Beijing is breaking old taboos, building a military base and intervening in hotspots overseas
For years, China has walked a fine line on Syria. It supported diplomatic efforts to end the conflict but refused to be drawn into the complex conflagration that threatens to consume the Middle East.
But on August 14 a visit by a senior official in the People’s Liberation Army appeared to reverse China’s careful attempts to steer clear of entanglements in Syria. It also raised broader questions about Beijing’s longstanding aversion to military intervention in foreign conflicts.
Rear Admiral Guan Youfei, a senior official in the People’s Liberation Army, met top Syrian officials in Damascus, where he promised increased military aid and training for government forces. Mr Guan also met a senior Russian general, affirming a budding partnership with Moscow in military affairs.
While it was kept low key, the visit was so unusual that it even caught Chinese experts by surprise.
“Amid all the chaos, the PLA is somehow venturing into Syria,” says Zha Daojiong, an expert on the Middle East at Peking University, referring to Mr Guan’s Syria trip. “I hope the PLA will go no further than photo-taking or other piecemeal forms of military diplomacy. The US and Russia face huge challenges in Syria. What makes us think we will have any more success?”
The visit — and the controversy it provoked — offers a stark demonstration of how a number of China’s longstanding foreign policy taboos are being rethought under President Xi Jinping. For decades China has trumpeted its aversion to traditional realpolitik — including foreign military intervention, building foreign bases, developing spheres of influence, creating buffer zones and forging alliances — as outdated relics of colonialism.
“Hegemony or militarism is not in the genes of the Chinese,” said Mr Xi in June 2014 when he, along with officials from Myanmar and India, celebrated the 60th anniversary of the “five principles of peaceful coexistence” signed in 1954. While Beijing’s commitment to these principles has been at best uneven — India and China fought a border war eight years later — they went on to inspire several decades of foreign policy. Deng Xiaoping, the former leader, referred to his foreign policy as “keeping a low profile” in international affairs in order to focus on economic growth.
But since Mr Xi assumed power in 2012, he has ushered in a new foreign policy. In October 2013 he championed fenfa youwei, or “striving for achievement” in foreign affairs, signalling a more assertive stance.
“Since Xi Jinping became president, they no longer talk about keeping a low profile,” says Paul Haenle, head of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center in Beijing. “If you discuss it with the Chinese they will say they haven’t abandoned that concept, but the truth in my view is that they have.”
As for the principle of non-interference abroad, he says, “they insist they abide by it, but if you sat down for a few minutes you could think of 15 examples where they’re not doing that any more.”
One long-held taboo was recently broken when China opened a naval base in Djibouti this year — its first foreign military base since withdrawing its forces from North Korea in 1958. A declared aversion to spheres of influence seems to be eroding, too, amid Beijing’s assertive claims on territorial waters in the South China Sea and airspace over the East China Sea.
A new counter-terrorism law passed at the end of 2015 will, for the first time, legalise sending Chinese troops for combat missions abroad without a UN mandate. This is seen by many as a precursor to more foreign military operations.
Another cast-iron law — non-alignment — is now the subject of bitter polemics in China. It has forsworn alliances since the implosion of the Sino-Soviet alliance in the 1960s, which led to a brief border war between the two countries in 1969. A 1961 defence pact with North Korea is moribund after Beijing publicly repudiated it in 2013.
But despite the mixed performance of China’s past alliances, a number of prominent scholars have been arguing strenuously for China to revisit the idea.
“The subject of alliances is the subject of many misconceptions by the government and the public,” says Xu Jin, a professor of international relations at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. He says China is making a “colossal mistake” in not allying with countries such as Russia that chafe, as Beijing does, at the US-dominated world order.
“Looking around the world since 1648, there has never been another single great power that pursued a policy of rejecting alliances,” Mr Xu wrote in a December 2015 article in Chinese Foreign Policy, a Chinese-language journal. “China needs to learn the art of managing alliances to seek an advantage and create a balance of power.”
The leader of the pro-alliance movement is widely regarded as Yan Xuetong, director of the Institute of Modern International Relations at Beijing’s Tsinghua University.
Non-alignment, he argues, “suited our country during the cold war when it was weak. However, in the coming decade, China will no longer be the weak country it was. To stick to the nonaligned strategy would not only be unhelpful but also potentially harmful,” he wrote in a book published last year.
Shifts in foreign policy have historically first been signalled by civilian experts. For example, five years before China opened its first foreign military base in Djibouti, Shen Dingli, the head of the Center for America Studies at Fudan University, wrote an article on China.org titled “Don’t shun the idea of setting up overseas military bases” in July 2010.
“I thought our government’s argument was absurd,” says Mr Shen. “To have a capability like an overseas base does not mean you are automatically being threatening.” He believes that the lack of international reaction to his article, which was published in English, might have been a factor in the Chinese decision to go ahead with a foreign base.
Now, as disputes grow with the US, Japan and other countries in China’s backyard, the pressure on China to engage in more assertive realpolitik is coming again from the pages of journals and press interviews with experts.
The US has aggressively challenged China’s claim to territorial waters in the South China Sea by sailing ships and flying planes close to a number of artificial islands claimed by Beijing.
