Lebanon is quite the micro-dot on the Chinese trade radar. From a global trade perspective, it is a pointless exercise to quantify how much, or rather, how little, the bilateral trade of $1.8 billion represents in China’s total foreign trade of some $3.8 trillion in 2012.
From the Lebanese perspective, China accounted for 8 percent of Lebanese imports last year, according to customs. That makes it the the third-largest supplier of foreign goods to the country, after the United States and Italy.
But trade is stuck in an imbalance that is almost 99 percent in favor of China. “Lebanon imports from China about $1.77 billion per year and we export to China around $20 million,” says Ali El-Masri, chairman of the Lebanese Chinese Business Council (LCBC).
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Lebanese interest in exporting to China originates from a handful of signature manufacturers such as vineyards and olive oil producers, which have been participating in trade fairs with assistance from LCBC.
According to Masri, about 15,000 Lebanese each year obtain visas to go to China on business. Most are those looking to buy goods, but he estimates there are 500 Lebanese who do business and live in China permanently.
In the wake of growing worries over regional unrest and spillover effects since 2012, plans for bringing Chinese investors to Lebanon in collaboration with the Chinese embassy and Lebanese authorities were iced. A further impediment is sluggishness on the Lebanese side, where the government’s great verbal interest in an increase of bilateral economic relationships and Chinese investments was not followed by action. Masri emphasizes, however, that “the first problem is security. When that is solved, investments can be found.”
Masri, an entrepreneurial Lebanese who grew up between Far East and Middle East, established the LCBC in 2011 in hopes to promote stronger business and investment ties between China and Lebanon. The organization, which offers fee-based assistance and services to traders and businesses, found a good initial response. But Lebanon’s growing security risks and low business reliability in comparison with China are making Masri review his options. “In China, you live a normal life with water and electricity – everything,” he says. “You have security and can do as much business as you want and enjoy life while you see business growing day by day. If Lebanon was a normal country, I would surely love to live in my country, but if things continue to deteriorate as they are, I prefer to go back to China and live all my life there.”