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.