China's Syria Strategy

09/16/2013 01:35 pm ET | Updated Nov 16, 2013

With Russia's position on Syria being widely publicized as of late, it's easy to forget that China, too, has played a pivotal role in shaping the discussion over Syria, voting with Russia against American and British sponsored U.N. resolutions aimed at imposing sanctions on Syria and actuating international pressure on the government of Bashar al-Assad. While it's convenient to dismiss China's veto alliance with Russia as purely ideological, it's nonetheless still important to ask the ancillary questions surrounding China's position: What does China have a stake in? What does China get out of the deal? And why risk alienating your number one and two export markets, the United States and Europe?

China's economy is now widely accepted as the fastest growing economy ever recorded in human history, averaging a ten percent growth in GDP over the past 30 years alone on an export heavy and secondary goods based economy that has not only made China's economy the envy of the world but also the victim of inflation which has become the Achilles' Heel of the BRIC nation. As of late, there have been signs that China's economy has been stabilizing on the heels of certain measures taken by the People's Bank of China to protect Chinese markets from U.S. Federal Reserve adjustments that might shock global markets and an increased global demand for Chinese exports. It's in China's desire for market stabilization that we can begin unpacking China's rationale in backing Russia.

Currently, China is Syria's third largest importer and Russia's largest at 15.5 percent of Russia's total imports. As Russia continues to increase arms sales to a desperate Bashar al-Assad government, It has become increasingly clear that what's good for Bashar al-Assad's government is also good for Russia and, by extension, China too.

Russian defense industry contracts with Syria exceed $4 billion with an added $162 million per year in Russian arms sales to Syria in 2009 and 2010. Additionally, Russia holds a $550 million aviation contract with Syria as well as a Tartus naval base contract, which leases the Soviet-era port to the Syrian government for an unspecified price.

A prolonged conflict between Bashar al-Assad's government and Syrian rebels is good for Russia as increased arm sales to Assad would be inevitable. And if it's true that China is hedging its bet against the West on Russian success, and therefore growth, then America's problems might indeed be more dire than a pending American intervention that may or may not happen in Syria.

The smell of it is that China is shifting gears, reconsidering and restructuring economic systems that will allow them to have their cake and eat it too. As China moves toward a tertiary based economy, producing electronics and automobiles and digital technologies all their own, it's no wonder they're looking forward to other viable, long term export economies that aren't the United States or Western Europe. Much like Russia, China too has nothing to lose. China is still the number one buyer of American debt and it's not likely that Western sanctions on China will even be a financial option for the United States as many of our own tertiary good rely on cheap Chinese imports. The more America grows, the better China does. The more Russia grows, the better China does. The more debt everyone has, the better China does.

What we're seeing emerge is not a military or ideological counterweight to the United States in Russia and China, but rather a financial one that doesn't even need an army to fight it's wars, but only buyers. There is something to be said about the fact that the United States is willing to use its own military resources in this potential proxy war with Russia while Russia simply has to sell arms. It's true enough that the U.S. is supplying Syrian rebels with light arms but the question still lingers, to what end? And is a Syrian rebel victory even possible?

There's something oddly fascinating and jarring about China's renewed interest in Damascus, that old terminus of the ancient Silk Road. In the end, it's China's war to win, whichever way the wind blows.