Has China joined Russia & Iran in Syria to neutralize US influence in the Middle East?

China has last week announced that it is stepping up its involvement with the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, providing the government forces with more training and humanitarian aid. This move, once again, seems designed to step on American toes.

The Chinese have long been a supplier of weapons to Assad, and the two countries have generally had friendly relations going back to the Cold War. In reality, this new development is not a qualitative shift in their relations. But what is new is that top Chinese military officers, such as Rear Admiral Guan Youfei, in charge of the office for international military cooperation for China, are now visiting Damascus and making public statements about these friendly relations.

This is new because China has generally good relations with both sides of the Shiite-Sunni divide in the Middle East. And they need those relations too, because of their voracious need for oil which cannot be satisfied entirely by either side. That is why China does ample trade with both Iran and Saudi Arabia, and is a key client for both.

So far, the Chinese have been the only member the UN Permanent Security Council to stay out of the Syrian conflict, mostly out of a desire not to alienate any of their all-important oil suppliers. But it looks like their calculation has shifted.

So far, the Chinese have been the only member the UN Permanent Security Council to stay out of the Syrian conflict, mostly out of a desire not to alienate any of their all-important oil suppliers

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

The Assad regime looks all but set to prevail in the Syrian conflict, and perhaps the Chinese now expect that the Saudis are resigned to this reality. Plus, they are hardly offering to conduct any kind of military operations against Saudi proxies in Syria. So perhaps they expect the Saudis to be pragmatic about this and not endanger a trade relationship that is very important for both sides, over an all-but-done Syrian affair.

And for that relatively minor risk, the Chinese stand to gain on two fronts. The first is that they are putting themselves in line for the construction contracts to rebuild Syria after the presumed Assad victory.

Russia and Iran have been much closer allies to Assad, and sacrificed many of their own men to keep him in power, but they do not have anywhere near the capacity to do all that work. Or do it to a similar standard. And all the other countries which might have been able to compete, which is to say Western countries, will no doubt be excluded from that process by a hostile Assad. So China can expect to reap the lion’s share of that bonanza.

Global security

But secondly, it gives the Chinese the opportunity to elbow the US out of the way in yet another region of the world. Or, at least, to embarrass them a bit more. In general, China is weary of stirring trouble with the US. They understand that their trading relationship, as between the two biggest economies in the world, is critical for both parties. But the Chinese are also getting tired the way America does global security.

On the one hand, the US seems completely inept at ensuring peace, or intervening successfully in troubled regions of the globe. American intervention since 2001 has been one mess after another. And all that instability is not good for the globally dominant Chinese export industries. And on the other, it keeps poking its nose in areas which China considers to be its sphere of influence: East and South China Seas, the Korean Peninsula, and South East Asia.

For all its ineptitude in the Middle East, the United States is doing a rather annoyingly good job at encircling China in its own neighbourhood. And the Chinese, rather understandably, do not appreciate that. So if they can knock a few chinks off the American armour here and there, they will most certainly do so.

The trouble here, though, is that China is getting rather too friendly with Russia and Iran in doing this. And this does not bode well for the shape of the world to come. China wants to assert itself to what it considers its rightful place in the geopolitical order of the world, but feels like the US and the West are rather more keen to keep it within bounds.

So the Chinese are looking at alliances with the West’s traditional enemies. This is almost certainly going to be a problem down the line, unless the US-led Western world and China can agree on a fair distribution of the job of leading the world.
Azeem Ibrahim is an RAI Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim

Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:48 - GMT 06:48
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