China has announced a shift in its foreign policy toward Syria. During a visit to Damascus on August 14, People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) Rear Admiral Guan Youfei (关友飞) noted that this year marks the 60th anniversary of relations between the two countries. He further declared that China has consistently supported political solutions to Syria’s problems and the preservation of Syrian independence and sovereignty (China Military, August 15). RADM Guan, who is director of the Office for International Military Cooperation of the Chinese Central Military Commission, also committed to improving military-to-military cooperative ties, including training, and promised to extend humanitarian assistance.
While most meetings between Chinese and Syrian officials have focused on humanitarian aid, the commitment to military exchanges and training suggest that China may increase its role as the Syrian crisis grinds to a conclusion. Overall, this move by China fits into a larger pattern of shifts toward a more engaged, and possibly militarily active foreign policy currently occurring across the Middle East and Africa (China Brief, June 1; China Brief, July 6). In late December China approved a counter-terrorism law that explicitly legalized the use of special forces and other units abroad, if approved by the Central Military Commission (China Brief, January 25). A recent article in the PLA Daily urging the use of special forces, particularly in a counter-terrorism context, seems to indicate that support for action is growing (PLA Daily, August 14).
China has maintained support for the al-Assad government during the five-year Syrian Civil War, describing its relations with Syria as a “just position” (正义立场). However, according to Chinese President Xi Jinping, a continuation of war in Syria without a decisive winner is “not sustainable” (Chinese Embassy in Syria, January 22; China Brief, January 25). In April China appointed Xie Xiaoyan (解晓岩) as special envoy to Syria to more directly represent Beijing’s views (FMPRC, April 21). Perhaps reflecting a new sense of urgency, Xi Jinping replaced China’s Ambassador to Syria Wang Kejian (王克俭) with Qi Qianjin (齐前进) —although this could be a routine personnel change at the end of Wang’s two-year posting rather than a reflection of a loss of faith (Pengpai, August 11).
A core concern of Chinese leaders regarding Syria has been the return of radicals from Syria to China. Some 100 militants (primarily ethnic Uyghurs from China’s western Xinjiang province) are alleged to have joined the Islamic State (IS) (BBC Chinese, December 7, 2015). China has over the past eight years seen a spate of attacks planned or executed from abroad (China Brief, January 25).
Chinese think tanks have carefully monitored this situation. Researchers at the Ministry of State Security (MSS)–affiliated think tank China Institute for Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), Jia Chunyang (贾春阳) and Gong Zheng (龚正), for example, have noted that the “defeat of IS on the battlefield does not mean failure,” and the shift in tactics (as evidenced from a number of attacks in Europe) are shifting the focus of counter-terrorism efforts (CICIR, July 31). Another CICIR researcher, Fu Xiaoqiang (傅小强) writing in PLA Daily, drew on China’s own revolutionary theory, urging the international community to unite to fight a “Protracted War” (持久战) against IS, across a wide range of fronts (PLA Daily, January 9). In regards to Syria, the Chinese government clearly prefers the continuation of the al-Assad government to the possibility of an even more violent and chaotic situation, in which the Syrian opposition or radical elements to win decisively.
More direct intervention in the conflict by China, through arms sales or training of government troops, could be motivated by fears that the al-Assad government’s forces could collapse following recent setbacks in Aleppo at the hands of Syrian rebel forces. Beijing may be trying to ensure that China has a seat at the negotiation table if some sort of peace is made. Another consideration is helping cement Russian influence in the region as a hedge against U.S. dominance of the region. Although Russian military support for the Syrian government has outlasted expectations, the airstrikes—which have begun using bases in Iran—are exacting a toll on the Russian military.
The Syrian government has had to rely heavily on Russian support, and is likely leveraged to the hilt with loans to Russian military equipment companies. An influx of additional supplies from China could open new sources of badly needed cash. China previously supplied the Syrian government with 500 anti-tank weapons in 2014.  Additionally, videos and images from the civil war indicate that a wide variety of Chinese weapons have been used in the conflict by both sides, though it is unclear whether they were directly transferred from Chinese suppliers or acquired via resellers.
Although it is highly unlikely that China will deploy a large force or even, as one widely disseminated and erroneous report suggested, its aircraft carrier to fight in Syria, it is clear that China is increasing the visibility of its support for Bashar al-Assad’s government to improve its level of influence in whatever resulting post–civil war government emerges.
1. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Arms Transfer Database, accessed August 18, 2016.