Is China Exploiting Trump’s Syria Withdrawal?
While most of the discussion about the Trump Administration's scaledown of American involvement in Syria regards Russia and Iran, China remains a mostly undiscussed stakeholder in the conflict. Beijing has been a more quiet supporter of Assad’s regime compared to Moscow and Tehran since the People's Republic's approach to the Syrian conflict is a commercial approach to foreign policy. However, Beijing’s strategic interests in Syria are just as complicated as the previously mentioned players.
This media coverage is especially perplexing since the overall discussion regarding the Administration's Syria scaleback has focused on what active great power players like Russia will do next or how regional ones such as Turkey’s next move. In the debate about the Syrian Civil War, there has been little discussion of China’s role in the conflict and what it means for Beijing's geopolitical position overall. Especially given the fact that China has a much larger global footprint than other belligerents involved in the civil war such as Russia.
China has just as much at stake as Russia does in security terms in the outcome of the Syrian conflict. Even though compared to it is similar revisionist state counterparts all three faces the challenge of militant Sunni Islam represented by organizations like the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda affiliated Al-Nusra Front, and other smaller groups operating inside Syria. Beijing as in the case of different ethnic and religious minorities such as Tibetans and Christians have grown increasingly repressive of Chinese Muslims and in particular Uighurs. The state has thrown thousands into re-education camps and has increased its wholesale surveillance of the Xinjiang region.
This repression has seen some Uighurs leave the PRC and join terrorist organizations like the Islamic State. The Syrian Government has claimed that over 5,000 ethnic Uighurs have joined ISIS. While reports restrictions on practicing Muslims inside China have increasingly attracted the attention of religiously conservative commentators in the Islamic World. For instance, there is mounting pressure on Turkish President Erdogan from within his Islamist AKP Party to take a tougher stance towards China over Beijing’s treatment of the Turkic Uighurs. The plight of the Uighurs has also garnered protests in Muslim communities from Europe to Indonesia.
China’s concerns draw from the Russian rationale. Where both have large internal Muslim populations that face pressure from an authoritarian state, and where their civil liberties face even more restrictions than the rest of the people. Beijing follows Moscow’s thinking in that religious minority populations within its borders pose a threat to the stability of the state. A domino effect line of thinking where militant Islam could cause mastitis throughout the Middle East and Central Asia to threaten China. Hence the Chinese leadership fears the same terror and disorder that the United States and Russia fear.
Beijing is likely content that Washington is withdrawing from the conflict and leaving Assad in power despite protests from interventionist oriented policymakers in Washington. A Washington retrenchment on Syria is the optimal outcome since it goes an anti-western secular authoritarian power. Because While at the same time, Islamist forces that had the potential to cause problems closer to home have pacified for the time being. Through military action in Syria, to begin with, the US-led coalition eliminated one of China's concerns in the Middle East.
The PRC also sees the US drawdown as a victory for its anti-democratic message since the popular will of Syrian society has been defeated through Assad’s resilience. A win for the Syrian opposition would mark another victory in the Arab Spring for populist outrage against secular autocrats in the Middle East. This occurrence would be a negative development for the brand of one-party rule that the People’s Republic embodies for the simple fact that an allied regime faces rebellion. Even though China did not have the same military stakes as Moscow and Tehran where it had active forces in the region, however, Bejing did have the same concerns as Russia and Iran where they also fear popular Sunni sentiment causing instability for their regimes.
Another consideration for China is the Belt and Road Initiative which runs through straight through the heart of Central Asia and the Middle East. ISIS's defeat neutralizes a potential threat to the ambitious project for now. The scaleback offers Beijing an opportunity to enhance this initiative by investing in the Syrian reconstruction, where Chinese companies are set to bid on many rebuilding projects throughout the country. While at the same time joining Russia and Iran in strengthening the Assad regime’s overall control of his country as a bulwark against both the pro-American states in the region and the specter of militant Islam.
The End of the Syrian Civil War also gives China a clear opening to Europe and access to the broader Mediterranian through the Ports of Latakia and Tartus. The Levant offers convenient land routes as the conflict in Syria has illustrated. The nearby harbor of Tripoli in Lebanon has also been positioning its self as another prime location for Belt and Road development. Combined with Syrian ports this agreement can provide tremendous scale for the movement of Chinese goods throughout the west. Ultimately China can develop these harbors as prime routes from Asia overland to not only Europe but to Turkey, North Africa, and through the Suez Canal linking up with the Sting of pearls in the Indian Ocean.
The American withdrawal from Syria while offering Trump a political victory at home gives China a more significant voice in the post-conflict future of the country. Beijing will politically, and economic reinforce the Assad government, without the visible hand of American influence in Syria. American forces leaving the region allows Chinese commercial control in the Levant to spread unimpeded. While American firepower effectively removed the militant Sunni threat to Beijing's ambitions in the area. At the same time, Washington is making it safe for China to expand its a footprint in Syria because of the newfound stability. US Syrian policy needs to be diligent to ensure that its primary strategic rival is not the main benefactor of its departure from the conflict.
Kevin Brown has spent the past four years working in the International public affairs realm. He has just finished his MSc. in International History from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). The author was previously published in the National Interest.