China has long avoided entangling itself in direct military conflict abroad. But the Chinese ambassador to Syria last week suggested that China is considering doing just that — in Syria.
On August 1, Ambassador Qi Qianjin told the Syrian pro-regime news outlet Al-Watan that China’s “military is willing to participate in some way alongside the Syrian army that's fighting the terrorists in Idlib and in any other part of Syria.” Qi praised the China-Syria military cooperation.
The Chinese military attache in Syria, Wong Roy Chang, said that cooperation between the Syrian and Chinese militaries was “ongoing,” adding, “We – China and its military – wish to develop our relations with the Syrian army. As for participating in the Idlib operation, it requires a political decision.”
Rumors have long rumbled that China has sent military advisers or army special forces to Syria, though those rumors haven’t been substantiated and China has denied them. But if China follows through on the ambassador’s statement, it would mark a radical departure from its previous policy of non-intervention and would mark a major shift in regional geopolitics.
As the Syrian conflict has raged, China has supported Russia, which is heavily involved on the side of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, by vetoing UN Security Council resolutions that would have brought greater scrutiny to the conflict. Even the increase in exercising its veto power marked a change from China’s previous use of abstention to signal disapproval.
What would push China to change a decades-long policy and get involved in a foreign policy quagmire in the Middle East? There are three potential reasons: Xi Jinping’s project of military modernization; growing concerns about Chinese jihadists in Syria who might return to China as the war is winding down; and a desire to get in on the lucrative reconstruction contracts that so far have largely been swept up by Russian and Iranian firms.
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