be formed on the basis of a smart approach toward Αnkara’s atavism. Turkey produces more revisionism than neighboring states can tolerate.”

The visit of Greece’s foreign and defense ministers to Riyadh has been long in the making, having been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Athens wants to enhance its defense cooperation with Saudi Arabia, as it has done with the UAE.

Saudi F-15 fighter aircraft were stationed in Greece’s Souda Bay airbase last summer, and the two countries have engaged in political consultations at the highest level.

Athens aims to advance its role in linking the eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf. “A Greater Mediterranean region is emerging based on new partnerships and initiatives linking the Gulf with Mediterranean states,” Aristotle Tziampiris, professor of international relations at the University of Piraeus, told Arab News.

“Greece is in the middle of this important development that’s based on common interests and viewpoints, which include viewing Turkey as an increasingly unpredictable actor and Iran as a potentially serious, even existential threat.”

In February, “Athens established the Philia (Friendship) Forum, comprising Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, France, Greece, Saudi Arabia and the UAE,” said Tziampiris.

“Greece is coming, without any doubt, closer to several Gulf countries aiming to contribute to regional stability.”

Israel rescinds outdoor coronavirus mask requirement

Israel rescinds outdoor coronavirus mask requirement
Updated 18 April 2021

Israel rescinds outdoor coronavirus mask requirement

Israel rescinds outdoor coronavirus mask requirement
  • Police-enforced wearing of protective masks outdoors scrapped from Sunday
  • But requirement still applied for indoor public spaces

JERUSALEM: Israel rescinded the mandatory wearing of face masks outdoors and fully reopened schools on Sunday in the latest return to relative normality, boosted by a mass-vaccination campaign against the COVID-19 pandemic.
With almost 54 percent of its 9.3 million population having received both shots of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, Israel has logged sharp drops in contagion and cases.
The police-enforced wearing of protective masks outdoors, ordered a year ago, was scrapped from Sunday, but the Health Ministry said the requirement still applied for indoor public spaces and urged citizens to keep masks to hand.
With Israeli kindergarteners, elementary and high school students already back in class, middle school pupils who had been kept at home or attended class sporadically returned to pre-pandemic schedules.
The education ministry said that schools should continue to encourage personal hygiene, ventilation of classrooms and to maintain social distancing as much distance as possible during breaks and lessons.
Israel counts East Jerusalem Palestinians among its population and has been administering the vaccines there.
The 5.2 million Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and the Islamist Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip have been receiving limited supplies of vaccines provided by Israel, Russia, the United Arab Emirates, the global COVAX vaccine-sharing scheme and China.