On top of an economic crisis, a deteriorating COVID-19 situation, and months of protests colloquially known as the “October Revolution,” the Beirut port explosion has pushed Lebanon further away from emerging market status and dangerously close to the category of failed state. China will see the opportunity to provide assistance to Lebanon and simultaneously expand their regional influence. But China must convince the public that a pivot toward Beijing is in their interests, and not just another cozy arrangement for the Lebanese political class.
As a former French protectorate, Lebanon is a historically Western-orientated country. However, China has lately worked to establish itself as a viable alternative to Western partnership. As COVID-19 took hold, China rushed to contribute supplies to Lebanon, a move repeated globally that attracted the tag of “donation diplomacy.” After the port explosion, China sent a group of its Lebanon-based U.N. peacekeepers to assist Beirut with medical expertise.
Trade ties are already strong, with 40 percent of Lebanese imports coming from China. Chinese businessmen have offered to invest in Lebanon’s faltering electricity grid, which sees regular blackouts for the country’s citizens. The northern port of Tripoli has been identified by China as an important link for Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and revival of the Beirut-Tripoli railway in Lebanon has been reported as a Chinese business target. Not only would a Chinese presence in this area assist with Eurasian trade, but it would provide ample opportunity for China to invest in the reconstruction of post-conflict Iraq and Syria. The devastation of Beirut port will provide the opportunity for Chinese investment in its reconstruction, which will be a necessity if China wants Lebanon to be a successful BRI hub.
Even before the explosion, Lebanon was positioning itself to seek assistance from China in defiance of the United States. In a recent interview, the head of Hezbollah, a powerful Shiite political party and militant group, blamed the United States for causing the economic crisis in Lebanon through restricting dollar deposits. Furthermore, he advocated that Lebanon should divest from its reliance on the U.S. dollar, stating that “Chinese companies are ready to inject money into this country.” These comments made Hezbollah the subject of criticism in a subsequent interview given by U.S. Ambassador Dorothy Shea, who claimed that Hezbollah were jeopardizing the prospect of Lebanese economic recovery. That interview in turn earned Shea a sharp rebuke from the Chinese Embassy in Lebanon, which expressed displeasure with the U.S. portrayal of Chinese involvement in Lebanon. “Chinese loans have no political strings,” the embassy insisted, while dismissing the risk of “Chinese debt traps” for developing countries. Soon after the Hezbollah leader’s comments about pivoting to Chinese investment, the Lebanese prime minister met with the Chinese ambassador to discuss strengthening ties.
But now, that comfortable relationship with the political establishment could prove detrimental to Chinese efforts in the country.
Public resentment of the Lebanese establishment is at an all-time high. Current political leaders are viewed as guilty of causing the incremental deterioration of conditions in Lebanon and perceived as inherently incompetent, self-serving, and corrupt. “Resign or hang” has been the message of enraged protesters since the port blast. Ministries have been occupied, the Cabinet resigned, and early elections called for. Hezbollah has been forced to vigorously deny that it kept arms in the port, which some alleged could have been a source of the explosion. Even if the source was not military equipment, many believe that Hezbollah bear some degree of responsibility. “Nothing goes in and nothing goes out of the port” without Hezbollah’s knowledge, according to opposition figure Bahaa Hariri, who is the son of assassinated Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.
Previously, one would expect to see a senior U.S. figure visiting a disaster zone, just as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did in Haiti just four days after the 2010 earthquake. But the U.S. withdrawal from its position of global leadership has left a vacuum, meaning that France’s President Emmanuel Macron has stepped up to lead the international response to the disaster. Macron visited Beirut less than 48 hours after the explosion and guaranteed visibly enraged citizens that aid would not be poured into the black hole of government corruption, instead going directly to relief organizations working on the ground. Macron also arranged a virtual roundtable with representatives of other states, including the United States and China, to discuss donor response. This led to extensive pledges of support that will be “directly delivered to the Lebanese population with utmost efficiency and transparency” according to the French Foreign Ministry. As recently as October 2019, the international community had lent support to the Lebanese government, but this looks set to change.
Macron has acted quickly to coordinate a Western-led response to the disaster. Given the regional importance of Lebanon and the growing influence of China globally, this is not surprising. However, crucially, he has targeted his response at the public and not at the political class. Against that backdrop, any further cooperation between China and the Lebanese political establishment will likely harm China’s image in the country, and could make all the difference in deciding whether the nation pivots east or west in the future.
Philip Crowe holds a master’s in international law from the London School of Economics and previously served as a researcher in the House of Commons.