What Are China’s Plans for the Middle East After Its Troops Arrive in Syria?

Steve Tsang

China wants to take center stage in global affairs, and under President Xi Jinping it is showing a much stronger interest in the Middle East. This has manifested itself not only in the Belt and Road initiative that is meant to connect China through Central Asia to the further West, including both the Middle East and Europe, but also in Beijing’s new commitment to deploy military forces to the Middle East.

Elite units of the People’s Liberation Army have reportedly been ordered to prepare for deployment to Syria to combat Islamist terrorists associated with remnants of the failing ISIS. Such a deployment will mark a break from the past, when Chinese soldiers were only sent to the Middle East on UN peacekeeping missions.

The first Chinese unit chosen was Night Tiger, China’s first modern counterterrorist force based in the western regions of the country. The next unit earmarked for Syria has been Siberian Tiger, trained and equipped to fight in particularly harsh terrain. Both are elite special forces that have not, hitherto, seen combat overseas.

Their planned deployment to Syria against ISIS as the latter is in apparent terminal decline is odd but significant. It contradicts the now well-established Chinese policy that “political settlement is the only realistic way out of the Syrian crisis,” and the mantra that the Chinese government asks “all relevant parties in Syria … [to] cease fire and stop the violence.” So, then, why deploy elite combat troops to join the fight when its official policy is to stop violence?

To understand what really drives China’s approach to the Middle East, it is important to match official policy statements against what its government does on the ground.

The deployment of special forces to Syria is not meant to insert China into the Syrian civil war. It is to eliminate Uyghur fighters who have been recruited by jihadis, whether associated with ISIS or not. The Chinese calculation is that thousands of Uyghurs who have left China for Syria will return as combat veterans in due course. To pre-empt them posing terrorist threats in Xinjiang, the province that is home to many Uyghurs, the Chinese government prefers to fight and annihilate them in the Middle East.

The planned dispatch of elite forces to Syria therefore is not governed by Chinese policy considerations over Syria or the Middle East generally. It is driven by China’s own concern about Uyghurs joining jihadi groups.

This policy is counter-productive. Until the tightening of security controls in Xinjiang in the last few years, China did not face an Al Qaeda-type of Islamist terrorist challenge. But subsequently, an increasing number of Uyghurs have been leaving China, becoming easy targets for jihadi recruiters because of the desperation the former felt in the face of an intensifying Chinese crackdown in their homeland. Most of this Turkish-speaking minority of the Islamic faith went to Turkey in the first instance, where they fell prey to terrorist recruiters.

Even if elite Chinese special forces were to be effective in eliminating many Uyghur fighters, this will not remove the problem for China or reduce jihadis’ capacity to recruit, as conditions in Xinjiang will continue to drive Uyghurs to the arms of militant Islamists. On the contrary, the more Uyghurs that Chinese soldiers manage to kill, the easier it becomes for jihadis to recruit Uyghurs.

The only effective way for Beijing to stop this vicious circle is to remove the reason for Uyghurs to escape their homeland. For Uyghurs to resist jihadism they need to feel safe, respected and free to practice their religion and live life in the own way in their homeland.

While it is regrettable that the Chinese government is pursuing a policy that will sustain a vicious cycle, the crux of the matter for the Middle East is what this tells of China’s priorities in the region. The forthcoming deployment of combat troops is but an extreme example that reveals China’s true interests.

It is important for the people and governments of the Middle East to recognize that whatever China’s publicly articulated Middle East policy is, in reality it is driven first and foremost by the domestic and security concerns of China. The likely detrimental consequences in the increased recruitment of Uyghurs to jihadi causes on the stability, good order, security and economic wellbeing in the Middle East are, regrettably, not a key consideration.

Under President Xi, China is undoubtedly more interested in the Middle East. It has raised hope that it would help the Palestinians and the Israelis find a peace settlement. In practice, the Chinese government has taken no concrete steps to help bring about anything resembling a solution. It is also seeking to improve relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran at the same time, despite the pair’s own intense contest for influence in the region.

In the foreseeable future China can be expected to continue to focus on its own interests in the region, the most important of which remain energy security for itself and pre-empting a recurrence of the Arab Spring that could have undesirable implications for the Communist Party’s monopoly of power in China. Its willingness to deploy troops to support its policies in the Middle East is not directed to help countries in the region enhance security and good order, but to take the fight against the Uyghurs beyond China.

Steve Tsang is director of the China Institute at SOAS, University of London.