BEIJING (AP) — A top Chinese military officer visited Syria this week in a show of support for President Bashar Assad's embattled regime, official media reported Thursday, underscoring Beijing's backing of fellow authoritarian governments and concerns about the spread of religious militancy.
Rear Adm. Guan Youfei met on Sunday with Syrian Defense Minister Fahd Jassem al-Freij in Damascus, the Xinhua News Agency said. He also met the following day with a Russian general who is coordinating his country's military assistance to Assad's fight against armed opposition groups, the agency said.
Xinhua said Guan expressed China's willingness to boost military cooperation with Syria, while the newspaper Global Times cited the Chinese Defense Ministry as saying that both sides agreed to expand personnel training and humanitarian aid via the Chinese military.
The Chinese military "is willing to strengthen cooperation with its Syrian counterparts," it quoted the ministry as saying.
Guan is head of the Office for International Military Cooperation under the Central Military Commission that oversees China's 2.3 million-member armed forces.
While China has followed Russia's approach in backing Assad, it hasn't directly contributed forces in keeping with its policy of opposing outside intervention in domestic conflicts. During the early months of the 5-year-old civil war, China joined Russia in blocking motions at the United Nations calling for Assad to work for a resolution of the conflict.
Despite that, Chinese military advisers are on the ground in Syria helping train soldiers in the use of weapons purchased from China, including sniper rifles, rocket launchers and machine guns, reported the Global Times, which is published by the ruling Communist Party's flagship newspaper People's Daily.
Guan's visit illustrates Beijing's enduring recognition of the Syrian government and insistence that the warring parties reach a resolution among themselves, said Wang Lian of the School of International Studies at Peking University.
Although China wants to expand government-to-government and military-to-military cooperation, it's unlikely to provide substantial military support, much less send personnel to fight on behalf of the regime, Wang said.
"More likely, the Chinese military wanted to use Guan's trip to better understand the current state of the turmoil in Syria," Wang said. "In developing a closer relationship with Syria, one has to take into account the changes at hand in Syria and the region, including the fast recovering relations between Turkey and Russia."
China's ruling Communist Party brooks no political opposition and is constantly on alert for signs of popular uprisings of the sort that flared across the Middle East during the "Arab Spring" that ultimately led to Syria's fragmentation.
The government has also warned of the potential threat posed by Chinese Muslims returning to the country after fighting alongside radical groups such as the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Those allegedly include members of the Uighur ethnic minority, some of whom have waged a yearslong campaign against Chinese rule in the northwestern region of Xinjiang.
Associated Press researcher Yu Bing contributed to this story.