China has long avoided entangling itself in direct military conflict abroad. But the Chinese ambassador to Syria last week suggested that China is considering doing just that — in Syria.
On August 1, Ambassador Qi Qianjin told the Syrian pro-regime news outlet Al-Watan that China’s “military is willing to participate in some way alongside the Syrian army that's fighting the terrorists in Idlib and in any other part of Syria.” Qi praised the China-Syria military cooperation.
The Chinese military attache in Syria, Wong Roy Chang, said that cooperation between the Syrian and Chinese militaries was “ongoing,” adding, “We – China and its military – wish to develop our relations with the Syrian army. As for participating in the Idlib operation, it requires a political decision.”
Rumors have long rumbled that China has sent military advisers or army special forces to Syria, though those rumors haven’t been substantiated and China has denied them. But if China follows through on the ambassador’s statement, it would mark a radical departure from its previous policy of non-intervention and would mark a major shift in regional geopolitics.
As the Syrian conflict has raged, China has supported Russia, which is heavily involved on the side of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, by vetoing UN Security Council resolutions that would have brought greater scrutiny to the conflict. Even the increase in exercising its veto power marked a change from China’s previous use of abstention to signal disapproval.
What would push China to change a decades-long policy and get involved in a foreign policy quagmire in the Middle East? There are three potential reasons: Xi Jinping’s project of military modernization; growing concerns about Chinese jihadists in Syria who might return to China as the war is winding down; and a desire to get in on the lucrative reconstruction contracts that so far have largely been swept up by Russian and Iranian firms.
“From a [People’s Liberation Army] planning and capability perspective, they need to develop and deepen their ability to engage in actual combat,” said Abigail Grace, who until recently worked on the Asia portfolio at the National Security Council. “Drills aren’t enough for them to achieve the quality of military required to fully implement their military modernization campaign.”
That’s one reason China has dramatically increased its participation in UN peacekeeping missions. In 2015, Xi committed 8,000 troops, or 20 percent of the UN’s total peacekeeping forces, to missions.
The PLA, the name for the Chinese armed forces, needs a live theater beyond its immediate neighborhood to test out equipment and capabilities, said Andrew Small, a senior fellow with the German Marshall Fund’s Asia program.
That’s not unexpected. “The reference point for this is always the United States in the Middle East, that the United States uses these wars as a way of upgrading.”
The U.S. Department of Defense declined to comment, referring questions about Chinese military involvement in Syria to the Chinese military.
The next question, however, is how China can justify military intervention inside another country, when the cornerstone of its foreign policy is non-intervention.
That’s where counterterrorism comes in. A low-level insurgency has simmered in northwestern China for years, where Turkic-speaking ethnic minority Uighurs have chafed under Beijing’s control over their homeland. In recent years, Islamic radicalism has appealed to a small number of Uighurs, who founded the Turkistan Islamic Party, an Islamist party that aims to fight for independence.
China views TIP as an existential threat — and several thousand TIP fighters have flowed in to Idlib in recent years from Turkey and other regions where the movement had flourished in small pockets of the Uighur diaspora.
“There are a number of Chinese Uighurs with their families who have been established now in a village outside Idlib,” and who have “battle-hardened experience,” said Randa Slim, the director of conflict resolution at the Middle East Institute. It’s in China’s interest that this problem stays in Syria, said Slim, adding that this means TIP fighters “get killed or captured and not return to China.”
That helps China dodge the foreign policy paradox that intervention in Syria would otherwise cause. “Since the territorial integrity of Xinjiang is a “core interest” to the leadership in Beijing, said Grace, “combatting overseas Uyghur activities (real or not) allows them to maintain the ruse of doctrinal consistency with other competing foreign policy positions, such as non-interference.”
And finally, there’s a lot of money to be made in Syria for the cynical opportunist. The pulverized bridges, roads, schools, hospitals, and government buildings all represent potential reconstruction opportunities for enterprising construction firms lucky enough to land the contracts. As the conflict has drawn down, Russian and Iranian firms have snapped up lucrative government contracts for infrastructure reconstruction. Chinese firms, thus far, have come in a distant third, despite infrastructure investment being Beijing’s forte. Xi has centered his signature global economic initiative (known as the the Belt and Road) around it.
“You have to think about this in terms of the larger negotiations over Chinese assistance to reconstruction,” said Slim. “Syria doesn’t have the money, Russia doesn’t have the money.” But China does. With the identification of several thousand TIP fighters in Idlib, “China has a stake in the fighting.” If China makes good on that stake and puts resources into the battle for the last rebel stronghold in Syria, it could also demonstrate that it has a greater stake in the subsequent reconstruction contracts.
But before Beijing makes a decision, Chinese involvement will need pre-approval of the Russians. Moscow views itself as the primary foreign power on the ground in Syria.
“If there is a decision to go for the battle in Idlib, to root out all these terrorist groups and for the regime to reassert control over the region,” said Slim, it would be a decision that would be made between Moscow and Beijing.