BEIJING—Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has arrived in China's eastern city of Hangzhou, kicking off his first visit to the Asian nation since 2004 as he makes further strides to end more than a decade of diplomatic isolation amid Western sanctions.
Mr. Assad arrived aboard an Air China plane in a heavy fog. The Syrian leader has seldom been seen outside his country since the start of a civil war that has claimed more than half a million lives.
He is set to attend the opening ceremony of the Asian Games, along with more than a dozen foreign dignitaries, before leading a delegation for meetings in several Chinese cities, including a summit with leader Xi Jinping.
Mr. Assad will meet Mr. Xi on Friday, a day before the Syrian president attends the opening of the games, said a member of the Syrian delegation, which is scheduled to hold other meetings in Beijing on Sunday and Monday.
Mr. Assad last visited China in 2004 to meet then-leader Hu Jintao. It was the first visit by a Syrian head of state since diplomatic ties were established in 1956.
China, like Syria's main allies, Russia and Iran, maintained those ties.
Mr. Assad's days-long trip to China will mark one of his longest spells of absence in Syria since his country's civil war broke out.
Mr. Assad faces sanctions imposed by Australia, Canada, Europe, Switzerland, and the United States, but efforts to apply multilateral sanctions failed to secure unanimous support at the United Nations Security Council, which has China and Russia as members.
China has on at least eight occasions vetoed U.N. motions condemning Assad's government and aimed at bringing to an end the decade-old conflict that has sucked in neighbors and world powers.
Oil AssetsSyria has strategic importance for China as it is located between Iraq, which provides about a 10th of China's oil, Turkey, the terminus of economic corridors stretching across Asia into Europe, and Jordan, which often mediates regional disputes.
While Syria is a relatively small oil producer, its revenue is pivotal to the Assad regime.
In 2008 and 2009, state Chinese energy majors Sinopec Corp., Sinochem, and CNPC invested a combined $3 billion in Syria, spurred by a call from Beijing to acquire global oil and gas assets.
Investments included Sinopec's $2-billion acquisition of Tanganyika Oil, a small producer of heavy oil, and Sinochem's nearly $900-million purchase of London-headquartered Emerald Energy, whose assets were primarily in Syria and Colombia.
Around 2014, CNPC, which was involved in producing oil at several small blocks, also ceased production, following European Union sanctions and U.S. deployment to Syria to combat the ISIS terrorist group, company officials said.
Analysts doubt that Chinese firms are considering returning to Syria, given the serious security considerations and the country's dire financial situation.