China has entered the Syrian war. Whether it is official or unofficial is not of importance and is only a part of the battle of optics. Rear Admiral in China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy, Guan Youfei, visited Damascus on August 14 and met with both Syrian and Russian military officials. Chinese news outlets cited the meeting as fortifying pledges for humanitarian aid and other medical needs. There were also reports of arrangements for the Chinese military to train pro-government forces in the usage of Chinese weaponry.
Is this a gambit for more advanced Chinese war-gaming to challenge U.S interests in the Middle East? Chinese policy of non-intervention has been the traditional foreign policy of Chinese leaders and has worked well for the budding regional powerhouse as it has helped to facilitate political organization and economic wealth. But we may be fast approaching an end to the era of Chinese nonalignment. As world markets shake with growing instability, the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) government understands that maintaining political stability and power can only be secured by maintaining economic interests abroad. That means setting an agenda for strategic alignment and negotiating national interests to assert Chinese regional dominance. China’s growing presence in Syria sends a message about how it will shape its foreign policy in the future.
China is using its soft power by means of training and humanitarian aid to balance its position of influence over regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia. This can help grow China’s influence in securing the backing of key political and economic players, which can later be used to develop strong channels of diplomatic engagement. If China is able to build trust with dueling factions in the Middle East, it is probable in the near future that China will be able to play a strong role in maintaining its economic interests in key sectors (such as weapons and energy).
China has a very strong card to play against the United States. Western led policies of regime change through declarations of force (Iraq) or through humanitarian necessity (Libya) have proven to cause foundational implosion and convoluted civil wars that have destroyed both countries. The West, in particular the United States, has been unsuccessful in its experiment to nation-build through regime change.
China is a keen observer of U.S strategic failures and is positioning itself to be a leader of the developing world. China will not engage militarily in Syria and will tactically provide useful aid to any faction that can provide political and economic utility for it in the near future.
China will be able to gain strategic leverage by publicly maintaining a policy of non-interference while unofficially declaring the Assad government the legitimate governing sovereign of Syria, which helps to gain loyalty in the Iran-led Shia Axis. This is a sharp political maneuver as it allows key CCP players to enter into the battlefield and nurture important relations with Iran and its proxy groups. This can be useful as it allows the benefits of a diplomatic relationship without the loss of any treasure on the battlefields of the Middle East.
The CCP also uses its ability to gain political clout through soft power economics by courting regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia with arms contracts. This is helping to shape a policy of “non-alignment alignment” that can be useful to court powerful Middle East players and build a future roadmap for tactically smart maneuvering in the geo-political quicksand of the region.
Chinese Interests in Syria
In the years after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 and the emergence of civil war, the Syrian economy is calculated to have a total loss of 275 Billion USD. With no avenue for internal peace brokering between fighting factions, the civil war has simmered to grow into a boiling hot regional conflict. The violence has disrupted economic activity and labor productivity at unprecedented levels. It is estimated that it would take a decade for Syria’s per capita GDP to return to pre-war numbers. With no serious diplomatic mechanisms in place to end the fighting, the economic costs of the Syrian war will have vastly negative effects for countries that maintain close economic ties to the Assad regime.
China is quietly engaging with the Russian military to help rebuild the Syrian economy in order to protect their investments in agriculture, oil, and weapons. Securing Syria’s oil distribution is vital to China’s interests as the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation holds shares in Syria’s oil producers.
In order to protect the burgeoning Silk Road policy, CCP leaders seek to protect 6 billion USD of investments and 10 billion USD in contracts between Huawei (telecommunications sector) and the Syrian government. It is important for China to protect future payoffs in infrastructure building in a post-war Syria, as securing vital infrastructure for key Syrian actors can reap deeper rewards for future investments. Furthermore, the Assad government has a history of importing conventional weapons from China. It is in the best interests of both countries to keep relations fluid as China can monetize on war fighting and Syria can restock its weapons with a trusted partner.
In order to achieve great power status as a regional leader, China is broadening its scope to thwart issues that threaten internal stability. Counter-terrorism will be an important area of focus for Chinese leadership. There is focused attention within the Chinese military to dampen concerted efforts by the beleaguered Muslim minority, the Uighers, to join the Islamic State infrastructure. China has a history of keeping the Uigher community under tight supervision and seeks to reduce any attempts at Uigher secession from Chinese central authority. The Uighers reside mainly in China’s far western region of Xinjiang, which borders the Central Asian nations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. There is evidence of ISIS recruitment emerging from these countries along with a sizeable number of men from the Uigher community living in Raqqa (the de facto ISIS capital).
