Concerned with Chinese Interest in Syria and the Mediterranean, Israel and US on Alert


Foreign Affairs

Tel Aviv: The growing Chinese interest in Syria and the Mediterranean has turned on some red lights in Washington. The issue has been discussed in recent talks between American and Israeli defence officials.

Israeli sources say that the concern is amplified by the Chinese-wide effort to develop underwater unmanned systems. In recent months, China has increased its efforts to gain greater influence in war torn Syria and a presence in one of the country’s ports.

In January, China and Syria signed a Memorandum of Understanding to integrate Syria in the Belt and Road Initiative. For quite a few years, Syria has striven to strengthen relations with China, as additional support, alongside Russia and Iran. While the latter two countries do not have the economic capacity to help reconstruct the devastated country, in the Syrian view China might be a key investor.

According to Carmit Valensi and Galia Lavi, two senior researchers in the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) cooperation with China is, in the view of the Damascus regime, a means of circumventing the economic sanctions imposed by the United States on Syria under the Caesar Act.

The Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019, also known as the Caesar Act, is United States legislation that sanctions the Syrian government, including Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, for war crimes against the Syrian population. The Act was signed into law by President Trump in December 2019, and came into force on June 17, 2020.

“However, apart from economic considerations, the Memorandum of Understanding embodies a number of benefits for China: maintaining relations with Syria on a low flame; presenting a defiant stance at the US sanctions policy toward Arab country leaders; and creating an image that China is a “responsible power” taking an active and constructive part in maintaining development and stability in the Middle East. In addition, as the US and its allies criticize the human rights situation in China and call for a diplomatic boycott of the upcoming Winter Olympics, China requires other, more sympathetic voices to present to its domestic audience, creating a more positive image for itself.”

Israeli experts said that the Chinese interest in Syria is also connected to Beijing’s plan to have a strong presence in the Mediterranean.

Eliezer Marom, former commander of the Israeli navy told Raksha Anirveda that the combination of free access to the Mediterranean and the ability to operate underwater unmanned systems will give the Chinese a big advantage in this very important sea, connecting Asia and Europe.

“It is a known fact that many countries use manned submarines to gather intelligence and when such a vessel is identified it creates diplomatic clashes. By operating these unmanned very advanced underwater systems the intelligence can be collected with almost zero danger to get caught”.

According to a review in Maarchot, the official publication of the Israeli defence forces (IDF ), while China’s total autonomous tools still consist mainly of experimental tools in the early research stages and prototypes, Chinese Navy research papers indicate that it is primarily interested in using autonomous tools for naval surveys and reconnaissance, anti-mine and anti-mine, submarine cable and warfare testing against submarines (above). Each of these missions relies on different autonomous models and has significant implications and risks for the US Navy and its partners in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

The author of the review, Maj. (Res.) Menki Eitan from the Israel navy estimated that in the future, the Chinese military may use large autonomous airstrikes for IDF combat and operations near the seabed. A trend analysis in Chinese military research publications suggests building libraries of acoustic signatures for locating and identifying underwater targets, and several military bodies have signed research contracts related to deep-learning visual identification and target detection systems for underwater tools.

To date, the Chinese defence industry has produced few models of large autonomous underwater systems.

According to the review, the heaviest of China’s autonomous submarines to date is the Haishen 6000, named after the Chinese Sea God. This system has a 3.5 tonne displacement an was developed at the 701 Institute. It can be equipped with a variety of underwater payloads.

According to a paper in the website of the Hoover Institution, China believes it should rule the world, so of course, it thinks it has every right to control the Mediterranean. In a few years, it will do so, if we extrapolate even just a little.

The author Gordon G. Chang says that Beijing’s dominate-the-Med strategy begins at the water’s edge, where it has embarked on an impressive ports-buying spree.

“And there is another reason he and others have identified: civilian port facilities can serve as naval bases. For instance, in both September and October 2014 a Chinese submarine and its tender docked at the Chinese-funded Colombo International Container Terminal in Sri Lanka. Therefore, we should view each of the Chinese port facilities in the Med as a potential Chinese navy base.”

The author adds that the Chinese navy is, in fact, no stranger to the Mediterranean. One incident in particular highlights Beijing’s ambitions there. China committed one of its most impressive-looking warships, the 689 foot-long Jinggangshan, to the Eastern Mediterranean to sortie with Russian vessels in 2013 at the height of the Syrian civil war. There were unconfirmed reports placing other Chinese vessels in the area.

“Beijing said the Jinggangshan was heading to Syria’s coast merely to “observe,” but a less benign interpretation is that the ship was there to augment the Russian fleet—the Chinese and Russian navies even then had a history of operating together—and to intimidate the US Navy. It’s hard to think of a reason why Beijing would send one of its most important vessels to the Syrian coast if it were not there to show Beijing’s support for Damascus.”

We could not get any comment from Israeli officials on the Chinese effort to have a strong naval foothold in Syria.

Washington has asked Israel to minimize the involvement of Chinese companies in Israel’s major infrastructure programs.