Experts said Wednesday the time is right for the Chinese military to contribute more to ending the Syrian crisis, following reports that a Chinese military delegation had visited Damascus on Tuesday to talk about military cooperation and humanitarian aid.
Rear Admiral Guan Youfei, director of the Office for International Military Cooperation of China's Central Military Commission, met Fahad Jassim al-Freij, Syrian Defense Minister, in Damascus. Both sides agreed to further cooperate on personnel training and humanitarian aid from the Chinese military, the Ministry of National Defense said Tuesday.
Guan said China has played an active role in seeking a political solution to the Syrian crisis and supporting Syria's independence and autonomy, and the Chinese military is willing to strengthen cooperation with its Syrian counterparts, the ministry said.
Guan also met with a Russian general heading its Syrian reconciliation center in Damascus on Monday on "issues of common interests," the ministry said, without elaborating.
Zhao Weiming, a professor of Middle East Studies at Shanghai International Studies University, said this is the right time for the Chinese military to contribute more toward a peaceful solution of the Syrian crisis and counter-terrorism against the Islamic State (IS).
This is because the crisis is not as intense as before, and Russia and the US have started talking about political solutions after the cease-fire between the Syrian government and opposition groups in February, he said.
Since the US has been interfering militarily in China's backyard in the South China Sea, this could be pushback from the Chinese military into an area, the Middle east, that is usually considered a US sphere of military influence, Zhao told the Global Times.
"The Chinese military hasn't sent military forces to fight terrorists in Syria directly, but Guan's visit could be the first step for further cooperation," Zhao said.
China has voiced its support for anti-terrorism efforts in Syria.
Observers said China is worried about the terrorists' influence on religious extremists in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
The PLA Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese military, published an article on Tuesday saying China can learn from Russian's military actions and tactics in Syria and Crimea.
However, Hua Liming, former Chinese Ambassador to Iran, said China's deeper engagement with the Syrian government does not necessarily mean it will start any military intervention in Syria.
"China's position on the Syrian crisis will not change, that is, allow the Syrians to decide their country's destiny," Hua told the Global Times on Wednesday. "Intervention from outside can only enlarge the crisis, so China will maintain the relationship with the government and encourage negotiations between different parties."
Song Zhongping, a Beijing-based military expert who served in the Second Artillery Corps of the People's Liberation Army (now the Rocket Force), said that military cooperation between China and Syria has a long history.
"Many contracts were signed before the Syrian civil war, but due to the unstable situation, many couldn't be fulfilled in the past few years," he told the Global Times, adding that Syria's domestic situation is becoming more stable and there could be engagement again over these contracts.
There are already Chinese military advisors in Syria, focusing on personnel training in weapons, since the Syrian government forces are buyers of Chinese weapons, including sniper rifles, rocket launchers and machine guns.
"In the past, the Chinese military was very cautious when cooperating with the Syrian government, and normally, what we can see from the press is the engagement between diplomats from both sides rather than military personnel," Zhao said, adding there are several reasons why the Chinese military has previously kept a low profile.
China has no wish to offend predominantly Sunni Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia, which have been in conflict with Shia powers, including the Bashar al-Assad government. China will have to consider US and Russian feelings as the Middle East is part of their traditional power sphere, he noted.
In the five years since the Arab Spring erupted, many Arab countries have been angered by China and Russia after they have used their veto powers in the United Nations Security Council to block military intervention against the Syrian government, but now these Arab countries realize that external military intervention cannot solve the situation, Hua said.