China ups military diplomacy game in Syria with Guan Youfei’s visit

While economic power is waiting in the outer office — and soft power is downstairs watching TV with the limo drivers — hard power is behind closed doors at the boss’s elbow making sure the right decisions get made.

Syria_China_flags_Album_180412That was a message driven home to the People’s Republic of China when the government of New South Wales disqualified Chinese bidders (including Hong Kong’s Li Ka-shing) for control of “Ausgrid”, an Australian power network.

As the local press put it:

Every one of Australia’s national security agencies advised against allowing NSW power asset Ausgrid to be leased by Chinese state-owned company State Grid Corporation, or Hong Kong-based Cheung Kong Infrastructure, sources have revealed.

It is understood the agencies, ranging from the Department of Defense to ASIO, recommended separately to both Treasurer Scott Morrison and the Foreign Investment Review Board that the bids be blocked on national security grounds.

Anxious observers are welcome to speculate that the Red Chinese decided the most cost-effective way to sabotage the Sydney power grid was to first buy a half-share for $13 billion, maybe through Li Ka-shing, but I tend to think the backstory was that China hawks in the U.S. and Australia felt the PRC had gone too far by flouting the UNCLOS South China Sea tribunal award and there had to be consequences! i.e. invoking the national security card to block further Chinese economic penetration into Australia.

“Military” trumps “economic”, in other words.

Now China, a keen student of U.S. practices, is paying more attention to the exploitation of its military establishment as an asset in foreign affairs, not simply by turning to the relatively short list of nations willing to host a PRC military installation (now just Djibouti; maybe Pakistan), but also by engaging in “military diplomacy” i.e. direct injection of the PRC military power factor into diplomatic relations.

China has a long way to go compared with the United States.  To a rather dismaying degree, US national diplomacy pretty much is “military diplomacy”.

Famously, the US military accounts for 35% of global military expenditures, about $600 billion per year (the PRC spends about one third of that).  A lot of that money finds its way overseas.

The Pentagon spends about $100 billion per year overseas on the routine operation of its portfolio of 800 or so bases in 77 countries, including $5 billion per year in Japan for regular basing operations.  The Pentagon’s global infrastructure portfolio (not including land) is worth about $158 billion.

Non-routine warzone operations probably add another $60 billion to $100 billion to the annual bill.

Add it up, and overseas US yearly military expenditures alone total more than the PRC’s entire stated military budget.

Fact is, a separate line item — the average yearly US outlay for major weapons systems over the next decade — $200 billion — is also bigger than the entire Chinese military budget.

While we’re dealing with big numbers, US annual arms exports stand at $100+ billion per year.  According to the U.S. State Department, China’s got a ways to go:

[From 2002 through 2012], about 78% of the world’s arms trade by value appears to have been supplied by the United States, about 11% by the European Union…less than 2% by China.

US military reach isn’t just a matter of bases and hardware.  The US reaches out to foreign military officers as well, as the DoD tells us:

In Fiscal Year 2014, approximately 56,200 students from 155 countries participated in training, the total cost of which was approximately $815.5 million…

And there’s the wet work connection.  In 2014, US Special Operations Forces operated in 133 countries.  And…

Special Operations liaison officers, or SOLOs, are now embedded in fourteen key US embassies to assist in advising the special forces of various allied nations. Already operating in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, El Salvador, France, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Kenya, Poland, Peru, Turkey and the United Kingdom, the SOLO program is poised… to expand to forty countries by 2019.

The U.S. military presence overseas is legally secured and legitimized by legal agreements that limit the sovereignty of “hosts”, such as the notorious “Status of Forces Agreements”, or “SOFAs” as well as the treaty relationships with its allies.

Filling the role of the biggest bully on the block — or as the Pentagon now coyly puts it, serving as the world’s net security provider — is by virtue of experience, investment, technology, and strategy — the key U.S. global advantage.

So it isn’t surprising that the military tail is wagging the pivot dog in Asia, or as Ash Carter put it:

…the United States will remain the most powerful military and main underwriter of security in the region for decades to come – and there should be no doubt about that –

I’m of an older generation nostalgic for civilian control over the military, so it rather irks me that the key policy statements in Asia are pretty much made by Ash Carter and Admiral Harry Harris playing secretary of state and ambassador while the State Department/embassy crowd hold their coats.  But might as well get used to it.  The State Department’s budget is 10% of the Pentagon’s, after all.

But the bottom line is, unsurprisingly, given its comparative advantage, the Pentagon defines the global agenda in a way that requires the engagement of a military mega-hegemon.  In Asia, it has focused on the threat that China poses to a “principled, rules-based order” to pre-empt the PRC’s traditional economic blandishments.