The Philippines signed a deal this year to give Washington access to five military bases, marking a return by US forces to the country they left after 1992. The US is also seeking access to naval facilities in Cam Ranh Bay and Danang in Vietnam, which would mark its first military return to the country since Saigon fell in 1975. Seoul and Washington have agreed to base an anti-ballistic missile system in South Korea. Beijing argues that the system — known as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense — can penetrate deep into China and weakens its own nuclear deterrent.
The future of Japan’s pacifist postwar constitution is also uncertain as Tokyo feels pressure from China’s military build-up. Beijing has increased defence spending by double digits in nominal terms every year for almost a quarter of a century. “The return of geopolitics is real in this region,” says Chisako Masuo, an associate professor at Kyushu University. “And the driving force is the rise of China.”
Asian geopolitics is having knock-on effects elsewhere in the world, including Syria. Dennis Wilder, former CIA deputy assistant director for East Asia, who teaches at Georgetown University, says Beijing’s overture to the Assad regime is likely to be inspired as much by the game for influence in Asia as any genuine interest in the Middle East.
“I think this is a bit of Xi payback to the US” for interference in the South China Sea and THAAD, he says. “The Chinese often, when upset about our actions in their core interest, try to demonstrate that they have the power to make life difficult for us in an area outside their core interests but of great concern to us.”
Search for pacts
If confrontation between China and the US continues, international relations experts say Beijing could try to form an anti-US alliance. “Historically any rising power, when they intend to balance a hegemon, or when an established power wants to balance a rising peer rival, the first thing they do is alliance formation,” says Sumantra Maitra, a doctoral researcher at the UK’s University of Nottingham. “There is no reason to believe that China will act any differently.”
The question is whom to ally with. South Korea, Japan and the Philippines already have alliances with the US, while Vietnam, Indonesia and other states with claims in the South China Sea have been alienated by what they see as Beijing’s heavy-handed behaviour. “China’s activities, especially in the South China Sea, are driving countries away from it, not toward it,” says Richard Bitzinger of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
India is too estranged by border disputes and China’s support of Pakistan. Central Asia, despite Beijing’s “One Belt, One Road” economic initiative, is considered to be part of Russia’s sphere of influence. This leaves Pakistan, North Korea and Russia, along with Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, which receive military aid from China.
Of these, Russia is the only state that can offer an alliance with any deterrent power. Indeed, many US experts fear a new “axis” of Russia and China.
But the economic consequences of an anti-US alliance with Russia would be difficult to gauge: trade with the US in combined exports and imports was worth $659bn last year, according to the Office of the US Trade Representative, compared with just $64bn according to Chinese customs data for Russia.
“The economic relationship with the United States is fundamentally more important to China than the one with Russia. China doesn’t forget that,” says Stapleton Roy, a former ambassador to China, in a panel discussion in July at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Instead of an alliance, the two countries seem to be co-operating on an ad hoc basis. Mr Xi and President Vladimir Putin have met 17 times since early 2013. Last year, Mr Xi sent Li Zhanshu, the chief of the Communist party’s General Office, to Moscow, putting the relationship with Mr Putin on the highest level of any foreign contact. Mr Li is effectively Mr Xi’s chief of staff.
Experts have since noted a spike in mid- and high-level diplomatic contacts between China and Russia — and more joint military exercises. In June, the two nations conducted apparently co-ordinated ship manoeuvres near disputed islands in the East China Sea. The two countries plan joint naval exercises in the South China Sea later this month.
“China is facing growing tension in the East China Sea and the South China Sea and feeling external pressure,” says Li Xing, director of the Eurasian Studies Center at Beijing Normal University. “Russia, meanwhile, is facing pressure from the west on issues such as Ukraine. The two sympathise with each other”.
Additional reporting by Lucy Hornby
The decision to play politics in the Middle East does not come easy, but in China’s case it was deemed preferable to the alternative: not playing politics.
Since the Syrian crisis began in 2011 China has taken a balanced approach, manoeuvring between both President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and the opposition in a bid to hedge its bets.
That was a relatively new tack for China. Beijing has tended to build bridges exclusively with ruling regimes in troubled countries — with drastic consequences if they lost power.
In Libya, China learned the hard way not to back the wrong horse. China steadfastly backed Muammer Gaddafi during the civil war — and lost lucrative oil contracts after he was killed by insurgents in 2011.
“The Chinese felt they got burnt in Libya because they stuck with Gaddafi too long. When he fell, they got shut out,” says Jon Alterman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “They resolved to be much more balanced when a country’s future is uncertain.”
As Beijing makes overtures to the Assad regime, analysts say there are a number of factors at play. First, says Mr Alterman, “they feel the period of danger for the regime has passed”.
The overture to Assad may also reflect a growing convergence of Beijing and Moscow on geopolitical issues. But the Global Times, the hawkish mouthpiece for the Communist party, alluded to another motivation: the desire to needle the US, which backs the Syrian opposition.
“Since the US has been interfering militarily in China’s backyard in the South China Sea, this could be pushback from the Chinese military into an area, the Middle East, that is usually considered a US sphere of military influence,” the paper quoted an analyst as saying. Charles Clover
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