News analysis

Middle Kingdom eyes a bigger role in the Middle East

How China handles its involvement may pose ramifications on other fronts, like its strategic rivalry with the US

Veterans of the Chinese People's Liberation army (PLA) navy stand in formation of a star and the Chinese characters "August 1" on top of a mountain ahead of China's "Army Day" in Luoyang, Henan province, July 31. PHOTO: REUTERS

A recent deal on military cooperation between China and Syria is viewed as a deepening of Beijing's policy towards direct engagement in the domestic affairs of Middle Eastern states, despite its long-held principle of non- interventionism.

Observers say how China handles its Middle Eastern involvement would not only affect its influence and interests in the region but also pose ramifications on other fronts, like its strategic rivalry with the United States.

An Aug 15 meeting between China's Rear-Admiral Guan Youfei and Syrian Defence Minister Fahad Jassim al-Freij in Damascus saw both sides reaching a consensus on the People's Liberation Army providing personnel training and humanitarian aid to the Syrian military.

Though there have been media reports of the Chinese military's presence in Syria, the deal marks the first time both sides have publicly pledged military cooperation and is seen by some as China's decision to back the Bashar al-Assad government against the opposition rebels. Middle East expert Sun Degang of the Shanghai International Studies University said China sees a greater need to protect its economic interests in the Middle East - which accounts for more than half of China's crude oil imports.

The trigger was the launch of the One Belt, One Road initiatives in 2013 to revive two ancient Silk Road trading routes, with a maritime path flowing through the Indian Ocean and an overland one through Central Asia and the Middle East.

"Stability in the Middle East will benefit China economically," Prof Sun told The Straits Times.

Some analysts also believe China is getting more engaged in the Middle East as a tit-for-tat response to the US involvement in the South China Sea and the East China Sea.

Others say China's move in Syria may also be linked to a pledge made by Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin in June to "unswervingly deepen their strategic partnership of coordination" on major international and regional hot-button issues and to support each other on their core interests and major concerns.

Russia has since agreed to hold a joint naval drill with China in the South China Sea next month, while Rear-Adm Guan, director of international cooperation in the Central Military Commission, reportedly also met Lieutenant- General Sergei Chvarkov, chief of Russia's reconciliation centre in Syria.

Hong Kong military commentator Ma Dingcheng told Phoenix TV in a recent interview on the Sino-Syria cooperation pact: "It's about sending a warning to the real opponent. In Syria, the US and Russia are competing with one another. By raising its flag, China reminds the US that it needs to watch its step in the South China Sea and East China Sea; otherwise, the US may find itself struggling against Russia and China there (in Syria) as well."

Middle East expert James Dorsey from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies said China's goals also include joining the international fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terrorist group, which reportedly has links with the East Turkmenistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) separatist group that seeks the Xinjiang region's separation from China.

Beijing blames the ETIM for inciting violence in restive Xinjiang. Chinese leaders have also been under pressure domestically to do more on counter-terrorism, following the execution of Chinese hostage Fan Jinghui in Syria last year. Beijing was accused of neglecting his case.

Prof Sun said China's "zero-enemy" strategy and its standing as a neutral broker offers the country an advantage in deepening its involvement in the Middle East. "China can be friends between Israel and the Palestine, between Iran and Saudi Arabia, between Afghanistan and the Taleban, between the Sunnis and the Shi'ites," he said.

He believes that if China plays its cards well in the Middle East, it could burnish its reputation as a peacemaker and responsible global power to counter criticisms of its assertiveness in the South China Sea.

But others say China's efforts to play a bigger Middle Eastern role are not without difficulties and have even run into pitfalls.

For instance, Mr Xi, on a visit to three Middle Eastern states earlier this year, declared China's support for the peace process between Israel and Palestine. But his pledge of support for a Palestinian state with eastern Jerusalem as its capital reportedly angered the Israelis.

Dr Dorsey said China, which has no choice but to get more involved in the Middle East given its growing heft and interests, can do nothing to avoid potential negative backlash and being dragged into potential conflict in the region.

"The Middle East is a region that demands attention. It doesn't like to be ignored. It's not a question of giving China more time to make its involvement work. It's a question of reality," he added.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 30, 2016, with the headline Middle Kingdom eyes a bigger role in the Middle East . Subscribe