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Did The Proxy War In Syria Just Attract Another Big Time US Rival?

SANA/Handout via REUTERS

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Ryan Pickrell China/Asia Pacific Reporter
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Chinese officials revealed a desire for closer relations with Syrian counterparts during a meeting over the weekend.

Chinese Rear Admiral Guan Youfei met Sunday with Syrian Defense Minister Fahd Jassem al-Freij in Damascus, reported China’s Xinhua News Agency.

China plans to offer its continued support to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s beleaguered authoritarian regime. “China and Syria’s militaries have traditionally maintained a friendly relationship, and China’s military is willing to keep strengthening exchanges and cooperation with Syria’s military,” Guan told al-Freij during the recent Damascus meeting.

Without revealing any specifics, Xinhua’s report said that China would provide “military training” and “humanitarian aid” to Syria.

Further plunging China into Middle Eastern affairs, Guan met with Lieutenant General Sergei Charkov, chief of Russia’s reconciliation center in Syria, on Monday, reported the South China Morning Post.

China has been stepping up its involvement in the Middle East since Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the region at the start of this year. China appointed former Chinese Ambassador to Iran Xie Xiaoyan as a special envoy to Syria in March and Xie traveled to Syria to meet with Syrian officials and members of the opposition challenging the Syrian government in April.

Many are interested in the possible reasons for China’s sudden interest in Syria.

China hopes to increase its influence in the region to protect its interests and encourage stability, according to Wang Jian, an expert on the Middle East at the China Academy of Social Sciences, reports The South China Morning Post. “To become a so-called responsible world power, more proactive gestures are needed,” Wang explained. Some contend the situation is more complicated than Jian’s analysis.

Hong Kong military commentator Ma Dingcheng told Phoenix TV Thursday, “Russia and China are partners. If Russia gets in a fight somewhere, then China ought to it least show that it has Russia’s back.”

“China plans to assist with training and provide weapons and equipment, but these moves don’t mean much in the grand scheme of things. The war in Syria is different from China’s war on terrorism; the place is different, and so is the enemy,” Ma added.

“It’s about sending a warning to the real opponent. In Syria, the U.S. and Russia are competing with one another. By raising its flag, China reminds the U.S. that it needs to watch its step in the South China Sea and East China Sea; otherwise, the U.S. may find itself struggling against Russia and China there as well,” Ma said.

Although China may be priming the powder keg in the Middle East, China remains committed to the pursuit of peace in the region. Currently, China receives the bulk of its crude oil from the Middle East, some of its largest trading partners are located in the region, China is involved in a number of contracted projects and overseas investment markets there, and this region is a key player in China’s massive trade-based and integration-oriented “One Belt, One Road” Silk Road revival project.

Like other powers, China is likely using the crisis in Syria to advance its own interests, but there are definite limitations. The Middle East is situated on the distant outskirts of China’s sphere of influence. “For regions far from China, places that are clearly beyond China’s power-projection range, China must limit its involvement,” said Xinhua, indicating that the cost of deeper and more comprehensive Chinese intervention in regional affairs might be too high.

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