Syrian President Bashar al Assad was among the guests at the opening of the Asian Games in China as his state’s diplomatic relations appear to continue growing internationally.
Since Mr Assad‘s crackdown on pro-democracy protests led to civil war in 2011, half a million people have died and more than half of the country’s 22 million pre-war population have fled their homes.
Beijing has been one of Mr Assad’s main backers in that time.
In recent months, however, relations have begun to warm between Syria and several neighbouring countries, with China now the latest to expand diplomacy from further afield.
“In the face of an unstable and uncertain international environment, China is willing to continue to work with Syria in the interests of friendly cooperation,” Chinese President Xi Jinping said.
He also cited the need to safeguard “international fairness and justice”.
Mr Assad was pictured laughing and waving, with his wife making a heart shape with her hands, during the opening ceremony on Saturday.
International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach was also present.
Analysis: It’s the message this visit sends that matters
If Assad’s trip to Beijing is part of an effort to end a decade of diplomatic isolation, then it’s an effort China is happy to enable.
Hosting a figure like Bashar al Assad might further marginalise China in the eyes of many Western powers, but this is not something Xi Jinping cares much about and he is increasingly willing to make that clear.
What China is seeking via relations with Syria is not just influence in the Middle East (it is increasingly trying to position itself as a potential peace broker and go-to superpower in the region) but economic opportunity too.
Indeed, Syria joined China’s Belt and Road initiative in 2022, and China is no doubt acutely aware of how much potential business is available in rebuilding the war-torn nation.
Of course any business with Syria risks Chinese entities being subject to US sanctions, which can freeze the assets of anyone dealing with the Arab nation.
But arguably it’s the messaging of this visit that matters just as much as the substance: China will do things its own way and doesn’t need to play along with Western set international norms.
Closer to home, diplomatic relations between Damascus and other Arab countries have thawed since the February earthquake that hit Syria and Turkey.
Mr Assad was in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) In March for an official visit, and two months later he attended the annual summit of the Arab League in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
That was his first invite in 12 years after Syria’s membership was reinstated in the 22-member organisation.
Syria’s currency is collapsing and the country is suffering from a lack of electricity, medicine and daily essentials, despite support from Russia and Iran.
With Syria in desperate need of foreign investment, Mr Assad hopes to boost commercial ties with the world’s second largest economy.
Meanwhile, President Xi said he will seriously consider a visit to South Korea, according to Yonhap news agency.
China Central Television (CCTV) also reported the Chinese president told South Korean Prime Minister Han Duck-soo his country is willing to promote a strategic partnership.
It would be his first visit to the country since 2014.
The two leaders held talks in the eastern city of Hangzhou before the opening ceremony of the Asian Games on Saturday.
It comes ahead of scheduled trilateral talks in Seoul on 26 September involving senior officials from China, Japan and South Korea.
A Chinese statement did not mention President Xi’s comment on the summit or a visit to Seoul.
Yonhap reported President Xi had said China supports dialogue between the two Koreas.
Tensions between the two countries rose after North Korea’s Kim Jong Un made a week-long visit to Russia earlier this month.