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China has much at risk but no reach in Middle East

Wednesday, 28 Aug 2013 | 11:10 PM ET
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The worsening Syria conflict has exposed an uncomfortable truth behind China's cherished policy of non-interference: Beijing cannot do much to influence events even if it wanted to.

With weak and untested military forces unable to project power in the Middle East, China can only play a low-key role in a region that is crucial for its energy security.

As the United States and its allies gear up for a probable military strike on Syria, raising fears of a regional conflagration, China remains firmly on the sidelines, despite it having much more at stake than some other big powers.

(Read more: Syria rattle global markets for second day)

The Middle East is China's largest source of crude oil. Without it, the world's second-largest economy would shudder to a halt. In the first seven months of this year, China imported about 83 million tonnes of crude from the region, half its total, with top suppliers including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.

China has few economic interests in Syria itself but believes it has a strategic and diplomatic imperative to ensure Middle East stability and to protect a vital energy source.

Retired Major General Luo Yuan, one of China's most outspoken military figures, told the official People's Daily last year that with so much oil at stake "we cannot think that the issues of Syria and Iran have nothing to do with us".

(Read more: Syrian conflict and the oil market: Worst and best scenarios)

China insists it is neither backing nor protecting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, saying it only vetoed U.N. resolutions it thought would worsen the crisis. Beijing has also hosted both government and opposition officials in an attempt to find a political solution, albeit with few results.

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Even if the government were to go against its principle of not interfering in the affairs of other countries, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) is still far from capable of all but the most token presence in lands far from home.

"In terms of the PLA becoming actively involved, doing things the United States and its allies plan to do in the next few days, it does not at the moment have the wherewithal to do that," said Ross Babbage, a military analyst in Canberra and a former senior Australian defence official.

China's military, despite making rapid progress in stealth fighter technology and launching its first aircraft carrier, is largely untested. It last fought a war in 1979, against Vietnam, which did not go well for the ill-prepared Chinese.

(Read more: Libya still a bigger risk to oil than Syria: Credit Suisse)

Chinese ships have participated in anti-piracy patrols off the coast of Somalia, but when it came to evacuating its citizens from Libya in 2011 during fighting there, China was forced to rely mainly on chartering ferries.

The PLA is for now focused on operations in the Pacific, Babbage said.

"But to conduct the sort of operations we're talking about here, into the Mediterranean, they're really not geared for that. Could they do it in 10 years time? Absolutely, if they chose to do it."

President Xi Jinping said last month that becoming a maritime power was an important task for China as "the oceans and seas have an increasingly important strategic status".

Not yet a superpower

Publicly, China has shown few signs of wanting to get more deeply involved in the Middle East, whether militarily or diplomatically, a region it has little experience in, unlike the United States, Russia, Britain or France, the other veto-holding members of the U.N. Security Council.

China has gone through the motions of sending envoys to Syria, and hosting government and opposition officials in Beijing, though some of its diplomatic efforts have come across as insensitive in the Arab world and have provoked a backlash.

(Read more: Syria casts 'big black cloud' on emerging markets)

Early last year, demonstrators hurled rocks, eggs and tomatoes at the Chinese embassy in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, after Russia and China vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution backing an Arab plan urging Assad to give up power.

China does not think responsibility for security there lies in China's hands as it has no way to effectively get involved, said Yin Gang, an expert on China's Middle East policies at government think-tank the China Academy of Social Sciences.

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"If there is stability that's good for China, and if there is chaos that is bad for China. But China does not have the ability to maintain stability there," Yin said.

"It's impossible, totally impossible. China has no way of using military forces to protect its interests in the Middle East. The best way to protect its interests would be to diversify its oil imports, get more from Russia, from other parts of the world."

(Read more: Syria is just the latest of the market's troubles)

For China, the Middle East is also a mysterious region about which the Chinese know little, said Xu Guangyu, a retired major general and now senior adviser to the government-run China Arms Control and Disarmament Association.

"China has no way of knowing what's really going on in these countries," said Xu, who agreed that China's armed forces were simply not up to the task of a Middle Eastern adventure.

"We need to adopt a neutral position," he said.

Still, there has been discussion on the fringes, on websites frequented by hawkish military types, of whether the time is right to re-focus its military for more of a aggressive role in the Middle East.

China effectively relies on a strong U.S. military presence in the region to guarantee stability and the smooth flow of oil, especially through the Strait of Hormuz, which Iran has threatened in the past to close in the event of war.

(Read more: Hagel: US military 'ready to go' against Syria if ordered)

That could increasingly grate on the Chinese and prompt a strategic re-think, said a diplomatic source who is familiar with China's Middle East policy.

"At some point China is going to say: why should the United States be protecting our oil?"

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