Al-Asad, the first Syrian president to visit China since the two established bilateral relations in 1956, is seeking to open a new chapter in relations between the two countries.

The two sides reportedly signed cooperation agreements on water conservation, agriculture, health and tourism on the first day of al-Assad's visit.

Syrian Foreign Minister Faruq al-Shara described the visit as "extremely successful".

He earlier said discussions would focus on "the Arab-Israeli conflict, the crisis in Iraq, how China sees our issues in the region and are our views identical or very close". 

Al-Shara added they were "interested in having a positive, important turning point in the process of Syrian-Chinese relations".

Both Syria and China have expressed discomfort with what they sometimes see as bullying by the United States.

In May, US President George Bush imposed sanctions that ban exports other than food and medicine and freeze the assets of Syrians and Syrian entities suspected of links to "terrorism" or weapons of mass destruction.

Syrian officials and diplomats have said the visit to China was not linked to any development in particular but would not ignore any issue that might crop up.
 
Sure to be on the table is the topic of trade, which, according to Syrian figures, stood at about $320 million in 2003, including $20 million in Syrian exports.

"We want to stimulate trade and we will work on that ... . The level of trade is modest and is very imbalanced," Syrian Minister of Economy and Commerce Hassan al-Rifai said.

Several agreements

Bashar Al-Asad is first Syrian
leader to visit China since 1956

Rifai said during al-Asad's visit to China about 10 agreements, protocols and memoranda of understanding would be signed, including one on oil and gas cooperation. 
 
According to Syrian figures, trade between the two countries stood at about $320 million in 2003, including $20 million in Syrian exports.

"We want to raise Syrian exports both in terms of volume and type. We want our Chinese partners to import manufactured and processed products," he said.

Some 70 Syrian businessmen are taking part in al-Asad's visit, scheduled to conclude on Thursday.

Syria wants to propose several industrial ventures to Chinese entrepreneurs and is working with the Chinese government on an agreement to eliminate double taxation, Rifai said.

He said China can benefit from Arab agreements that would allow Chinese firms to produce goods in Syria and export them to neighbouring Arab markets tax-free beginning in 2005.

"Our Chinese partners can benefit from this. Syria is the gate to Middle Eastern and Arab countries," he said.