by Mister Unknown

I recently noticed a South Front Analysis which suggested that China will likely participate in the Russian-led regional coalition against ISIS, and by extension – against CIA-backed rebels, as well as Chinese separatist volunteers from Xinjiang. Such an intervention would be politically and emotionally satisfying to us and to this audience, and it would clearly be in China’s strategic interests to ensure the coalition’s success in Syria & Iraq. However, any such participation – if it materializes – will be vastly different from that described by South Front. There are a few major details that are unrealistic, so there is a need to inject some nuance on this topic.

Deployment of Liaoning – The South Front Analysis suggested the possibility of the PLAN sending its sole carrier Liaoning, along with a full complement of escorts (including 4 of China’s newest DDGs & FFGs, along with 2 submarines). EXTREMELY UNLIKELY for a few reasons.

  1. Not consistent with Chinese defense doctrine. As I’ve mentioned before, China takes a VERY RESTRAINED defense posture, even in conflicts that directly impact China’s core interests (e.g. potential conflicts related to China’s sovereignty & territorial integrity, such as Taiwan, South/East China Sea, etc.). For reference, in response to recent US naval provocations in the South China Sea – a region in which China has firm territorial claims and core strategic interests – the PLAN sent a single destroyer to monitor & “escort” the US vessel responsible for the provocation. Let’s face it, while China is clearly sympathetic to Iran, Russia, and Syria, this conflict does not involve China’s core national interests. Even if China contributes to the war effort, it will not be on as big of a scale as sending a hastily assembled carrier battle group.
  2. Does not fit China’s political stance on armed intervention. China has a strong distaste for the use of force without broad international consensus, and the utter disregard of national borders, especially given that this is the way its chief strategic competitor – the US – operates. Consequently, unless a conflict directly impacts China’s core national interests, it will not use force or engage in armed intervention without UN approval. In fact, all of its military operations abroad are carried out with explicit UN approval – be it anti-piracy in the Gulf of Aden, or peacekeeping in Lebanon and Africa. Given the differences between the West & the regional powers in this conflict, UN consensus is unlikely at this point.
  3. Liaoning isn’t combat ready. As the South Front analysis already pointed out, Liaoning is still lacking several key elements of a fully ready carrier battle group (CVBG) – be it a full complement of J-15 carrier-based fighters, or ship-borne AEWACS. Moreover, the Liaoning has no experience operating as part of a CVBG. It is unlikely that China would hastily send its most prized naval assets into combat without adequate preparation, in a conflict in which it has no core strategic interests, and be potentially mired in a war without clear goals or exit strategy.

Off-shore ballistic missile strikeseven more improbable. While China has a wide array of conventional precision guided ballistic missiles, such as the DF-15, DF-21, & DF-26, it’s unlikely that such weapons would be used against ISIS, even if the PLA joins the coalition’s war effort.

  1. The missiles were primarily designed for anti-ship missions. China’s newest ballistic missiles are designed for long-range anti-ship missions against “large naval vessels” (they’re also known as ‘ASBMs’, or anti-ship ballistic missiles), and China has a limited stock of them. That said, this doesn’t mean that the PLA can’t use them for precision strikes against ground-based targets. However, it would be overkill to use such weapons for bombing CIA-sponsored terrorists. The Russians seem to understand this, and have not used expensive, long-range cruise missiles against ISIS beyond the initial salvo against key command & control targets. China also has the option of using older ballistic missiles, but those are not retro-fitted with the latest precision guided warheads, and therefore has a relatively high risk of collateral damage, especially given the large warhead size of a typical ballistic missile.
  2. ASBMs are currently land-based ONLY. To date, there are no PLAN surface ships capable of carrying ASBMs. Missiles such as the DF-21D & DF-26 are launched solely by ground-based TELs, and are intended for mid/long-range (2000-3000KM) strikes against enemy naval vessels closing in on China’s coasts. Destroyers – such as the Type 052D – do not have VLS tubes that are large enough to carry ASBMs. Even the newer, larger Type 055 class destroyer (still under construction) is not guaranteed to have an ASBM capability for the same reason. While it is possible that the PLAN’s newest diesel submarines can carry ASBMs for testing purposes, but these subs are only beginning to enter service. They’re few in number, their payload is limited, and such subs would have a limited impact on the Syrian battlefield. That said, it is technically possible for the PLAN to deploy 052Ds armed with CJ-10 land-attack cruise missiles against ISIS, but again, the aforementioned principle of over-kill also applies here.

