10 January 2014

China and the Far Seas: China’s Far Seas Presence Enables it to Escort Syria’s Chemical Weapons Marked for Destruction

Andrew S. Erickson and Austin M. Strange, China and the Far Seas: China’s Far Seas Presence Enables it to Escort Syria’s Chemical Weapons Marked for Destruction,” The Diplomat, 10 January 2014.

While the U.S. and its allies perceive Beijing’s conduct as increasingly destabilizing in the Yellow, East, and South China Seas (“Near Seas”), China continues to incrementally diversify its contributions to international security outside of East Asia. Beijing’s recent dispatch of a guided missile frigate to the Mediterranean Sea to help escort Syrian chemical weapons on their way to neutralization reflects China’s pursuit of new avenues for providing public goods. While it is too early to tell precisely how China may develop its navy or pursue access to overseas facilities in order to expand its maritime commons presence in the coming years, Syrian chemical weapons destruction and other missions are useful reminders that China’s ongoing anti-piracy efforts provide a useful “Far Seas” presence that will be hard to replace as the Gulf of Aden mission winds down.

On December 17, 2013, just over a week before the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) celebrated five years of anti-piracy escorts in the Gulf of Aden, China revealed that it, along with Russia and others, will be assisting in the transport of deadly chemical weapons used in Syria’s civil war. According to Dong Manyuan, an anti-terrorism analyst at the China Institute of International Studies, “The Chinese navy’s escort helps ensure the smooth progress of the destruction and creates favorable conditions for a peaceful resolution of the Syrian issue.” China’s non-confrontational, complementary escort role is unsurprising given that Beijing previously vetoed multiple UN resolutions to impose sanctions on Syria and resolutely opposed any form of external intervention in Syria’s internal conflict.

The chemical weapon neutralization operation, and China’s participation therein, rest on UNSC Resolution 2118, which was adopted unanimously in late September 2013, and outlined general timelines for the destruction of 1,300 metrics tons of chemical weapons used in Syria’s ongoing civil war. In October, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), an intergovernmental organization in cooperation with the United Nations, helped set initial timetables of December 31, 2013 and June 30, 2014 for the destruction of the remaining Syrian chemical weapons – the most critical – in collaboration with the UN.