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China's appointment of Syria envoy to boost involvement in Middle East and protect regional interests, say analysts

China's appointment of a special envoy to help mediate in the conflict in Syria is aimed at increasing the nation's diplomatic involvement in the Middle East, boosting its global image and protecting its expanding economic and security interests in the region, according to analysts.

The appointment last week of Xie Xiaoyan, a career diplomat who has served as ambassador to Iran, as China's first special envoy for Syria shows Beijing's growing involvement in the Middle East, following President Xi Jinping's high-profile visit to the region in January.

The appointment of a Syria envoy was above all else symbolic, demonstrating China's determination to play a role in talks to end the conflict, according to Michael Singh, managing director at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"Syria is arguably the most important issue in the Middle East right now, drawing in all of the key regional players as well as outside powers such as Russia, the EU and the US who all see themselves as having a vital stake in the resolution," said Singh, a former senior director for Middle East affairs at the US National Security Council. "China cannot afford to be absent from the deliberations."

A partial ceasefire brokered by Russia and the United States in late February has largely held, with the Syrian government reaping a series of recent military gains.

China, along with Russia, vetoed four resolutions at the United Nations Security Council on Syria until one proposing support for international efforts to seek a political solution to the crisis was finally approved last December.

Xiao Xian, head of Middle East studies at Yunnan University, said China should get more involved in resolving the crisis especially now that the situation in Syria was becoming clearer.

"In my view, China should have participated more a long time ago. If we don't do it now, it will be too late," he said.

He urged Beijing to engage more in peace talks, post-war reconstruction and discussions over the refugee crisis in keeping with its image as a "responsible great power".

"Other countries in the Middle East, such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey all wish China to exert more influence, to strike a balance from powers like the US and Russia ... but it seems like China has not met their expectations," he said.

It is not only image and prestige that China wants to bolster through more active diplomacy in Syria, according to Singh. More importantly, it is aimed at ensuring China's interests in the region are protected or advanced, he said.

"China has been expanding its diplomatic involvement in the Middle East for a number of years in lockstep with the expansion of its economic and security interests there," he said.

Trade between China and the Middle East soared to USD340 billion in 2014, according to Chinese government data.

The number of Chinese workers in the region has also soared and 52 per cent of China's oil imports now come from the region.

"These developments have been packaged as elements of Xi Jinping's 'One Belt, One Road' initiatives, but in reality they have been in the works for some time," said Singh. "China has largely abandoned its former standoffish approach for one which is growing more active every year."

China played a key role last year in brokering the Iran nuclear deal, aimed at curbing Tehran's nuclear programme in return for the easing of international sanctions.

Robert Bianchi at the Middle East Studies Institute at Shanghai International Studies University, said increased influence in the region would strengthen China in dealing with other great powers anywhere where their spheres of influence overlap or collide.

"China's leaders want as many bargaining chips as possible to trade across the vast continents and oceans where Chinese commerce and security are facing greater risks," he said.

Li Guofu, director of Middle East studies at the China Institute of International Studies, said Beijing was in a strong position to mediate in Syria.

"Given that the United States, Russia and neighbouring countries have opposing stands on relevant issues, China should search for a breakthrough amid these opposing views," he said.

[Source: By Nectar Gan, South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, 03Apr16]

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Syria War
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