Evanna Hu is a countering violent extremism expert and technologist, having lived and worked in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Afghanistan.  She is presently a partner at Omelas, a US and EU firm at the intersection of technology and CVE/CT and has consulted and facilitated for various U.S. government agencies.  She can be found at evannahu.com and occasionally tweets @evannahu.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


National Security Situation:  Since the start of the ongoing Syrian Civil War, Russia, Iran, and the anti-Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) coalition led by the U.S. are viewed as the most prominent external powerbrokers, backing either the Bashar al-Assad regime or the many rebel coalitions on the ground.  Indeed, Syria has become the proxy battleground for the powers of the world who are caught in between ambitions of regional hegemony and balance of power.  China’s role in the country, however, has been murky and underreported.  Yet, due to China’s escalating presence in Syria, its seat on the UN Security Council, and most importantly, the definitive shift Syria represents in China’s foreign policy, it is worth paying close attention to its rising influence and its broader significance.

Date Originally Written:  December 9, 2016.

Date Originally Published:  December 29, 2016.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  As a technologist in countering-violent extremism working in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, the author took China’s role in Syria much more seriously in spring 2014, when a sudden surge in jihadist propaganda on the plight of the Uighurs flooded websites and social media[1].  A year later, ISIL named China as a part of the enemy coalition and ramped up its recruitment of Chinese Muslims[2][3].  The author, from her facilitation background, believes that inclusivity of actors is the first critical step to solving a complex issue.  This article is written from the perspective of U.S. national security.

Background:  China’s involvement in Syria can be broken down into three phases.  From the five decades leading up to 2013, China’s foreign policy was guided by “the principle of non-interference in internal affairs” of other countries[4].  China made profits selling weapons, including biological, to the Assad government, but China firmly believed that the Syrian Civil War was a Syrian problem.  Based on this belief, China vetoed every Western resolution relating to Syria in the UN Security Council[5].  However, between 2013-2015, China began reconsidering its hands-off political policy.  Thousands of Uighurs joined Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly the al-Nusra Front, and at least 113 joined ISIL[6][7].  China started to see an increase in violence in Xinjiang, a result, it claims, of returnee fighters[8].  Moreover, as China became more concerned with the “U.S. hegemony in the region,” it coordinated military operations in Syria with Russia and continued to sell weapons to Assad. 

In December 2015, China passed a groundbreaking antiterrorism law.  For the first time, the national military can be stationed in other countries, beginning with a permanent base in Djibouti, leading to a break with China’s traditional non-interference principle[9].  The new policy centers around a counterbalance “for a fair and just world order,” according to the state-run news agency, Xinhua[10].  In Syria, the new principle has manifested itself in further cooperation with Russian military operations, expansion of the security delegation at the Chinese Embassy in Damascus, and high-level military-political discussions with Assad rather than going through Russian counterparts[11].  More telling of China’s involvement is the fact that starting in August 2016, it is sending military advisors to Assad to “improve personnel training and training Syrian soldiers how to use Chinese made weapons[12].  In the long-run, an Eastern-facing Syria is a key component to China’s grand strategy of the new Silk Road Initiative, history’s largest infrastructure project.  The terminus hub of the ancient Silk Road, Damascus, serves as both symbolic and literal representation of China’s ambition to be, once again, a world leader[13].

Significance:  Historically, Syria is the turning point and is setting the precedent for China’s future involvement in global affairs beyond the first island chain.  China’s decision-making process leading to the reversal of its foreign policy should be further examined, while its future movements need to be examined as clues to its (re)actions and policies not only about Syria and the Middle East, but also elsewhere in the world.  China’s “proactive diplomacy” (zhudong shi waijiao) is in direct competition with U.S. interests in the Middle East and globally.

Option #1:  Increase China’s role in the peace talks taking place to end the Syrian Civil War.  While China has been a participant in peace talks including the Vienna talks, it has not been given a considerable voice on Syria-related matters.

Risk:  Option #1 validates and formalizes China’s role on the world stage, which the U.S. needs to be careful about, as this could be seen as a U.S. admission that China is a superpower.

