CHINA joins in on the Syrian War – as advisor to the Assad government. Problem for Australia?
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull Wednesday gave a major speech to the UN General Assembly in New York during the week traversing the big issues – refugees, climate change, economic growth, sustainable development, and the nightmare that is Syria.
After off-Assembly talks with world leaders, including US President Barack Obama, Mr Turnbull raised the rhetorical ante over the Syrian conflict by warning it could turn into a “proxy war” between the US and Russia.
These are grim forebodings. They concern a five-year-old war that has so far cost 400,000 lives, displaced half Syria’s population of 20 million, involves at least 12 outside states, including four of the world’s leading military powers – the US, Russia, China and Turkey – and has created turmoil in Europe.
But like the mythical Rip Van Winkle, Mr Turnbull did not acknowledge the potentially most worrying new development for Australians back home, and that is the entry of China into the Syrian conflict.
Compared with a war that has so many actors, so many claims, so many ‘frenemies’, and so much bloodshed, Rip Van Winkle is a simple morality tale. It’s about a farmer from upstate New York who is friendly and popular, but ignores the needs of his own home.
But there is a parallel. Updating that morality tale, the recent Chinese involvement in the Syrian war poses a more acute, and certainly more complex, Rip Van Winkle-like problem for Australia.
Australia’s military backing for the US in the conflict could put us further offside with China, our biggest trading partner and a country that looms ever larger in just about every aspect of Australian life. This does not make our backing for the US wrong. But it does mean that people in power like Malcolm Turnbull should learn from Rip Van Winkle’s fatal flaw and spell out just what the issues concerning China’s latest foray are, whether he’s in New York or Canberra.
Recently the US National Interest magazine published an article on its web site which reported that Guan Youfei, a rear admiral in China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy, agreed during a visit to Damascus last month to provide specialist Chinese PLA training for Syrian soldiers, and medical aid.
So, to update Turnbull’s rhetoric, the Syrian quagmire could turn into a US v China plus Russia “proxy war.”
According to the National Interest article, there are “two major reasons” for China “playing a more forward role in engaging in Syria.” They are “China’s concern” about the increasing number of Islamist Uighur militants from its restive western province of Xinjiang joining terrorist groups in Syria, and its “desire for geostrategic stability in the Middle East” as it promotes its ambitious “One Belt, One Road” program.
One co-author of the National Interest article is Raffaello Pantucci, Director of the International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London. The other is Michael Clarke, an Associate Professor at the ANU-linked National Security College. He describes China’s siding with Russia and the murderous Syrian regime headed by Bashar Al Assad is “another instance” where Australia’s interests, as a US ally, “are fundamentally divergent from China’s.”
Clarke cites other examples where similar differences exist – tensions over China’s contested claims in the South China Sea, Afghanistan, Iraq, and “even the Ukraine.”
Meanwhile, China now “seems to be taking sides” in Syria by effectively deciding that Assad “is better than the alternative options.” This places China on opposite sides to the US, Australia, the UK, France and other states.
There are between 500-1000 Uighurs fighting for terrorist groups like the so-called Islamic State in Syria. “We are not talking enormous numbers but those numbers have increased in the last two years,” Associate Professor Clarke says.
The stakes for China underline its emergence as a global power, one rivalling the US. Turmoil in the Middle East, including in Syria, could frustrate progress with its One Belt One Road program (OBOR). This is China’s attempt to oversee Eurasian economic integration through a series of road, rail and sea routes linking the Middle Kingdom with South East Asia extending to Australia, South Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe.
However, according to the National Interest article, “the current fracturing of the Middle East as a result of the Syrian crisis poses a central roadblock to China’s ability to make this vision a reality. Beijing views the US approach to Syria as driven by Washington’s desire to use the civil war as a pretext to overthrow the Assad regime in order to weaken Iran’s growing power and influence in the Middle East. ”
By contrast, “Russia has been firm in its commitment to root out what it calls the ‘terrorist’ threat there in support of the regime in Damascus, and Beijing has been impressed by the manner in which Russia’s decisive moves have had an effect that years of attrition on the battlefield failed to achieve.”
Apart from the major implications for Australia in China’s Syrian foray, there is another reason why this National Interest article should have attracted more, or at least some, attention from Australia’s amply-staffed Embassy in Washington, or the Department of Foreign Affairs, or the Prime Minister’s own office.
The National Interest magazine was started in Washington back in the 80’s by Owen Harries, a onetime conservative Australian political science academic who had been a foreign policy adviser to Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser. Harries famously commissioned US political science academic Francis Fukuyama’s famous “The End of History” article after the collapse of the Berlin Wall on September 9, 1989.
Applying the Rip Van Winkle lesson, Malcolm Turnbull should focus more on interesting, partly home-generated, revelations when mixing with the great and the good abroad.