COMMENT: Why has China’s foreign minister spent three days in Damascus? Probably not having trade discussions

COMMENT: Why has China’s foreign minister spent three days in Damascus? Probably not having trade discussions
China and Syria are meeting, but not to talk about trade / SCMP
By Gav Don in Edinburgh July 25, 2021

A few days ago China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi spent three days visiting President Bashar al Assad in Syria – the first visitor to be hosted by Mr Assad in his new term as president.

The visit’s formal content saw China laying out its firm views on Syria’s situation. Notable among these was the (usual) Chinese declaration that Syria’s internal challenges are the business of no-one other than Syria. Wang went further, to state that China will oppose any attempt at forced regime change in Syria. While these statements were no doubt welcome in Damascus they are not surprising – Beijing’s firm foreign policy view is that a country’s internal policies and politics are solely the business of that country. Over the past decade China has put its diplomatic muscle where its mouth is, by vetoing six of seven UNSC resolutions attacking Syria.

More significantly, Wang stated, without qualification, that China will support the Government of Syria in the protection of its independence and territorial integrity. This undertaking is much more significant, placing Beijing as it does firmly in opposition to the United States, the United Kingdom, Israel and Turkey, which would all very much like to see Assad fall and Syria split into a weak Allawite client state, a weak Kurdish proto-state and a northern Turkish protectorate respectively.


Assad affirms support for One China

In return President Assad fell equally firmly into line with Beijing’s view that Taiwan and Hong Kong are indivisibly part of China. This would be a rare case of Syria agreeing with the United States, or at least the Communique signed by the United States in Shanghai in February 1972, which stated, again without qualification, that “…The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China.”.

So far, so not-surprising. The real meat of the meeting was contained in a declaration that Syria will join in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Presented as a “trade and investment” programme worldwide, BRI is in reality a “bases and pipelines” programme designed primarily to protect the flow of vital resources into China. Chief among these is the flow of hydrocarbons (oil, pipeline gas and liquefied gas), followed by the flow of metal ores. When seen through this lens the projects contained within BRI make considerably more sense. For example, Chinese investment in Hambantota (Sri Lanka), Gwadar, Djibouti and Myanmar provide Beijing with a series of bases from which to project naval and air cover of inbound tankers from the Persian Gulf. The maths of maritime cover limit a base’s effective radius of action to around 1,000 km, and these four assets neatly cover four segments of the tanker route from Iran to the pipeline terminal at Made Island in Myanmar. The fifth segment – the long leg south-east along India’s west coast has a coverage gap, which is why Beijing is so interested in events in the Maldives.


We’re not here for the oil

But herein lies a question. Syria’s oil export capacity is small by any standards – not more than a couple of hundred kilobarrels per day even on a (rare) good day – and a very long way from China. The shortest land route from Syrian wellheads to Chinese territory (east through Iraq, then across the north of Iran and the north of Afghanistan before joining the China-Pakistan Corridor and into Xinjiang) is 3,500 km. Afghanistan could be bypassed by adding another 1,000 km and by heading south in Iran to join the Iran-Pakistan pipeline. On arrival in Xinjiang oil would have another 2,500 km to travel to consumers. Beijing is clearly not thinking about either of those unappealing options. A sea link from Syria to China is equally unattractive, since it would either have to depend on access to both Suez and Bab el Mandeb, or take a long and un-protectable route south round South Africa.

If not oil then what? Beijing may have one or more of a handful of non-oil agendas, the most visible of which will be support for Iran. President Assad’s regime received what was probably a vital infusion of hard cash (sources suggest ~$10bn), weapons, oil and trained fighters from Iran during 2012. The force was a mix of IRGC members and men recruited from Afghanistan and Pakistan. More forces were provided in 2013 and 2014, and today Iran remains a significant supporter of Syria, now with overland access through Iraq. Syria’s attention is beginning to turn to reconstruction. Iranian operators, not least the IRGC, which is a significant commercial business in its own right, have been signing protocols and memoranda of understanding (MoUs) for reconstruction work for years now, but with little hard capital to bring to the table.