Chinese leadership has proclaimed an attack on its embassy in Kyrgyzstan as terrorism orchestrated by the Uigher affiliated Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP). There is growing evidence of TIP presence in Syria. It will be in Chinese national interest to begin formatting a policy that will thwart a growing presence of Islamic-linked militants on and within their borders. Chinese leadership will have to contend with a war-hardened minority, presumably with advanced training in ground fighting and tactical weaponry. Also, some of these fighters use Moscow as a transit point before entering the battlefield on the Iraq-Syria border. China will want to carefully craft relations with Russia in order to procure credible intelligence about prospective militants using porous borders for people smuggling.
China’s entry as a partner with Russia in the Syrian conflict can be understood as the emergence of a new era in counter-terrorism policy. The CCP must contend with the growing emergence of a restive population on its westernmost border and devise attainable policy goals with strong allies (for now Russia) in order to stabilize future military threats emerging from contentious border areas. Military cooperation and intelligence sharing are effectively seen as essential in the fight against threats on Chinese infrastructure in Central Asia and the Middle East and to counter the transit points of people smuggling networks that provide fighters. There have been claims that some Uighers have been recruited by Turkey to fight against Syrian governments forces with the usage of people smuggling rings. This would unnerve Chinese interests for regional stability in its prospective sphere of power. A foreign power controlling a restive minority on Chinese territory would give reason for China to diligently expand its network of allies in order to better assert its power to mitigate threats.
For example, China is exploring its relationship with Afghanistan by creating a multilateral unit that also includes Tajikistan and Pakistan in order to counter militancy in designated areas. Keeping an eye on future threats will be key for China to secure its role as regional arbitrator of Asia. Engaging in Syria (in alliance with Russia) can safeguard China against threats to its ventures in investments in emerging markets in the developing world. By having a light military footprint, Chinese leadership will be able to ensure a policy of non-intervention as a marker of trust and engage economically where they have the power to facilitate financial gains. This can help build credibility in Chinese directed political organization for mediation in zones of conflict and the emergence of new Chinese-led regional institutions.
What does China in Syria mean for future Chinese-U.S relations?
China’s political influence on the world stage may be rising, but the United States will retain relevant power into the coming decades. A rising China asserting a more nuanced (and aggressive) foreign policy is the first test in America’s ability to build both short term tactics and long term policy solutions that define China as a competitor, not an enemy. World politics today can be defined as in constant crisis mode, with post-World War II institutions losing relevance and political clout. China is on the path to build modern institutions that reflect Chinese interests and Asian-centric goals.
The emergence of a Chinese-led regional order is exemplified with experiments in rebranding financial institutions with the emergence of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which can be compared to Western-centric World Bank. Although this poses a challenge to the U.S- led world order, American leadership should view this as an opportunity to expand its influence these new regional bodies. The future of politics in the coming decades will be defined by the ambiguity of chaos. It will not be an era where black and white assessments of national interests will be able to strengthen political playing cards. The U.S must remain flexible and prioritize strategic gain by understanding the nature of rising regional powers.
Emerging institutional frameworks will remain weak, but the existing order as defined by the U.S can still be arbitrated with the political legitimacy of hegemony. For example, the U.S will retain its hold on vital sea-lanes due to superior naval capabilities and can be seen as an asset of hegemonic power even though the U.S will not be able to control the actions of competitors on the high seas. The world politics of tomorrow will not allow the U.S to blindly assert its force anywhere without repercussions, so the U.S must work within emerging regional frameworks in order to retain political flexibility and protect national interests.
China’s presence in Syria means that the power politics of tomorrow has begun. It is likely that China will not engage its military in any serious fighting as this operation is a show of force; political optics that help shape the image of how China wants others to see it operating on the world stage. China will be an important ally of the United States as global politics decompresses into a powder keg of disorder. China may be more assertive but the U.S will retain strong bilateral relations with Japan, Australia, South Korea, and Vietnam. The competition over leading new agencies of multilateralism can bring about an opening for rebuilding order. U.S – China competition will be shaped by how well each can identify the other’s strategic vulnerabilities.
The politics of debt will weigh heavily on both China and the U.S. Although the U.S has weathered safely out of the post-2008 Great Recession banking crisis, its leaders will still have to maintain foresight into the trends of a globalized economy. It is projected that China is on an economic downturn due to structural debt and wasteful investment. China will have to deal with this threat to its banking system or a new credit crisis will emerge. This does not necessarily weaken China but may slow down its engine for growth. This means that China may be able to project power but not be able to wield long-term strategic depth to its show of force.
Globalization has ushered in an era of post-ideology, one in which interdependency is key and investments in future trends and emerging markets can led to mutually beneficial growth. Nationalism may be on the rise, but it is the politics of personality (i.e trends in authoritarianism) that will truly define the transitional nature of this decade. Both China and the U.S will need steadily defined goals in order to succeed well into the middle of this century. The future will not be defined by democracy promotion or ideological inquisitions, but by interdependent economic investments. Once China and the U.S define where the balance of power lies between them it will be easier to forecast how that relationship can help to nurture confidence in mutual stability and prosperity.