Posts Tagged ‘China-Syria’

New piece for an outlet to which I haven’t contributed for some time, The National Interest. This time looking at trying to explain China’s enhanced engagement and interest in Syria with Michael Clarke of Australian National University. We are hopefully working on a longer writing related project along these lines in the future, and the topic is undoubtedle one there will more on.

China Is Supporting Syria’s Regime. What Changed?

Michael Clarke | Raffaello Pantucci
Beijing’s motivations are close to home.

china_syria

On August 14, Guan Youfei, a rear admiral in China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy, visited the Syrian capital of Damascus, escorted around the city under heavy guard. Guan’s visit reportedly included meetings with senior military officials and Russian officers, as well as pledges that the Chinese military would provide medical training for Syrian medical staff. The question is why China is increasing this engagement now.

Admiral Guan’s engagement contrasts with previous Chinese behavior during the Syrian crisis. While China has been one of the few powers to maintain an embassy in Damascus throughout the current crisis, Beijing’s engagements have been fairly limited, and mostly focused on attempts from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs to insert itself into peace negotiations and occasional expressions of concern around individual nationals who appear on the battlefield (either as hostages or fighters). The approach has been driven by a mix of motives, including Beijing’s long-standing principle of “non-interference,” aversion to what China sees as largely Western-led regime change in the guise of humanitarian intervention and a Chinese desire to insulate its growing economic interests in the Middle East from the continuing consequences of the Arab Spring.

That dynamic may now be about to change. China has started to become a participant in the many international discussions around countering terrorism, and ISIS in particular. China has participated in the Global Counterterrorism Forum and hosted sessions about terrorists’ use of the internet, while engaging in discussions at home about contributing more to the fight against ISIS. Last year, a decision was made to alter national legislation to allow Chinese security forces to deploy abroad as part of a counterterrorism effort, and China has sought to establish overseas bases in Djibouti. In neighboring Afghanistan, it has established a new sub-regional alliance between Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan and China to discuss and coordinate the fight against militancy and terrorist groups in the area. All these actions highlight the degree to which China is slowly pushing its security apparatus out into the world in a more aggressive posture than before. Seen within this light, Admiral Guan’s visit to Damascus is another piece in this puzzle, and the most ambitious yet in many ways for a power that has historically preferred to play a more standoffish role in addressing hard military questions.

Looking to the Syrian context in particular, there are two major reasons for China’s apparent decision to begin playing a more forward role in engaging in Syria. One is China’s concern at the numbers and links of Uighur militants from its restive province of Xinjiang participating in the Syrian conflict. The other is its desire for geostrategic stability in the Middle East as it seeks to consummate its “One Belt, One Road” strategy.

Of particular importance on the first count is the presence of the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) on the Syrian battlefield. TIP is a successor organization of sorts to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a group that Beijing has blamed for violence linked to Xinjiang after 9/11. Beijing has claimed that Al Qaeda directly “funded and supported” ETIM, and while the scale of Al Qaeda’s direct support of ETIM has been widely disputed, the relationship between TIP and Al Qaeda has only grown closer since, with TIP garnering more Uighur recruits from 2009 onward and Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri praising Uighur contributions to the global jihad in a recent message.

Chinese suppression in Xinjiang, especially after the interethnic riots and violence in the capital, Urumqi, in July 2009, has resulted in the development of what Chinese state media has dubbed an “underground railway” of Uighurs seeking to flee the region. Some of those have ultimately found their way to Turkey and onward to Syria to fight with TIP and other jihadist groups. By 2015, TIP had established a well-documented presence on the battlefield in Syria, with the group releasing a number of videos detailing its combat role fighting alongside Jabhat al-Nusra, until recently Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. (TIP does not fight alongside ISIS; its leadership has released statements in which it condemns ISIS’s activities.) TIP is increasingly showing itself to be an effective force, participating in many major fights (including the breaking of the Aleppo siege) and showing off its skill, manpower and equipment.