Competing for influence with the United States, particularly among US regional allies such as Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia, and Singapore, requires the PRC to respond to, if not match, the military cards the US is piling on the table.  That means coming up with a counter-effort that positions the PRC military as a benign, positive force for regional security with sufficient legitimacy and diplomatic and legal standing to operate outside China’s own borders.

Post-UNCLOS and post-THAAD, the “smiling face of the PLA” narrative faces the additional challenge of compensating for the CCP’s demonstration that it is willing to wear a frowny face and accept and inflict heightened tensions in its security relations with its neighbors.

The world took notice of the upgraded international posture of the Chinese Ministry of Defense with the visit of Guan Youfei, head of the newly-minted MOD “Office of International Military Cooperation” to Syria.  He met with the Syrian defense minister, and also with the Russian lieutenant general in charge of the “Reconciliation Center” in Latakia.

For our purposes, it should be noted that the Center’s stated mission is not directing “kinetic” military operations, although a big part of its job seems to be identifying the “irreconciled” for further military attention.

There were efforts to spin Guan’s novel appearance in Syria and the promise of assistance as the PRC’s “Enter the Dragon” moment into the Middle East hell-hole.   However, the aid he offered was not particularly impressive: “personnel training and humanitarian aid”.

Per a subsequent Ministry of Defense press conference, the personnel training was for “doctors and nurses,” understandable since there is little that the PLA can teach the Syrian Army about war-fighting in a post-apocalyptic Middle East setting, but they can train a few extra doctors to help with the carnage.

The Syrian Minister of Defense, Fahd Jassem el-Freij, also stated Syria’s support for China’s position on the South China Sea issue, offering the interesting possibility that the PRC was playing the military card in response to a positive diplomatic overture and also, in a process the US is familiar with, cultivating a pro-China orientation within the influential Syrian military.

Guan’s trip to Syria, in my opinion, did not signal a new Chinese willingness to immerse itself in the Syrian bloodbath.  Rather, it displays PRC’s guarded optimism that Assad does have a post-conflict future, and the PRC is guardedly playing its mil-mil as well as civilian diplomacy cards to secure a part in that future.

It is also a demonstration of the PRC’s focus on “soft power” “military diplomacy” as a prerequisite for China’s nascent plans to get into the rough business of providing “net security” in the region and around the world.

In a speech in January 2015, Xi Jinping announced that “military diplomacy” functions in support of diplomacy and national security policy would be strengthened.  Xi conceptualized “military diplomacy” as a soft-power attribute expressed in various win-win do-goodery such as peacekeeping, disaster relief, joint military exercises, and so on.

He also demanded vigilance and the loyalty of military diplomats to the leadership of the CCP, an indication that Xi fears replicating the equivocal, divided loyalties of Soviet officers who spent too much time playing footsie with the Americans on the vodka circuit.

At the beginning of this year, Guan’s existing office and title were upgraded as part of this process.  Previously, his office was the “External Affairs Department of the Ministry of Defense” in its public dealings and identified functionally as the external affairs department of the general staff of the PLA.  “International Military Cooperation Office of the Ministry of Defense of the PRC” has a somewhat grander ring and implies ambitions beyond the standard mil-mil meet and greet.

“Military diplomacy” as practiced by Guan’s shop is, in other words, a soft power exercise and not the same as military “hard” power projection beyond China’s borders.  His main job is to sell and regularize, rather than impose, an offshore PLA military presence, as typified by his appearance at the Shangri-La “spittle war” to rebut claims that China is, in Ash Carter’s words, “isolated”.

A big part of Guan’s effort is keeping the joint military exercise ball rolling, not just with Russia, but also with the United States and any other willing participants, to highlight the PRC’s role as a member in good standing of the world military community.

The U.S. is aware of this point of leverage, naturally, and predictably yanks China’s chain by threatening to disinvite it from the Admiral Harris’s RIMPAC joint exercise jamboree in Hawaii.

I’m inferring that the point of Guan’s visit to Syria was not to project Chinese power into the Middle East in a meaningful way; it was to establish the diplomatic and eventual legal basis for future power projection maybe in Syria, maybe elsewhere.

Guan’s intention was to establish that a Chinese presence in the Middle East was both welcome and legal, and potentially congruent with legitimate international practices (here referring to the Russian presence, since the US unilateral deployments and operations in Syria are, as a matter of sovereignty, pretty much illegal).

So, if and when it comes time for the PRC to get serious about hard power projection, it will have the doctrine, relationships, and legal infrastructure in place to proceed.

And in my opinion that day is coming, sooner rather than later, particularly as the PRC views the unfolding mess on its southern borders down AfPak way with increasing anxiety.

Peter Lee runs the China Matters blog. He writes on the intersection of US policy with Asian and world affairs.

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