Are the Chinese coming to Syria?

Dr. Theodore Karasik
Dr. Theodore Karasik
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Russia’s military activities, coupled with the Kremlin’s diplomatic solutions to the Syria crisis, are bringing Chinese views and actions into sharp relief. Moscow and Beijing are linked together through a number of channels, including the BRICS association, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and other institutions that illustrate a mix of political-economic unity.

On Syria, China is maintaining, for now, its usual policy of patience and heart. As Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told the U.N. Security Council, the world cannot afford to stand by, but must also must not “arbitrarily interfere” in the Syrian crisis. He emphasized the humanitarian challenge with vigor. Those comments seemed to be a message to Moscow on airstrikes and other activity.

However, in the age of information warfare, comments may be interpreted in different ways, especially on Syria. The Chinese see the internationalization of what to do with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), but also Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Throughout the Syria debacle, Beijing has supported Russia, but there is more to the Chinese policy. It also involves an expanding presence in the Mediterranean and other sea lanes. China is part of the EUNAVFOR counter-piracy mission, which is set to expire next year.

In addition, a 700-strong Chinese battalion is in Sudan under an UNMISS mandate. The Chinese are involved where needed most on the regional and international stages. Down the road, Russia will need Chinese help on the Syrian transition away from Assad, through negotiation and elections, to a new government.

That type of thinking was seen when Wang met with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem in New York. In that discussion, Wang said China believed the world should respect Syria’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity. Those comments sound like they came from the Kremlin.

Shady reports and rumors are fuelling the perception of China’s partnership with Russia on the latter’s military operations in Syria, especially in the maritime domain. The presence of Chinese naval ships in the Mediterranean is fuelling speculation that Beijing may be sending military personnel to Syria to reinforce the Assad regime.

Zhang Junshe, a senior researcher at the PLA Naval Military Studies Research Institute, said hyper conspiracy theory reportage might have been confused over the movements of the Chinese navy’s 152nd fleet. It is headed by the Jinan guided-missile destroyer, along with the Yiyang frigate and the Qiandaohu supply ship, and has been conducting naval activities in the Mediterranean with Russia and Egypt.

Zhang said after completing a four-month escort mission, the fleet began a five-month global tour from Aug. 23 that began from the Gulf of Aden, and included a passage through the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean and the Baltic Sea. The fleet has so far visited Sudan, Egypt, Denmark and Finland, after passing through the Mediterranean in late August or early September.

The Chinese do have a vessel in the Syrian port of Latakia. According to a security official of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the vessel is “just sitting” there, possibly in case Chinese diplomats or other officials in Damascus need help or evacuation out of Assad’s areas of control. Or perhaps the vessel is observing Russian actions.

The Chinese are very worried about ISIS. Beijing’s policy has remained to avoid becoming a target. Its policy in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq all follow that line. Now, with Russian actions in Syria, China may well see itself on the cusp of getting involved against ISIS in new ways in the near future.

Uighurs are the key Chinese concern. In July 2014, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi called out Chinese oppression of the Muslim Uighur minority in Xinjiang province. “Your brothers all over the world are waiting your rescue, and are anticipating your brigades,” he said.

In September, ISIS taunted China in its online magazine Dabiq, featuring “the sale” of Fan Jinghui, a freelance consultant from Beijing. Reports of ISIS recruiters in Hong Kong approaching Indonesians and using Malaysia as a hub for gathering potential fighters only forces China to be more cautious but calculating.

The plight of the Uighurs is not new, but what is new is disenchanted Uighurs who take up the ISIS message of violence. Caliphate Uighurs number perhaps over 1,000, each a ticking time bomb from Beijing’s point of view.

That view came into sharp relief in Aug. 2015 in Bangkok, Thailand, when Uighur terrorists killed almost two-dozen people at the Hindu Erawan Shrine. Although not an outright ISIS attack, the Uighur bombing is a harbinger of things to come.

With Russian actions in Syria, China may well see itself on the cusp of getting involved against ISIS in new ways in the near future.

Dr. Theodore Karasik

China is playing its game slowly and methodologically, using its usual practise of principals for engagement, whether diplomatic or militarily. Beijing is approaching the Russian action in Syria from a sense of being a partner, urging cooperation and strategy.

The Kremlin understands Chinese foreign policy approaches very well, and Moscow and Beijing will approach each other within the following omnidirectional concept on Syria and ISIS: “You agree, I agree; you disagree, I disagree; you abstain, I abstain.” If necessary, China will perhaps see its first real display of force projection using concepts found in irregular warfare if the conditions merit such activity.

Dr. Theodore Karasik is a Gulf-based analyst of regional geo-political affairs. He received his Ph.D in History from UCLA in Los Angeles, California in four fields: Middle East, Russia, Caucasus, and a specialized sub-field in Cultural Anthropology focusing on tribes and clans.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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