USS Ross fires a tomahawk missile at Syrian targets on April 7. Photo: US Navy handout via Reuters
USS Ross fires a tomahawk missile at Syrian targets on April 7. Photo: US Navy handout via Reuters

The timing of the US airstrikes in Syria, which coincided with the first meeting of the US and Chinese presidents, has wide-ranging implications for the bilateral relationship, and for China’s interests in the Middle East.

Mercy Kuo at the Diplomat spoke with Christina Lin, Fellow at the Paul H Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins on how China might react to the US military action.

The first, and least complex, effect of the strike was to send a message to Beijing that the US is willing to act unilaterally against states with powerful patrons. Despite Russia’s support for the Assad regime, the US was willing to take action. This, at a time when tensions are mounting on the Korean Peninsula, sends a clear message that China’s support for the North Korean regime does not preclude US military action in the region.

More complex is significance the attack represents for China’s Middle East policy, which is at odds with the US interests.

Thousands of Chinese Uyghur members of the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) are fighting alongside al-Qaeda affiliated groups and ISIS against the Assad regime. TIP, seen as a threat to Chinese citizens, receives tacit support from the US and its allies due to their relationship with moderate Syrian opposition forces.

The broader risk is that the conflict could escalate to an international war between the US, Russia and China. Such a conflict would spill over into Israel and provoke Iran, Russia, and China to increase their military support for the Syrian army.

Lin points out that the most important Chinese concern, that of US tacit support for TIP/al-Qaeda requires careful consideration by the US. Without a clear understanding by the US of China’s red line on this issue there is the potential for miscalculation, and military escalation involving both the US and China.

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