Open hand, but not an open wallet

Beijing’s wallet is not itching to invest in Syria anyway, and may itch even less if President Biden starts adding Chinese investors to the 39 named people and organisations sanctioned in 2020 by the Caesar Act. In June of this year Assistant Secretary of State Joey Hood publicly warned Middle East investors that the Biden Administration was prepared to add new names to the Caesar Sanctions list, saying: “with regard to others, who may be considering making moves, we are asking them to consider very carefully the atrocities committed by the regime on the Syrian people over the last decade, as well as the regime's continuing efforts to deny much of the country access to humanitarian aid and security". Assistant Secretary Hood’s remarks were probably aimed more specifically at investors in Saudi Arabia, but Beijing will have been paying close attention. Secretary Hood continued “…governments and businesses need to be careful that their proposed or envisioned transactions don’t expose them to potential sanctions from the United States under [Caesar]”.

So far no new names have been added, so we might expect to see Beijing dropping penny packets of investable cash into this pool of opportunity – nothing like enough to solve Syria’s economic challenges, but just enough to cultivate some goodwill and to reinforce the three-way Syria/Iran/China love-in.

Less obvious is a possible Beijing desire to reinforce its growing amity with Moscow by co-operating actively with Russian activities abroad. Russia took an active role in Syria in 2015 at the invitation of the Syrian government, almost certainly saving the regime from collapse a second time, and remains very much active today. Behind that programme comes a background agenda to help anyone who is prepared to do harm to extremist Sunni forces and interests, flowing from China’s own fear of Sunni Muslim agitation in Xinjiang.


Look behind you

Both of these agendas make nice stories for public consumption while costing little hard cash and even less political capital. The real reason for bringing Syria into BRI probably lies outside both of these ideas, and more in the area of protection of those vital import sea lanes, rather than in any intrinsic geopolitical objectives on Europe’s doorstep.

At present China’s import routes are potentially threatened by the combined naval forces of the United States, the United Kingdom, India, Australia, South Korea and Japan – a very substantial capability which we might christen the Quad++. The Quad++ can currently operate in the Indian Ocean with little distraction in its rear and no threat to its logistic flows.

Now consider a situation in which Beijing has a small naval support facility actually within the Mediterranean Sea, capable of supporting a flotilla of four Yuan-class submarines. These boats (China has 15 in commission, and five in build) are fitted with “Air Independent” Stirling engines which allow them to operate completely independent of surface air for up to 20 days. AIP gives them a high level of stealth, available only at slow speeds, so limiting an AIP boat to a total range of about 2,000 km over 20 days. Even with that limitation a Yuan boat has an operational radius of around 1,000 km. From Syria that means a Yuan flotilla could mount a sustained threat to any Quad++ traffic in all of the waters between Suez and the southern tip of Greece. A four-boat flotilla can sustain one boat at sea at all times, and can surge from a single boat on patrol to three boats if pressed.


A critical threat to Quad++ supply lines

Based on Syria this small and inexpensive force could pose a critical threat to the flow of logistic support to Quad++ forces trying to sustain a blockade of China in the Arabian Sea or the Indian Ocean. Low intensity action would include laying sea mines in the approaches to Suez. High-intensity action would see the destruction of logistics ships and major war vessels either by anti-ship missile or by torpedo attack. The sustained presence of a single Yuan-class boat in the Eastern Mediterranean would tie down substantial Quad++ naval and maritime patrol assets in the escort of Quad++ logistics and roulement traffic through Suez, substantially undermining a Quad++ blockade in the Indian Ocean. Given the acute weakness of the US Navy in the field of mine warfare a PLAN flotilla in Syria might even be able to sustain a complete mine-blockade of Suez. It is much easier to lay a mine than to clear it, especially from a submarine, and a single boat can lay 30-40 mines on a single patrol.


