A bipolar US policy towards China and Syria

In psychology, bipolar individuals exhibit unusual mood swings and engage in contradictory actions. Unfortunately, nations can manifest the same dysfunctional behavior.

This appears to be the case with US policy towards China and Syria.

uncle-sam-suicideIn Syria, America appears to be waging a proxy war against itself as CIA-armed Islamist rebel groups fight Pentagon-armed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on the plains between Aleppo and the Turkish border. These groups have also fired CIA-supplied TOW anti-tank missiles against Pentagon-backed SDF fighters in northern Aleppo. It’s a spectacle that’s become emblematic of a bipolar US policy towards the Middle East.

In the meantime, refugees continue to pour into Europe and especially to Germany, providing another outlet for ISIS and al-Qaeda groups to exploit and conduct more terrorist attacks after Paris and Brussels.

In Washington, the government is nearly $21 trillion in debt, even as US policymakers abuse taxpayer dollars for their interventionist adventurism abroad.

One can only wonder if this state of affairs furthers or undermines US and international security.

Would China engage in proxy war against itself in Syria?

To make matters worse, the US also seems to be urging China to follow this same bipolar policy in Syria.

Washington has called on China to stop being a free rider and be a “responsible stakeholder” by integrating into the US-led international order. The Americans have also asked China to contribute to the US-led anti-ISIS coalition.

But the two countries are at loggerheads on how to counter ISIS. For China, the object is to maintain the stability of the secular Assad regime. They underscore the world “secular” because it is important to them. For the US, the object is to remove the Assad regime — period.  

However, simply getting rid of Assad is a problem for China. This is because the western-backed anti-Assad forces include anti-Chinese fighters. There are an estimated 1,000 ethnic Muslim Chinese fighters affiliated with al-Qaeda in Syria which goes by the name of al- Nusra. Al-Nusra is backed by Turkey/Saudi Arabia/Qatar as part of their Army of Conquest.  So essentially the US, Turkey and the Gulf allies are supporting Chinese Uyghur militants from the Turkistan Islamic Party as part of their anti-Assad opposition. They are also providing them with advanced weapons such as TOW anti-tank missiles.

As such, it isn’t clear why Washington believes China would join the US-led coalition that supports anti-Chinese militants. Nor does the US understand that China is reluctant to overthrow a secular Assad regime in act that would make it easy for militants to turn Syria into a base to launch attacks against the Chinese homeland. For China, this would replay a situation in which Afghanistan was used as a base to attack the US on 9/11.

Is all this the result of a western blind spot or willful blindness? Either way, it’s dangerous.  If the US doesn’t clarify its intentions in Syria, China may perceive Washington as intentionally supporting anti-Chinese fighters to destabilize Xinjiang and to harm Chinese interests in the Middle East.

Bilateral trust on this point isn’t helped by past US military commentary that has called on sending special forces to arm restive minorities in Xinjiang to destabilize China.

Absent a viable alternative other than ISIS or al-Nusra affiliates to replace Assad, Beijing would likely continue to support Assad because he is helping China fight anti-Chinese militants now based in Syria, as well as helping Russia to fight anti-Russian Chechen militants.

And while the US is asking for Chinese cooperation in the Middle East, it is also engaged in a military buildup against China in the Western Pacific, with the deployment of new troops to five new military bases in the Philippines.

Seeing the Middle East as too important to be left to others, and distrusting a bipolar US policy, China is adopting a more proactive diplomatic and security posture in the region.

Needed: A comprehensive, not schizophrenic approach to the Mideast

On March 29, China appointed a new special envoy for the Syrian crisis. This follows President Xi Jinping’s January visit to Saudi Arabia, Iran and Egypt. It also follows China’s passage of a new counter-terrorism law in December to allow the Chinese military and paramilitary police to operate abroad. China has likewise established a new naval base in Djibouti, attempted to mediate regional conflicts by inviting both the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition to China, and inviting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Beijing back in 2013.

China's new Syrian envoy Xie Xiaoyan

China’s new Syrian envoy Xie Xiaoyan

China’s new Syrian envoy Xie Xiaoyan has been an ambassador to Iran, Ethiopia, and the African Union, highlighting China’s regional and comprehensive approach towards the greater Middle East. This contrasts to the US schizophrenic approach— e.g. the US fighting al-Qaeda in Afghanistan while arming al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria, arming Shiíte militia in Iraq while arming Sunni militia against them in Syria. To boot, the US is arming Syrian Kurds fighting ISIS while selling new weapons to Turkey to bomb the Iraqi Kurds fighting ISIS.

In the face of such chaos, it should be no surprise that China is taking matters into its own hands to protect its interests. And just as the US established the military Central Command (CENTCOM) in the 1980s as part of the Carter Doctrine to protect its Mideast oil supply, one wonders if it’s a matter of time before China creates its own CENTCOM to protect its growing energy dependency on the greater Middle East. The US, on the other hand, no longer depends on Mideast oil and is set to become an energy exporter,

[1] Nabih Bulos, W.J. Hennigan, Brian Bennett, „CIA-armed militias are shooting at Pentagon-armed ones in Syria”, Chicago Tribune, March 26, 2016,  http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/ct-syria-militias-us-cia-islamic-state-20160326-story.html.

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eIqwwK9Og3A

[3] Jeremy Page, “US seeks China’s backing for coalition against Islamic State”, Wall Street Journal, September 9, 2014,  http://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-seeks-chinas-backing-for-coalition-against-islamic-state-1410271284

[4] http://jihadology.net/2015/05/01/%E1%B9%A3awt-al-islam-presents-a-new-video-message-from-%E1%B8%A5izb-al-islami-al-turkistani-turkistan-islamic-party-in-bilad-al-sham-conquest-of-jisr-al-shaghur/ ; Jacob Zenn, “Än overview of Chinese Fighters and anti-Chinese Militant Groups in Syria and Iraq”, China Brief, Vol 14, Issue 19, October 10, 2014,  http://www.jamestown.org/programs/chinabrief/single/?tx_ttnews[tt_news]=42944&cHash=e2bb019a522a651982945abb50c5ff48#.VvuWdfhlOUk

[5] http://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2014-02/deterring-dragon-under-sea

[6] Seth Robson, “US buildup in Philippines raises stakes in region”, Stars and Stripes, February 3. 2016, http://www.stripes.com/news/us-buildup-in-philippines-raises-stakes-in-region-1.391912; http://www.ibtimes.com/south-china-sea-controversy-us-deploy-more-troops-5-philippine-bases-near-disputed-2340756

[7] http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-china-idUSKCN0WV0RG
[8]  Christopher Harress, “Pentagon Approves ‘Bunker Buster’ Smart Bombs Sale To Turkey For Fight Against Kurds” International Business News, March 1, 2016,
http://www.ibtimes.com/pentagon-approves-bunker-buster-smart-bombs-sale-turkey-fight-against-kurds-2328138

Dr. Christina Lin is a Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at SAIS-Johns Hopkins University. She is the author of “The New Silk Road: China’s Energy Strategy in the Greater Middle East” (The Washington Institute for Near East Policy), and a former director for China policy at the US Department of Defense.

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.

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