Historically, China has not had much economic interest in Syria, a country that prior to the civil war was more closely linked economically to its region, Iran and Russia. And more recently, China has continued to play a second-tier role. While it has had numbers of nationals join ISIS, others kidnapped and killed by the group, and the group has threatened it in some of its rhetoric, it does not appear to be much of a focus for the group. On the non-ISIS side fighting the regime, the numbers fighting alongside TIP seem to be quite substantial, whilst the group’s leadership and a core of the group continues to fight in Afghanistan. And, according to Kyrgyz authorities, this connection may have now matured into the attack that took place in late August against the Chinese embassy in Bishkek.

This threat from TIP in particular is one that is therefore becoming of much greater concern for Beijing. Yet it is not clear who is focused on fighting TIP on the ground in Syria. Western powers fighting in Syria are for the most part focused on ISIS and less focused on the groups fighting against the Assad regime, like TIP. Turkey’s historical proximity to the Uighur cause has raised concerns with Beijing; Uighurs are a people whose culture and language are very close to Turkey’s, and Uighur flags and symbols are regular features during AKP rallies. Erdogan himself has expressed support for the Uighur cause, and back in 2009, in the wake of rioting in Xinjiang that led to some two hundred deaths, he referred to Chinese activity on the ground as “a sort of genocide.” Since 2012, Uighurs have been found traveling on forged Turkish passports in transit countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, raising questions of Turkish complicity. Leaked ISIS documents show a consistent flow of individuals through Kuala Lumpur, as well as other Southeast Asian routes to Turkey.

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On the second count, Beijing faces multiple challenges in the current Middle East for its “One Belt, One Road” strategy. In brief, OBOR is Beijing’s attempt to facilitate Eurasian economic connectivity through the development of a web of infrastructure and trade routes linking China with South Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Key parts of this project, such as the $45 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and the proposed Yiwu-Tehran high-speed rail link, according to James M. Dorsey, “illustrate the politics of its One Belt, One Road Initiative. Xi Jinping believes that he can achieve Chinese dominance through investment and interconnected infrastructure.”

The current fracturing of the Middle East as a result of the Syrian crisis, however, poses a central roadblock to China’s ability to make this vision a reality. In this context, Beijing views the United States’ approach to Syria as driven by Washington’s desire to use the civil war as a pretext to overthrow the Assad regime in order to weaken Iran’s growing power and influence in the Middle East. In contrast, Russia has been firm in its commitment to root out what it calls the “terrorist” threat there in support of the regime in Damascus, and Beijing has been impressed by the manner in which Russia’s decisive moves have had an effect that years of attrition on the battlefield failed to achieve.

So Beijing may now have arrived at the conclusion that supporting Assad and taking sides with Russia is the most viable option to effectively combat the growth of TIP. Increasing its involvement in Syria via military-to-military cooperation can also be seen in the wider context of a PLA keen to develop its overseas experience, in areas from peacekeeping to antipiracy missions to counterterrorism.

David Shambaugh eloquently argued in 2013 that China remained a “partial power” whose diplomacy “often makes it known what it is against, but rarely what it is for” and that this made its foreign policy in many regions of the world “hesitant, risk averse and narrowly self-interested.” This calculus is now changing under pressure from developments in the Middle East and Afghanistan that directly threaten core Chinese interests and are metastasizing into the very terrorist threat that China has long said it is concerned about. The response from China is relatively predictable—an outward security push. The question that remains, however, is how deeply China wishes to plunge into troubled waters to defend these interests.

Dr. Michael Clarke is Associate Professor at the National Security College at Australian National University. Raffaello Pantucci is Director of the International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

Image: Chinese tanks in formation at Shenyang training base in China. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Air Force

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A slight sideways step for me, though if you read it you will see there is some links to other stuff I have done, this is a paper commissioned by the Europe-China Research and Advice Network (ECRAN), an EU vehicle that funds research on China for European policymakers. I have written other papers for them in the past. This one was written late last year and focuses on China’s relations with the Middle East in the wake of the ‘Arab Spring’ and looks in particular at the cases of Libya, Syria, Egypt and Iran. The full paper can be found behind this link. I have pasted the introduction below.

