A prominent commentator in Lebanon suggested late Wednesday that a top Chinese construction firm could take up the herculean task of reconstructing the Port of Beirut after a massive explosion destroyed much of the site and surrounding neighborhoods.
China has for years attempted to get Lebanon to join its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a global plan to rebuild the world’s most important ports, railways, and harbors and bring them under Communist Party control. The plan offers Chinese government loans at high interest rates to countries that cannot afford them, which are then used to pay the Chinese government for construction projects. When the countries involved failed to pay their loans on time, China seizes their assets.
The project claims to seek the reconstruction of the Ancient Silk Road, which connected China to Europe. Lebanon is located at about the halfway point of the proposed direct link from Beijing to Western Europe.
Beirut may be in more need of reconstruction than ever in its history after a blast destroyed a significant percentage of the city on Tuesday. Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab revealed later that day that authorities believe the explosion was the result of a pile of nearly 3,000 tons of flammable ammonium nitrate, used as fertilizer and as an illegal bomb-making ingredient, detonating for unknown reasons. Authorities reportedly confiscated the explosive substance after seizing a suspicious ship at the port in 2013 but never did anything to secure the material, including moving it to a less densely populated area.
Hassan Moukalled, editor of Construction and Economy Magazine in Lebanon, suggested, in a television appearance on the al-Mayadeen network on Wednesday, that Chinese investments could facilitate the reconstruction of the Beirut port. Moukalled reportedly stated that, if the Lebanese government expressed interest in a rapid rebuilding of the port, Chinese companies would be well-equipped to provide that service.
Moukalled has previously offered similar commentary. In an interview with al-Monitor last month, the editor similarly suggested that Chinese investments in the Lebanese economy could help it out of its financial crisis.
“The negotiations between the governments of China and Lebanon over investment are still very basic. However, the negotiations between the Lebanese companies and the Chinese companies that are willing to cooperate in Lebanon are advanced — even negotiating the percentage of Lebanese opposed to Chinese workers in their projects,” Moukalled said, adding that he did not believe American investors would penalize Lebanon for cooperation with China because Beijing “is the main investor in the U.S. itself if we include debt.”
Al-Monitor noted that Moukalled had visited China “several times in 2018 and 2019.”
Moukalled’s July analysis followed the news that Prime Minister Diab had turned to Beijing seeking investments to help bolster its economy. At the time, the Associated Press noted that “Lebanese pound has lost around 80% of its value against the dollar, prices have soared uncontrollably, and much of its middle class has been plunged into poverty.”
“Left with few choices, Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s government — supported by the Iran-backed Hezbollah and its allies — is seeking help from China, an approach that the Shiite militant group strongly supports,” AP reported. Hezbollah is a terrorist organization that operates as a political party in Lebanon.
The AP report, citing an unnamed “ministerial official,” claimed that China was offering Lebanon significant infrastructure developments like building power stations to help with its inconsistent electrical utility and new railways and roads.
Diab met with China’s ambassador to Beirut, Wang Kejian, in February. Wang told Diab China was “willing to work with Lebanon to deepen cooperation under the Belt & Road Initiative,” according to “Belt and Road News,” a Chinese media outlet dedicated to promoting the project.
Prior to Diab’s tenure, Wang had proposed a similar agreement to predecessor Saad Hariri.
“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,” Wang announced in March 2019.
As of Thursday, Chinese officials have not made any public pronouncement of seeking a role in rebuilding the Beirut port. On Wednesday, the first opportunity he had to respond to the blast, Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin offered only a short statement confirming “China stands ready to provide assistance to help Lebanon properly handle the incident and achieve national development to the best of its capacity.”
Wang’s statement on Thursday did not add anything substantive to his remarks.
The Chinese state news agency Xinhua reported on Wednesday that China would be sending “peacekeeping forces” into Beirut to help search and rescue operations, as well as provide medical aid.
“The personnel and vehicles are well prepared and will head to Beirut, carrying medical supplies and protective equipment, said the medical unit,” Xinhua said, “Upon the request of the UN Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL), the 18th batch of Chinese peacekeeping troops to Lebanon organized an emergency team of nine medical personnel from fields including surgery, internal medicine, burns and anesthesiology.”