China is lending its warships to the international effort to move chemical weapons out of Syria in a mission that Chinese media report is the navy's first in the Mediterranean Sea.
Beijing has promoted the move as a demonstration of its growth into a responsible stakeholder for world peace. Although the move shows Beijing is involving itself more in world crises, analysts think the country is unlikely to abandon its foreign policy principle of non-intervention.
A New Mission for the Chinese Navy
The Syrian mission marks new territory for China's navy, which has been focused on building up its capabilities in operating in waters far from home.
According to China's Ministry of Defense, Beijing will send warships to escort Danish and Norwegian container ships from Syria to an Italian port in the Mediterranean. China’s ships will for the first time work alongside the Russian navy in a real life naval mission, although the two have cooperated in naval drills in the past.
Chen Kai, secretary-general of the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, told Xinhua news agency that this mission will serve as a training as well, since the Mediterranean Sea is still a relatively unfamiliar environment for the Chinese navy.
He said that China has accumulated useful experience by deploying Chinese navy warships in the western Indian Ocean to fight piracy and is now putting such experience in practice in different waters.
“The fact that China can participate in naval escort operation is the embodiment of China's international status,” he told the Global Times. “This sort of operation is not something that everybody can engage in.”
Beijing-based political scientist Xie Tao said China signed on to the mission because it was agreed upon by all parties and authorized by the United Nations, making it uncontroversial for Beijing to participate.
“China would always allow Western countries to go first, and then once the crisis is kind of over for some kind of follow up efforts - like the one China is doing today - then China would be happy to join these efforts,” Xie said. “It is a kind of free riding.”
China Stays Consistent on Syria
Since civil war broke out in Syria more than two years ago, China has been reluctant to intervene. It has sided with fellow U.N. Security Council member Russia when the issue has come up, vetoing three U.N. resolutions calling for sanctions against the Assad regime.
China has justified its position by saying that it does not meddle with other countries' political affairs. However, critics have pointed at Beijing's continuing financial and military assistance to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad as a clear sign of China's actual pro-regime engagement.
Xie Tao said that the decision to help destroy chemical weapons does not mean that China is switching partners in Syria.
“I don't believe that this is a gesture from China to the Syrian leader that starting from now we are gonna keep some distance between you and I, I don't think it's a message meant for Assad,” said Xie.
Syria Mission as an Opportunity for Mideast Outreach
Yu Guoqing, research fellow at the institute of West Asian and African studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said recent developments in Syria - with Russia brokering a deal on Syria's chemical stockpile - prompted China to engage with the U.N. mission.
"As long as the international community and the Syrian people need it, and as long as China has the ability to help out, it is understandable that China wants to do something,” Yu said. "China is catering to the needs of the international community to [show] new maneuvering in Syria and the Middle East, and I think it is acting in accordance with the interests of the related countries and the whole world."
China's growing presence abroad - including its significant energy interests in the Middle East - might be another factor in Beijing's decision to do more to promote stability in the region. Analysts are looking at whether such international commitment will be a prelude to engagement in other regions as well.
“If China can do this in Syria, maybe China can do this in… different countries. Shift over to the D.P.R.K., maybe China will join hands with some other countries in disarming the nuclear weapons there, and maybe some other parts of the world where some countries are developing chemical weapons,” said Xie Tao, referring to North Korea by the initials for its more formal name.
Nonetheless, analysts believe that while Beijing may become more engaged in multilateral, U.N.-sanctioned missions abroad, China will remain wary of taking the lead in international missions. Much like what happened in Syria, China might agree to intervene in other regions only well after international consensus is reached.