By: Annie Kowalewski, Columnist
Photo credit: AFP
While China has long touted its commitment to “noninterference” and largely stayed out of the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, recent developments such as the Belt and Road Initiative and China’s diplomatic support of one side in ongoing conflicts suggest that China may be rethinking this position. In Syria, not only is China offering financial support to Assad and looking to play a role in post-conflict reconstruction, but reports suggest China is looking to actively support or even engage in certain operations on the ground.[i] This shift has several implications. First, that China is looking to work closely with other world powers such as Russia and Iran. Second, that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has assessed its own capabilities as powerful enough to act as a world authority that intervenes in key international conflicts. And lastly, that the United States needs to be prepared to engage with China in regions outside of the Indo-Pacific.
Chinese foreign policy follows what China calls the “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence,” of which includes the “non-interference in each other’s internal affairs”.[ii] This foreign policy incorporates Deng Xiaoping’s strategy to “hide one’s strength, bide one’s time” – or focus on Chinese domestic economic strength and keep out of the way in foreign affairs.[iii] However, as China seeks external economic opportunities, mainly through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) its own growth becomes entangled in the broader international community.[iv] One example of this is China’s economic interests and involvement in the Middle East and its first military base in Djibouti.[v] China has largely stayed out of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Syria, but the BRI and increased trade with countries in the region necessitates that China protect its interests in the area, as the Chinese Foreign policy community faces increasing questions on the sustainability of non-interference.
In Syria, China saw opportunities to expand the BRI as the Syrian government forces announced that they had reclaimed and were in full control of Deir el-Zour, a large city in Eastern Syria.[vi] This signaled to China that Assad could stabilize key regions in Syria that would need massive infrastructure investments such as those China offers through the BRI. [vii] As such, the Chinese Foreign Ministry increased discussions with Assad’s political advisors and threw its political weight behind the government forces and countries who are jointly fighting with Assad.[viii] Recently, it has even gone as far as to commit to participate “in some way” in key ground operations.[ix] China also began indirectly providing money to Syria for its post-war reconstruction efforts, pledging $23 billion in loans and aid through the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum, as well as $90 million in humanitarian aid to conflict areas like Yemen and Syria.
While it’s unclear how much of this money will go directly to Syria, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi did note that Syrian reconstruction would be a “guarantee” for the final funding agreements.[x] China also voiced its diplomatic support for Russian operations in Syria and acknowledged that China and Russia are “constantly in touch” and conduct regular “consultations” – including opposing the US/UK/French airstrikes against Syrian government targets following Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons.[xi]
China’s increased involvement in this conflict zone reveals two major emerging trends in Chinese foreign policy. First, that China is no longer afraid of aligning itself with other large regional powers, including Russia and Iran, when their interests so dictate. Chinese support for Russian operations in Syria comes at a time when China is generally increasing its security and defense cooperation with Russia across a number of issues. Not only have the two countries provided a united diplomatic front at the UN on all things related to the Syrian conflict, but they have increased bilateral cooperation through increasingly sophisticated combined military exercises in the Black and South China Seas, strengthened joint missile defense, and established their own dispute resolution mechanisms through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.[xii] China has also expressed interest in bringing Iran into the SCO.[xiii] By increasing this cooperation with a historic adversary and a world power that shares Chinese interests, China is outwardly signaling to the world that it is a powerful and key world player.
Second, Chinese involvement in Syria also reveals an internal shift in China’s has perception of its own strength. China no longer feels the need to hide its strengths and bide its time because it has the resources to deal with any blowback or challengers it may encounter by becoming more forceful and involved globally. We have seen this newfound confidence displayed in small challenges to the status quo in the East and South China Seas and Chinese economic coercion against regional neighbors. These actions indicate CCP believes it has the capability to protect its interests beyond its borders and, when necessary, stand shoulder-to-shoulder with other large powers. This marks a major shift in Chinese foreign policy and suggests that Chinese ‘grey zone’ challenges to the status quo or indirect support in international issues could easily escalate into outright interference. The Chinese Ambassador to Syria’s announcement that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) wanted to enhance its relations with the Syrian military and participate “in some way” in the ground campaign to recapture Idlib in northern Syria is an example of this.[xiv]
The Syria case indicates that the U.S. must be prepared to deal with China in areas outside the Indo-Pacific. In some cases where China is outright competing against or undermining US core interests, the United States will need to be prepared to manage the precarious bilateral relationship. But in cases like Syria, where China is not yet directly involved but still supports operations that counter US objectives, the United States will also need to decide whether it wants to engage with China in these situations, and how much. Too much engagement could legitimize Chinese involvement, but no engagement could easily lead to misunderstandings and unnecessary escalation. The United States would do well to begin preparing other combatant commands and regional offices to deal with China in some capacity.
[i] Guy Burton, “China and the Reconstruction of Syria,” The Diplomat, July 28, 2018, https://thediplomat.com/2018/07/china-and-the-reconstruction-of-syria/.
[ii] “Principles of China’s Foreign Policy,” Columbia University, Accessed August 23, 2018, http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/special/china_1950_forpol_principles.htm.
[iii] Sujan Guo and Baogang Guo (eds.), Thirty Years of China-U.S. Relations: Analytical Approaches and Contemporary Issues, (Plymouth, UK: Lexington Books, 2010).
[iv] Chen Zheng, “China debates the non-interference principle,” Chinese Journal of International Politics, Vol 9(3): 349-374.
[vi] “Syria says ISIS defeated in long fight for Deir el-Zour,” CBS News, November 3, 2017, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/syria-isis-defeated-deir-el-zour-iraq-qaim-anbar-province/.
[vii] Charlotte Gao, “Why China Wants Syria in its New Belt and Road,” The Diplomat, November 30, 2017, https://thediplomat.com/2017/11/why-china-wants-syria-in-its-new-belt-and-road/.
[viii] “Wang Yi: Counter-terrorism, Dialogue and Reconstruction are Three Key Points for Solving Syrian Issue at New Stage,” Embassy of the People’s Republic of China, November 24, 2017, http://au.china-embassy.org/eng/xw/t1514519.htm.
[ix] “Chinese Ambassador to Syria: We are willing to participate ‘in some way’ in the battle for Idlib alongside the Assad army,” Memri, August 1, 2018, https://www.memri.org/reports/chinese-ambassador-syria-we-are-willing-participate-some-way-battle-idlib-alongside-assad.
[x] “Wang Yi”, Embassy of the PRC.
[xi] Tom O’Connor, “China looks for new ways to help Russia in Syria as U.S. backs Israel against Iran,” Newsweek, May 14, 2018, https://www.newsweek.com/china-looks-new-ways-help-russia-syria-us-backs-israel-iran-924712.
[xii] Annie Kowalewski, “Chinese-Russian Defense and Security Ties: Countering US Encirclement, China Brief, May 31, 2018, https://jamestown.org/program/chinese-russian-defense-and-security-ties-countering-us-encirclement/.
[xiv] “Chinese Ambassador to Syria,” Memri.