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Bolatkyzy N. China’s position on the Syrian conflict

In recent months, the People’s Republic of China has significantly intensified its policy in the Middle East, including with regard to Syria. This is due to a number of vital causes affecting the economy, foreign trade and security.

 

China-Syria trade and economic relations

First of all, it should be noted that China is Syria’s largest trade partner, accounting for about 80 percent of the country’s foreign trade. The trade has become almost unilateral as Syrian oil export decreased dramatically due to the conflict (a number of oil fields are controlled by Islamic fighters) [1].

At the same time experts emphasize that simultaneous involvement in intensive collaboration with countries supporting the Syrian rival factions; the presence of multi-billion investments throughout the region and the ongoing dependence on Middle Eastern oil make China act extremely cautiously. Thus, developing close cooperation with Iran, China at the same time concludes major deals on the supply of military drones to Saudi Arabia, and Israel relies on China as a partner in developing its economy [2].

 

Transit relevance of Syria

China’s interest in Syria is also due to its unique geographical location, insofar as, Syria is located at the intersection of prospective transit routes leading to the Arabian Peninsula, as well as to Asia Minor and Europe through the Mediterranean Sea [3]. The relevance of the region is also growing due to the implementation of the Chinese «Belt and Road» project. China planned to build one of the corridors of this project through Syria.

The intention of China to participate in the reconstruction of Syria in the post-war period was discussed by experts. So, according to D. Abzalov, «China not only paves railroads or power lines, but also does it by its own technologies, which means that Chinese experts will be needed to maintain this infrastructure network in the future. This can be called the long-term strategy of China … Moscow and Beijing will share the roles among themselves: military – Russia, economic – China» [4].

 

Syria and security problems in the Xinjiang of China

It should be noted that an ethnic Uighur jihadist group of the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), closely allied to al Qaeda, has allegedly operated in Syria since 2012 [5].

Date on the number of Uighur militants in Syria varied widely. The Arab media writes that 2000-2500 IPT members participate in hostilities. According to other sources, the number of Uighur militants does not reach even a thousand. According to the Syrian Ambassador to the PRC, about 5000 people from the Xinjiang of China are fighting in Syria, who penetrated Syria through Turkey [6].

Basically, people from the Xinjiang fight in the ranks of the organization «Jabhat Fatah al-Sham», the former «Jabhat al-Nusra» (a branch of Al-Qaeda in Syria). There are also many Uighurs under the banners of the «Islamic state». In Syria, IPT troops control certain areas where the party’s training and political structures are also deployed [7].

Currently, the Chinese authorities are preparing for a mass return from Syria of their citizens fought in the ranks of the terrorist group ISIL (DAISH). Beijing fears that they will bring with them the ideas of radical Islamism. The return to China of Islamists from the Middle East is tightly controlled. Law enforcement agencies carefully monitor all movements of people suspected of having links with ISIL.

The Middle East and South Asia military analyst Kamal Alam considers that «China’s rise in Syria is significant. It is one of the first truly global conflicts where the Chinese have carried out political, defense and economic diplomacy. Furthermore they have made it clear to the other stakeholders such as Russia and the United States that the Syrian Arab Republic and the state are legitimate, and its territory must not be split. China has benefitted from the bickering between Russia, United States and Turkey. In Syria, China has not just simply watched the Russian and US tug of war, it has cultivated its own path by avoiding military confrontation, instead focusing on consolidation and quiet, behind-the-scenes action» [8].

 

The intensification of the Chinese strategy in Syria

The activation of the Chinese policy in Syria is convincingly illustrated by the activities of Special envoy of the Chinese Government in the Syrian issue Xie Xiaoyan, including his trip to Iran, Turkey. Beijing delegated Xie Xiaoyang to the region as a mediator [9]. In this regard Xie Xiaoyan stresses that «China is in contact with all sides of the conflict and we believe that increasing communication is essential to overcome differences and restore the peace. China is willing to provide necessary support to boost the cease-fire in Syria» [10].

By June 2017, China has provided Syria with humanitarian aid through various channels amounting to 680 mln yuan (about $100.5 mln).

