For the first time since China’s re-emergence as a power to be reckoned with, Western powers are being confronted with scenarios involving the risk of clashes with Chinese military forces outside the Asian giant’s backyard.
Key to China’s expansion is a shift in recent years from Mao Zedong’s Army-centric military to one where other branches of the armed service — the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and the Second Artillery Corps — are given greater freedom of action.
One branch in particular, the PLAN, has developed alongside Beijing’s ambitions as a global power, allowing it not only to show the flag, such as in multilateral anti-piracy missions off the Gulf of Aden, but also to back up its evolving strategic imperatives.
This became especially clear during the weekend when reportedly a PLAN escort fleet, which included the Type 052 “Qingdao” (hull 113) destroyer, Type 054A “Yantai” (hull 538) missile frigate, and the “Weishanhu” (hull 887) auxiliary oil replenishment ship, crossed the Suez Canal, with Cairo’s permission, on their way to the Mediterranean Sea (only Egyptian media reported on the destroyer). Although Egyptian media initially said on Sunday that the vessels could hold military exercises in the Mediterranean, Egyptian as well as other Middle Eastern media outlets reported on Monday that the ships had continued on through the Dardanelles on their way to Ukraine.
Such 'showing of the flag' at this time is a precedent with serious implications for international security, as Beijing, an ally of Syria, has joined Russia in vetoing three United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions that aimed to increase pressure on the Bashar al-Assad regime to end his bloody crackdown on civilians there.
Middle East media reports circulated in June said that PLAN vessels were planning to take part in naval exercises off the coast of Syria alongside the Syrian, Russian, and Iranian navies (Russia and Syria later denied joint exercises were being planned). Moscow, like Beijing, opposes foreign meddling in Syria, and in the middle of July dispatched a flotilla of 11 warships to the Mediterranean, with more following later that month. Russia maintains that its warships are not engaging in Syria tasks, and says the vessels are preparing for the Kaskad-2012 drills scheduled for this September. For its part, Tehran, another Beijing ally, is apprehensive about the possibility of regime change in Syria, in part because Syria under al-Assad has served as a key conduit for Iran’s support to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Although it looks like joint exercises will not take place this time around, in all likelihood some will eventually be held as the presence of Chinese ships becomes more common. And one thing is certain: the transit of PLAN and Russian vessels in the area is not coincidental — it is clearly meant as a deterrent against intervention by Western powers in the Syrian crisis.
For evident reasons, activity by Chinese warships in the region comports risks, especially at a time of high tensions involving between China and its neighbors in the South China Sea. The more friction points there are, the more likely it is that, at some point, accidental or intentional clashes will occur. And given Beijing’s growing sense of victimhood, it is not impossible that an incident involving a PLAN ship in the Mediterranean could add institutional pressures for retaliation elsewhere. This would be especially likely if decision-makers in Beijing, who have a tendency to regard China as the “victim,” interpreted that incident as a plot against it, thus making it possible for Beijing to claim it is retaliating for purely defensive reasons.
While claims that we are seeing the emergence of an “authoritarian axis” may be premature, we are nevertheless witnessing the rise of a new power — one with global seafaring reach — whose strategic considerations, or the values of their political leaders, are often times diametrically opposed to those of the West. If it concludes that its interests abroad are being threatened by Western ideals, such as the responsibility to protect civilians in failing or failed states, China may choose the military option to undermine Western efforts. This would be especially true if al-Assad’s possible ouster were seen as the opening shot in a new round of anti-authoritarian “springs,” a development that has greatly unsettled Beijing and that appears to have resulted in its decision to impose stricter limits on freedoms at home.
In the fog of war that would certainly enshroud a military intervention in, say, the Syrian civil war, the risks of accidents or miscommunication would be dangerously high, especially in light of institutional biases that tend to militate against restraint. For example, while not directly taking part in hostilities, PLAN or Russian ships could attempt to create a line at sea to prevent Western ships from approaching Syria to launch military operations against it, or to prevent an embargo. How any of the actors would react in such a scenario is an open question. All it potentially would take is one collision to spark a chain reaction, the echo of which might reverberate back in the Asia-Pacific.