On October 4, 2020, a major explosion at the Port of Beirut ground import and export operations to a halt. In the wake of the incident, Lebanon’s only other major port, the Port of Tripoli in the north, has served as a lifeline not only for Lebanon, but as a major strategic point for state actors interested in a new maritime installation in the Mediterranean. Chief amongst these actors is the People’s Republic of China, which sees the Port of Tripoli as a potential asset in the reconstruction of neighboring Syria and nearby Iraq.
Strategic Importance of the Port of Tripoli
Beijing has repeatedly offered to assist the Lebanese government in developing its infrastructure, from its two main ports to its power grid. During a conference between officials from PRC’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and Lebanese government representatives in March 2019, Chinese Ambassador to Lebanon Wang Kejian declared, “Chinese companies have visited northern Lebanon and they are ready to take part in infrastructure projects including the expansion of Tripoli Port and Qlayaat Airport in addition to the construction of railways, roads and bridges.”
Specifically, the People’s Republic of China see’s the port as the key to potential reconstruction efforts in Syria. The Port of Tripoli, which is only 35 kilometers from Syria, would serve as a safe, reliable, and effective logistics hub from which to operate from. Raya Haffar El Hassan, the head of the Tripoli Special Economic Zone and former Lebanese finance minister declared in 2019 that Chinese recognition of the port’s importance to Syria came without Lebanese advertisement, “the Chinese saw that even before we did.”
As one of Bashar al-Assad’s only International partners, as well as one of the only remaining nations to maintain an Embassy in Damascus, it is clear that the PRC will be a major player in the reconstruction of Syria following a normalization of the situation on the ground.
Chinese Investments, Moves at the Port of Tripoli
Thus far, the People’s Republic of China Haas taken limited action at the port. According to Intelligence Online, a major international dealmaking monitor, policymakers in Beijing are willing to directly inject and invest $55,000,000 into the facility within the next two years. Furthermore, COSCO Shipping Corporation, a Chinese multinational conglomerate headquartered in Shanghai, is reportedly opening or has opened a major office at the port. This follows the decision of Shanghai Container Shipping Company in 2018 to open a new route to Tripoli.
The People’s Republic of China is sure to continue its strategy of slow, gradual investment in Lebanon’s two major ports: Beirut and Tripoli. Although Beijing will be apprehensive to inject funds into the country given political instability, it recognizes the importance of the area to Chinese strategic interests. Thus, investment at the Port of Tripoli will continue.
The Port of Tripoli is not the first, nor the last, Mediterranean port that the Chinese have, or will, invest in. In fact, Chinese investments and ownership over key maritime points in the region has risen in recent years. Most notable is the Port of Haifa in Israel, which was built and is operated entirely by the Shanghai International Port Group. The decision of policymakers in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to allow Chinese investment in such an important port drew anger from Washington, as Haifa handles 50% of Israel’s maritime traffic and hosts a major IDF Navy installation. As the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) noted to American policymakers, allied naval vessels, including those of the United States and French navies, regularly make port calls at this installation. The Israeli’s have also allowed the Chinese to build and develop the Port of Ashdod in Southern Israel. Given Beijing’s inroads in Lebanon and Israel, The Intelligence Ledger assesses that Beijing’s influence will continue to grow in the Mediterranean as the world moves on from a severe pandemic.