Furthermore China has agreed with the Syrian Government to invest two billion dollars in construction of industrial parks across the country, an important step in restoring the war-torn country’s infrastructure. The agreement was ratified at the First Trade Fair in Qin Yong on July 9 and enables Chinese companies to begin construction on a total of 150 enterprises [11].

At the same time, Beijing is stepping up cooperation and exchanging data with Damascus and Moscow. In August, a high-ranking Chinese military delegation headed by Rear Admiral Gao Yufei visited Syria. The PRC renders assistance to the Syrian army in the training of personnel [12].

Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lu Kang stated in Regular Press Conference on July 17, 2017 that China always supports the UN in serving as the main channel for mediation on the Syrian issue. China would like to work with the international community to enhance coordination, accelerate the political process, contribute to ceasefire and cessation of violence, and jointly strive for an early, comprehensive and political settlement of the Syrian issue.

In an interview with the private Chinese broadcaster Phoenix Television Syrian President Bashar al-Assad offered a warm description of his government’s ties with Beijing — a relationship that he said was going to be «on the rise» because China was «a real friend» that could be relied upon. He also suggested that China would play a role in rebuilding Syria after the conflict ends in every sector, particularly in residential sector, infrastructure and industrial projects [13].

 

Conclusions and generalizations

Firstly, China’s interest in Syria is due not only to the trade and economic factor, but also to the implementation of «Belt and Road» project. During this project opens the door for an expansion of China’s influence on the economies of Europe, Asia and Africa.

Secondly, return to China of IPT members, who have received combat experience in the Middle East, is able to destabilize the situation in Xinjiang. In this regard, Chinese government is strengthening the security regime in the region.

Thirdly, participation in the reconstruction of post-war Syria opens new prospects for China. Syria prefers to resuscitate the country to China. China’s interest in Syria will only intensify against the backdrop of the interests of key countries in the region and world powers towards Syria.

In general, the transition of Beijing’s position from neutrality to the role of an active «negotiator» in the Syrian conflict corresponds to the traditional model of China’s foreign policy, where the attitude towards international crises is the result of a restrained, cautious, pragmatic, consistent and adjusted policy.

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[1] China Accounts for 80% of Syria’s Foreign Trade — Syrian Ambassador to China //https://sputniknews.com/world/201702141050653949-china-syria-foreign-trade/.

[2] Китайский интерес //https://lenta.ru/articles/2017/03/23/bad_uyghurs/.

[3] Гашков И. «Новый шелковый путь»: зачем Китай вкладывает в Сирию миллиарды долларов //https://ria.ru/world/20170721/1498929583.html.

[4] Там же.

[5] Weiss C. Suicide bombings detail Turkistan Islamic Party’s role in Syria //http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2017/05/suicide-bombings-detail-turkistan-islamic-partys-role-in-syria.php.

[6] Китайские боевики воюют за сирийских исламистов //https://www.gazeta.ru/army/2017/02/14/10525685.shtml.

[7] Китайский интерес //https://lenta.ru/articles/2017/03/23/bad_uyghurs/.

[8] Alam. K. The dragon and the lion: China’s growing ties with Syria //http://www.middleeasteye.net/columns/dragon-and-lion-syrian-chinese-relations-blossom-57414512.

[9] Mulvany P. Syria: China wants dialogue for a political solution //https://me-confidential.com/16590-syria-china-wants-dialogue-for-a-political-solution.html.

[10] Chinese envoy stresses Syria’s territorial integrity, urges political solution //https://www.dailysabah.com/politics/2017/07/25/chinese-envoy-stresses-syrias-territorial-integrity-urges-political-solution.

[11] Tomson C. While the US drops bombs, China invests $2 billion in rebuilding Syria //https://www.almasdarnews.com/article/us-drops-bombs-china-invests-2-billion-rebuilding-syria/.

[12] Alam. K. The dragon and the lion: China’s growing ties with Syria //http://www.middleeasteye.net/columns/dragon-and-lion-syrian-chinese-relations-blossom-57414512.

[13] Taylor A. Bashar al-Assad says relations between Syria and China are ‘on the rise’ //https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2017/03/12/bashar-al-assad-says-relations-between-syria-and-china-are-on-the-rise/?utm_term=.93e6040f38f2.