And further afield

A PLAN flotilla based in Syria would not just pose a threat to the Eastern Mediterranean; noisier snort passage gives a diesel submarine a radius of action of up to 10,000 km, interspersed with undetectable AIP offsets. Using commercial ship traffic as cover for snorting, a boat based in Syria could deploy anywhere within the Mediterranean Sea with relative ease. If pressed a boat could deploy beyond Gibraltar, meaning that at extreme range a Yuan class submarine based in Syria could make the 13,000-km return passage to lay mines outside key UK ports, or even carry out kinetic attacks on Quad++ ships sailing to or from the UK. While that mission would entail operating at the absolute extremes of both human and mechanical endurance it is not inconceivable.


Would I walk ten thousand miles

Naval bases need their own logistics support structure, for a flow of highly specialised spares and weapons and a roulement of personnel to and from home. A base in Syria is supportable in this respect, since China has a permissible air corridor between it and the Mediterranean via Pakistani, Iranian, Iraqi and Syrian air space – all friends within Beijing’s BRI and CPEC frameworks. Alternatively, a combination of rail and long-distance road haulage could bring supplies west overland, albeit much more slowly.

If this logic holds good then the acquisition of a small naval base in Syria would be a prize beyond pearls for the PLAN. Beijing could go one of two ways. The first would be to move in to Tartus alongside China’s very good friends in the Federal Russian Navy. Tartus is amply large enough to accommodate two naval facilities, keeping national agendas and actions separate and distinct, while benefiting from the excellent cover from air attack provided by Russian forces at Tartus and up the road at Khmeimim. Alternatively Beijing could follow its past practice and build itself a new base at Latakia, or Baniyas, or Jableh, perhaps adding a container terminal to provide some BRI whitewashing, and some commercial shipping traffic to provide cover for dived submarine egress and ingress. In either case the PLAN would have to deploy surface ships and surface-to-air missile units to provide cover for its submarines as they deploy and return. A PLAN base in Syria would certainly need heavyweight cover from attack either by aircraft or by sea-based land attack missiles, which makes Russia’s co-operation and support a helpful (but not essential) component of the possible strategy.


Chilled blood in Norfolk and Northwood

A PLAN base in Syria would completely disrupt the current assumption-set used by the Quad++’s naval staff planners, whose core assumption is that a naval conflict with China would be confined to Asia-Pacific waters. With four Yuans based in Syria the Quad++ would be threatened with attack throughout its rear areas. Quad++ strategists might do well to listen to Sun Tzu’s view that… “If the enemy know not where he will be attacked, he must prepare in every quarter, and so be everywhere weak.”

Another Sun Tzu saying is, of course, that the best wars are won before the battle starts. Beijing would have two choices for setting up a base in Syria – a highly visible move or a more subtle move. The visible move would involve sailing the flotilla through Suez, surfaced by necessity, escorted by a PLAN task group. The cat would be set firmly among the Quad++’s pigeons. The more subtle approach (and more likely, given Beijing’s preference for subtlety) would be to deploy the flotilla quietly and in steps through the strait of Gibraltar. The distance involved – 30,000 kms before adding time and distance for operations en route – necessarily implies stops on the way and/or an accompanying replenishment capability. China has access to both.


Softly softly

What that means is that the deployment of a flotilla of four boats in low-profile mode with accompanying support ships would take at least two years, and pass largely unnoticed by the political classes of Quad++ members. Naval staffs would, however, notice well and adjust their willingness to engage China accordingly. A submarine base in Syria could deter, soften or delay a blockade of China (for example, in retaliation for Beijing action against Taiwan). If this is what is on Beijing’s mind then a first step towards a low-profile deployment would be investment in port facilities in Syria and promotion of civilian traffic to and from that port. No surprise, then, that observers in the region are already anticipating Chinese investment at Latakia, Caesar sanctions or no.