That said, China has clear strategic incentives to assist the Russian-led coalition, and there are more pragmatic ways of doing so, which would provide a far greater contribution to the war effort, at a lower cost and political risk to China.

Strategic incentives for China:

  1. Contain the spread of terrorism. ISIS & Al Qaeda has been known to harbor and recruit Xinjiang separatists. The defeat of such groups will deprive separatists and domestic terrorists a source of training, arms, potential recruits for future jihad, and safe-havens. Islamic extremists have also been known to spread their influence in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Extremism in Afghanistan is something China has always dealt with, but its spread to Central Asia could seriously disrupt China’s new Silk Road project, and provide additional potential levers for the US to undermine and destabilize China, its periphery, and its strategic goals.
  2. Enhance mil-to-mil relations with Russia and Middle-eastern partners. Any participation in the Syrian war effort would require close coordination with the Russian-led coalition. This would be an opportunity to practice joint operations with Russia in a real-combat environment, beyond the usual SCO and bilateral military exercises. In addition, this is also an opportunity to strengthen mil-to-mil relations with other regional partners that are traditionally friendly to China – namely – Iran, Iraq, and Syria.
  3. Safeguard Chinese oil production in Iraq. Sinopec’s oil exploration and production operations will be severely threatened in Iraq, if ISIS expansion remains unchecked. Future potential E&P in the Kurdish regions are also currently a non-starter, given the ongoing civil war. By halting ISIS expansion in the region, the risk to Chinese oil production would be mitigated.
  4. Counterbalance US regional hegemony. This is the first time since the end of the Cold War, that a coalition of nations is actively rolling back US hegemony in any region, in a coordinated way. By adding its political, economic, and military might, China could help systematically diminish US regional influence, as well as asymmetrically punish the US for attempting to undermine its core national interests in the East and South China Sea.

So, it is clearly in China’s strategic interests to help its partners succeed against terrorism and regime change, and it has multiple options of doing so other than high-profile, largely-symbolic gestures such as sending CVBGs.

  1. Arm its regional partners. China can provide ammunition and other military supplies (uniforms, medicine, protective gear, night vision equipment, etc.) to the beleaguered Syrian army, as well as its Iranian partners on the ground.
  2. Deprive terrorists of recruits and supplies. Through multilateral organizations such as the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure of SCO, China can help prevent the flow of ISIS recruits, supplies, and funding from China (Xinjiang) and Central Asia to the Middle East. This is also an opportunity for SCO to collaborate with the Russian-led joint intelligence sharing organization in Baghdad.
  3. Covert/indirect participation in surveillance and combat ops. One thing that the Russian air support contingent seems to be missing is UCAVs. This is a gap that the PLA can potentially fill. The PRC has already supplied Iraq with CH-4B combat drones, which are capable of high-altitude and long-endurance surveillance and combat (each can be armed with up to 6 guided air-to-ground missiles, comparable to Hellfire ATGMs). The PLA could provide Syria and Iran with additional UCAVs, and temporarily operate them under the Syrian/Iranian flag (until China can adequately train enough local UCAV pilots to take over), so as to provide 24/7 reconnaissance against ISIS and US-backed terrorists, as well as disrupt enemy mobility by striking targets of opportunity (e.g. supply convoys, anti-tank emplacements, etc.). PLA drone pilots can remotely operate from practically anywhere (even within China itself), and have minimal ground presence in Iran or Russian bases in Syria.

In sum, the current discourse over China’s potential involvement in the Syrian conflict does not reflect the realities of China’s existing capabilities and strategic doctrine. Hastily deploying a PLAN CVBG provides a lot of political theatrics, but would add little real value to the coalition war effort. That said, China can and should do more to assist in the anti-ISIS effort than it’s currently doing. However, there are far more low-profile, low-risk, and high-value-add options for China to contribute to the war effort, which will be far more impactful than simply showing the flag with a half-ready aircraft carrier, or showing off a few missiles.

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