China's home truths about the Middle East

The superpower only has a very low-key role in a region that is crucial for its energy security

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.

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".

China insists it is neither backing nor protecting Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, saying it only vetoed UN 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.

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.

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."

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