China may deploy her navy to Syria in the coming days, but there are no reliable indications that any Chinese navy arrivals are imminent.
Taking the reports one by one:
1. The web has exploded in the last few days with relays of a vague report from Al Masdar News that Chinese military personnel are expected to arrive in Syria in the next six weeks. That could happen. Now that it’s clear U.S. power will not be used in any decisive way in Syria, China may indeed see utility in putting down a serious political stake in the outcome there. More on that at another time.
The Al Masdar report also says that a Chinese naval ship entered the Mediterranean through the Suez Canal on Tuesday, 22 September, with its destination unconfirmed.
Although it’s possible a warship made that transit, it appears unlikely at the moment. For one thing, it’s very doubtful that a Chinese warship is traveling by itself. (Breitbart’s article on this refers to “vessels” that allegedly went through the canal, but the original Al Masdar report speaks of a single ship. The Breitbart post links to a report from Generational Dynamics that appears to combine the information from Al Masdar with that of the Pravda report discussed below.)
For another, the Chinese naval ships known to be deployed in the region are on task elsewhere – and if there had been an additional deployment of a Chinese warship (or warships), outside of the known, announced task forces, it’s all but unthinkable that there wouldn’t have been any reporting of it from India.
That goes double for the aircraft carrier Liaoning. If the carrier had been through the Indian Ocean, we would all have known about it weeks ago. There is also absolutely no way the Liaoning could go through the Suez Canal without making front-page news. I’m confident the carrier is in China, either in port or in Chinese local waters conducting training.
I don’t exclude the possibility that another warship has entered the Mediterranean. But if a Chinese warship entered the Med four days ago with an unannounced purpose, I would expect to see images of it by now released through Israeli or Greek media. It would still be an unusual enough occurrence to warrant special notice of that kind (and would undoubtedly be kept under surveillance).
Deployed Chinese warships
At any rate, China has two naval “fleets,” or task forces, deployed to the western side of the Eurasian land mass. One is the current antipiracy task force operating in the Gulf of Aden. This task force, the 21st Fleet, comprises two frigates, the Liuzhou and the Sanya, along with a fleet supply ship. The 21st Fleet deployed in early August, and has been on station too little time to be heading off for other tasking.
While the antipiracy ships are performing escort duties, they are either running convoys or in the local area, conducting at-sea training or port visits, usually in Djibouti or Oman. They don’t go off station to make excursions into the Mediterranean.
(That has been their pattern to date. I don’t exclude the possibility that one or both of them might move to the Med, but it remains unlikely that a Chinese warship could make that transit without being seen and reported by someone.)
The other task force is the 20th Fleet, which was the antipiracy escort task force prior to the 21st Fleet’s arrival. The Chinese are calling the 20th Fleet the 152 Fleet now, after its flagship, the missile destroyer Jinan (hull number 152). Accompanying Jinan are the frigate Yiyang and a fleet supply ship.
What the 152 Fleet is doing is certainly interesting. But it also precludes the ships’ being anywhere near Syria. They’re proceeding on from their antipiracy patrol to conduct a round-the-world voyage described as follows:
During its global voyage lasting for more than five months and covering a total of more than 30,000 sea miles, the Chinese naval fleet will pay port calls to countries including Sudan, Egypt, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Poland, Portugal, the United States, Cuba, Mexico, Australia, East Timor and Indonesia.
The ships have completed their port visits in Sudan, Egypt, and Denmark, and arrived in Finland on Saturday, 26 September. Chinese navy ships have never been to the Baltic before, so this is exciting for everyone.
At the moment, there are no good candidates to be the “Chinese naval vessel” that reportedly went through the Suez Canal on Tuesday.
2. The second report is from Pravda, and quotes a Russian official as follows:
Igor Morozov, member of the Russian Federation Committee on International Affairs claimed about the beginning of the military operation by China against the IS terrorists. “It is known, that China has joined our military operation in Syria, the Chinese cruiser has already entered the Mediterranean, aircraft carrier follows it,” Morozov said.
There is zero likelihood that the actual aircraft carrier Liaoning is even scheduled to go to the Mediterranean in the near future, much less that it is already there. Liaoning is not ready for such a deployment, and China wouldn’t just sling the ship over to the Med unannounced, with one escort.
China also has no cruisers, but we can assume that the reference to a cruiser is an artifact of translation. If there’s any validity in Morozov’s statement, it may be that a Chinese destroyer is to be dispatched to Syria. But if so, it would have to be a destroyer that still needs to make the voyage from China, or from somewhere near China. The ships in the Gulf of Aden are frigates.
Another possibility – again, supposing there is some validity in what Morozov says – is that China is sending a Type 071 amphibious assault ship, which, as a helicopter carrier, might in some cases be referred to as an “aircraft carrier.”
No Type 071s are known to be deployed currently to the waters of the Middle East or Med, but the Type 071 Changbaishan did deploy to the Med earlier this year, and was present for the big exercise with Russia. Changbaishan also conducted a high-profile port visit in Greece.
China has three Type 071s operational in her navy. There’s room for China to make such a deployment. If the deployment has already started, the Chinese don’t appear to have announced it.
3. The third report is from DEBKAfile, and asserts categorically that Liaoning “docked in the Syrian port of Tartus” on Friday, 25 September. I’m throwing the BS flag on this one.
If Liaoning had actually been transiting from China to Syria over the last month, we would have heard about it – at a minimum – when the ship went through the Strait of Malacca (or, less likely, by another route through the Indonesian Archipelago), when it was heading west south of India, when it was in the Gulf of Aden or Red Sea, and when it went through the Suez Canal. There would be images with verifiable reports from the nations along the route, and a high level of media chatter. There is no way Liaoning could sneak into the Med.
A note on the images zooming around the Internet. They’re file images, which can easily be traced with image searches to their sources. Some are of the Chinese ships that were in the Med in the spring of 2015. Some are simply of Chinese warships, deployed in various venues (e.g., the big exercise with Russia in the Sea of Japan in August 2015). The most common image of Liaoning is a Chinese navy happy snap, released months ago to the Chinese media and propagated from there.
My favorite is probably the one below, which has accompanied numerous tweets and blog posts, but is not of Chinese warships at all. It’s a group of smaller Russian ships (frigates and patrol ships) arrayed at dress ship, apparently for a ceremonial event. The give-away (besides the ship types) is the blue and white St. Andrew’s Cross flag – the flag of the Russian navy – flying from the main mast and stern of each vessel.
Bottom line: there could be a plan to deploy Chinese naval assets to Syria. If a Chinese warship – including a Type 071 amphibious assault/helicopter carrier – were already in Syria, or in the Eastern Med, we would expect to have visual evidence of that by now. So I doubt it. And I’m quite sure the aircraft carrier Liaoning is not in the Med at all.
Note: See here and here for previous spin-ups about Chinese warships in the Eastern Med. The first one (from September 2013) raged like wildfire around the web, but was simply not true. In the second case, the Chinese warship did make a port visit in Cyprus, but never actually went to Syria.