Beyond this, I spoke to the Financial Times about jihadists in Syria and potential blowback in Europe, and to Bloomberg about Boko Haram.

Short Term Policy Brief 79

China and the Middle East

November 2013

Author: Raffaello Pantucci

Introduction

What are China’s key strategic interests in the Middle East and what is the status of its relations with key countries in the region?

During his opening speech at the first China-Arab Expo (an event that had been upgraded from the previous Ningxia International Investment and Trade Fair and the China-Arab States Economic and Trade Forum), Yu Zhengsheng, Standing Committee of the Politburo member and fourth most powerful man in China, highlighted trade and energy as the two main pillars of Chinese-Arab cooperation.Delivered in September 2013, this speech crystallized a policy which has been abundantly clear for some time with China and the Middle East, where the policy priority and focusis on securing energy and developing trade partnerships, while remaining as detached as possible from the intransigent regional politics.

As prominent Qinghua academic in international affairs Yan Xuetong has put it, ‘China can strengthen cooperation economically with countries in the Middle East, but politically, it had better stick with declaring its stand…the complexity of the Middle East politics is far beyond our comprehension.’ With ample domestic turmoil and local difficulties to manage, Chinese
leaders have little appetite to be dragged into a region that has challenged western policymakers’ capabilities for decades.

Nevertheless, events in the wake of the Arab Spring have challenged China in a number of different ways, forcing it to re-evaluate long-held positions and think more deeply about the implications of its growing international footprint. Questions around citizen security were highlighted in the wake of the rushed evacuation of some 35,860 nationals as Libya collapsed, while the decision to abstain from the vote to impose a no-fly zone meant that resolution 1973 was passed. This led to questions about this possibly being a signal that Beijing might be adapting its position on Responsibility to Protect– something it had previously treated as anathema to its sacred ‘non-interference’ principle in international affairs. Particularly raised during the Libya crisis, both issues have hung heavy both over China’s considerations of other aspects of the fall-out from the Arab Spring in the broader Middle East. It remains, however, unclear that they have signalled a dramatic shift, rather than a course adjustment that means such issues are now a higher priority for Beijing policymakers.

Adjacent to these considerations are other larger questions about China’s geopolitical position. For example, the hawkish line often advanced that the current conflict in Syria is part of a larger trajectory of regime change that flows from Damascus, through Tehran to Moscow and Beijing is one that resonates amongst a certain (predominantly nationalist and military) community. This perspective is one that is echoed in Moscow, and is often touted as a reason why the two vote in lock-step with regards to the events of the Arab Spring, Syria and Iran. Chinese foreign policy thinkers who adhere to this perspective often see the world through a binary US versus China lens. For them, the Middle East is an ideological battleground where the US is seeking to upturn the table in favor of a new chaotic order that it controls, and one that will ultimately undermine Chinese national interests. Found amongst academics at prominent think tanks like CASS, it is unclear the degree to which such perspectives dominate senior levels of Chinese foreign policy thinking.