Gain:  With China’s increased role in the peace talks taking place to end the Syrian Civil War,  a potential compromise is easier, as China, much like the U.S., still wants a political solution rather than an extensive military campaign.  As a significant seller of weapons to Assad,  China has Assad’s ears, but at the same time, the short-term profit China gains from these weapons sales is outweighed by the grand strategy of the Silk Road initiative.  Presently, China has the leverage to push Assad towards a political compromise.  In the sense that China can help catalyze the process to a peaceful end, giving China a voice at the table has a relatively low opportunity cost.  Furthermore, by keeping China close, the U.S. can reap insights as to how it would act in the future in various foreign policy scenarios.

Option #2:  Maintain China’s current passive participation in the peace talks taking place to end the Syrian Civil War.

Risk:  Refusing China to be a main player in the Syrian peace talks can have disastrous consequences. Firstly, it confirms to China, along with Russia and Iran, that the U.S. wants hegemony in the region, leading to a potential confrontation not unlike the Cold War.  This potential confrontation could spur China to further arm Assad.  Not only would the further arming of Assad discredit the U.S. as more civilians die and the humanitarian disaster further deteriorates, but it also lengthens the Syrian Civil War for much longer than the U.S. public will tolerate.  The longer the U.S. is involved in the Syrian Civil War, the more resources are drawn away from other foreign and domestic issues.

Gain:  Option #2 shows the rest of the world that China is in fact not a force beyond the first island chain nor a superpower.  Option #2 leaves China the burden to demonstrate that its prowess can match its ambition.

Other Comments:  China has made Syria into a proxy dance with the U.S.  With the incoming administration, it will be interesting to watch how the carefully choreographed dance of the past will pass the test of time.  But make no mistake, China has embraced a new era of proactive diplomacy.  It has the domestic stability and monetary resources to carry out its wishes, against U.S. national interests.

Recommendations:  None.


Endnotes:

[1]  Philipp, Josh. “Al-Qaeda Calls for Caliphate in China’s Xinjiang”. October 26, 2014. The Epoch Times. http://www.theepochtimes.com/n3/1043863-al-qaeda-calls-for-caliphate-in-chinas-xinjiang/

[2]  ISIS/ Daesh. Al-Hayat Media Center. Dabiq. Issue No. 4.

[3]  Wong, Edward & Wu, Adam. “ISIS Extends Recruitment Efforts to China with New Chant”. December 8, 2016. The New York Times. www.nytimes.com/2015/12/09/world/asia/isis-china-recruitment-chant-mandarin.html

[4]  The Chinese Embassy in Nigeria. “Two Stories of Confucius: an Eye into China’s Principle of ‘Non-interference in Internal Affairs’”. August 7, 2012. Daily Trust. http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/zflt/eng/zfgx/rwjl/t958839.htm

[5]  Volodzko, David. “China’s Role in the Syria Crisis Revisited”. September 28, 2015. The Diplomat. http://thediplomat.com/2015/09/chinas-role-in-the-syria-crisis-revisited/

[6]  Ali, Mohanad Hage. “China’s Proxy War in Syria: Revealing the Role of Uighur Fighters”. March 2, 2016. Al- Arabiya. https://english.alarabiya.net/en/perspective/analysis/2016/03/02/China-s-proxy-war-in-Syria-Revealing-the-role-of-Uighur-fighters-.html

[7]  Rosenblatt, Nate. All Jihad is Local: What ISIS’ Files Tell Us about Its Fighters. New America Foundation. July 2016. https://na-production.s3.amazonaws.com/documents/ISIS-Files.pdf

[8]  Xinhua News Agency. “Syria’ FM Highlights Relations with China”. December 8, 2016. http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2016-12/08/c_135888529.htm

[9]  Blanchard, Ben. “China Passes Controversial Counter-terrorism Law”. December 28, 2015. Reuters. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-security-idUSKBN0UA07220151228

[10]  Xinhua News Agency. “Interview: Russia-China Partnership Crucial in Helping Maintain World Order: Russian Analyst”. November 5, 2016. http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2016-11/05/c_135808251.htm

[11]  Xinhua News Agency. “Syria’ FM Highlights Relations with China”. December 8, 2016. http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2016-12/08/c_135888529.htm

[12]  The Telegraph. “China Steps Up Military Cooperation with Assad”. August 11, 2016. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/08/18/china-steps-up-military-cooperation-with-assad-as-top-admiral-vi/

[13]  Lin, Christina. “Syria in China’s New Silk Road Initiative”. China Brief. The Jamestown Foundation. Vol.10; issue 8. April 16, 2010. https://jamestown.org/program/syria-in-chinas-new-silk-road-strategy/