At the same time, China continues to be concerned about the spread of jihadist ideas (with little clear understanding of what motivates them or nurtures their growth) and the possibility that these might filter back into the Xinjiang autonomous region of northwest China still dominated by the Muslim Uighur ethnic group. There have been reports that Chinese nationals – both Uighur and non-Uighur – have participated in the fighting in Syria, and China has grown concerned by the growing appearance of jihadist videos and materials during investigations into violence in Xinjiang from the unrest there in July 2009 until today. China has also increasingly featured as a potential target in a growing array of jihadist material. Most recently, al Shabaab’s al Kataib media published a video in which they discussed the Uighur’s plight, while in May 2013 (though likely produced substantially before his reported death in December 2012) al Qaeda ideologue Abu Zaid al-Kuwaiti released a video through the Turkestan Islamic Party’s media wing, Islam Awazi, in which he provided ‘advice for the Muslims of East Turkestan.’ For China, the potential danger of becoming too involved in Middle Eastern politics is that the eyes of violent Islamists who have thus far focused on the west, might eventually turn to China and portray it as a target– a situation Beijing has thus far managed to avoid thanks to careful diplomacy and the fact that Islamists remain focused on the west as the principle ‘far enemy’. However, Beijing’s concerns remain heightened in the wake of a number of incidents. For example, the suicide attack in Tiananmen Square Beijing in early November 2013 was linked to a Uighur Muslim protester, and was subsequently praised, but not claimed, in a video by TIP. That particular incident came in the wake of110 detentions in Xinjiang of people accused of ‘disseminating religious extremism and material. Highlighting the ongoing violence in the province, in December there was another incident at a police station in Bachu County outside Kashgar that led to 11 deaths (the same county saw 21 killed in another incident in April 2013). All of these examples help underline how nervous the central leadership in Beijing are about this issue.

But these worrying local concerns remain secondary to more large-scale energy concerns, something that reflects a long-standing pragmatism in Chinese foreign policy towards the Middle East. Back in 1994, leader Jiang Zemin highlighted that China should oppose ‘hegemony’ by helping dissident states in the Middle East like Iran, but at the same time should ensure that international stability remains sound in order to facilitate China’s ongoing growth and development. This approach is one that resonates today, where, for example, China is clearly supportive of Moscow’s approach towards Syria and Iran through
measures in the UNSC, but at the same time takes a secondary seat to Russia’s willingness to take a more prominent position in making its point.

For example, in the wake of the use of chemical weapons in Ghouta, east Damascus, Syria on August 21, 2013, the Russian government took the lead in countering the western push to define this as the red line that justified intervention against the Assad regime and instead worked to develop a way for Syria to give up its chemical weapons. Russia’s public interventions culminated in an opinion editorial in the New York Times on September 11, 2013 by President Vladimir Putin. In contrast, throughout this period China made regular statements through the Foreign Ministry, but avoided much further publicity. At the regular MFA briefings, Hong Lei offered support for the Russian efforts: ‘the Russian proposal offers an important opportunity to ease the current tension and properly address the international community’s concerns about Syria’s chemical weapons.’ They later offered Chinese experts to participate in the disarmament assurance group, but otherwise remained relatively low profile. China is publicly supportive of Russia’s positions on Syria, but is not as eager to attract the sort of confrontation that Russia seems to prefer. This Quietist approach to foreign policy is something that can be found across China’s foreign policy agenda.Ultimately, China does not seek to upset the international order that is allowing it to slowly grow into the world’s largest power.

This brief paper touches upon Syria, Egypt, Libya and Iran. This is not a comprehensive overview of China’s relations in the region, but highlights the priority ones as requested by ECRAN. Amongst the important relationships omitted, China continues to be willing to cultivate close relationships with both Israeli and Palestinian authorities, but beyond proposing general suggestions about peace processes, has not engaged in the minutiae of the conversation (nor is it likely to want to). On Iraq, China has profited quite effectively from the toppling of the old regime to get its firms in to develop Iraqi fields (something it has been able to do in part thanks to western firms’ concerns about going in to the country), while Saudi Arabia remains one of China’s biggest energy partners, notwithstanding the mute background of Saudi-style wahhabbist ideology slowly filtering in through Gulf money into Xinjiang. Thus far, Chinese officials have not chosen to acknowledge this linkage too publicly, although some academics discuss the growing spread of such ideas and suggest Saudi Arabia as one of the possible origins. None of these relationships currently seem in any sort of dramatic shift and therefore are placed to one side.