China's Evolving Stance on Syria

By I-wei Jennifer Chang | US Institute of Peace (USIP) - Program Specialist - China Program | Feb 18, 2013

The Arab Spring in 2011 posed a number of foreign policy challenges to the Chinese government. First, the Arab uprisings created an unprecedented level of regional uncertainty and instability that took Chinese policymakers by surprise: the initial uprisings and discontent with autocratic regimes in Tunisia and Egypt soon spread to anti-government protests in Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, and Jordan. The domino-like effects and political aftershocks were felt in nearly every Arab country in the region; not even Iran was immune. Second, authoritarian governments in Tunisia and Egypt soon collapsed, forcing the Chinese government to recognize opposition groups, with whom Beijing previously had little contact, in order to preserve its diplomatic relations and relevant economic interests in these countries. Third, the Chinese government was concerned that the democratization sentiment sweeping the Arab world could galvanize and politically mobilize discontented Chinese societal groups into what was popularly dubbed a “Jasmine Revolution” in China. While the Chinese equivalent of the Arab Spring did not later materialize, Beijing, nonetheless, could not ignore the domestic pressures associated with its official policies on the Arab uprisings. Beijing had to carefully formulate Middle East policies that would send domestic messages to its own citizens about the Chinese Communist Party’s legitimate right to governance and its willingness for political liberalization in China.

China’s main decision-making on the Arab Spring that had international implications was its voting behavior in the United Nations Security Council. As a permanent member of the Security Council, China voted on several draft resolutions on Libya and Syria, though with widely different results. On the first Libyan resolution, China conceded to Western-led international pressure to impose sanctions on the Libyan government for its crackdown on protestors. On the second resolution regarding a “no-fly zone” over Libya, Beijing, though firmly opposed, nonetheless chose to abstain. The most dramatic change in Chinese policies on the Arab Spring occurred in the Syrian case. In response to Western and Arab efforts to condemn Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown on anti-government demonstrations in Syria and take concrete measures against Assad, China, along with Russia, exercised its veto three times on consecutive draft resolutions in 2011 and 2012. Additionally, China’s Syria policies represent a significant departure from its broader Middle Eastern policies in terms of Beijing’s level of commitment and activism on this issue.

Never before have China’s Middle East policies been less motivated by direct economic interests than by Beijing’s desire to prevent foreign (namely, Western) military intervention and forcing regime change in the region, even for the sake of humanitarian intervention. Beijing may have calculated that the political risk in relations with the US, European, and supporting Arab countries was lower than its desire to prevent another Western-induced regime change in Syria.  Thus, China decided to exert its newfound power and influence towards political and strategic goals that were once thought as secondary to its economic and trade interests. This article examines the key factors shaping Chinese policies on Syria since 2011 — principles and norms, lessons from the Libya experience, China-Russia strategic cooperation, and new diplomatic activism. This article argues that Beijing’s policies on the Syrian uprising have been consistently and firmly against foreign military intervention and regime change in Syria.

Principled Stance and Opposition to Foreign Military Intervention

China’s official positions on the Syria conflict reflect its commitment to principles of sovereignty and non-interference in the domestic affairs of other countries. “We believe that the international community should fully respect Syria’s sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity, the independent choice of the Syrian people, as well as the result of political dialogue among various parties of Syria,” said Wang Min, China’s deputy permanent representative to the United Nations.[1]  In policy terms, Beijing supports political means to resolving the crisis, including reforms and a more inclusive political process in Syria. Beijing has urged Assad to quickly implement a referendum on the draft of a new Constitution, parliamentary elections, and establish a national unity government.[2]  In addition, China prefers that the United Nations Security Council serve as the principal mediator in the negotiations and political dialogue among the parties involved.[3] Most importantly, Beijing firmly and resolutely opposes the injection of foreign military forces into the Syrian conflict, viewing such an action as a very serious violation of sovereignty and norms regarding legitimate international conduct.  China’s Foreign Ministry and UN representatives have been very explicit about its opposition to external armed intervention or forced regime change.[4]

The Libya case made the most immediate impact on Chinese decision-making on Syria, especially in the months following the NATO air strikes on Libya. Some analysts have argued that the Libya case was the most significant factor influencing China’s subsequent decision-making on Syria-related resolutions in the Security Council.[5] On March 17, 2011, China and Russia abstained on the final vote for Security Council Resolution 1973, which passed with ten supporting votes and five abstentions.[6] The resolution demanded an immediate ceasefire and end to attacks on civilians and authorized “all necessary measures” to protect Libyan civilians, which meant to justify a military intervention in Libya.[7] However, concrete details about the scope and nature of the military intervention in Libya were purposely unclear at the time. It could be argued that had Russia and China been given greater details about the military operations, both powers would have tried to prevent the resolution’s passage. On March 20, 2011, a multinational military force composed of the US and NATO launched airstrikes on Libya, killing a number of Libyan civilians. Russia and China immediately criticized the military operation, suggesting that they did not realize or foresee such drastic consequences when they abstained on the Security Council vote. The Chinese government criticized Western air strikes on Libya for causing “more civilian casualties and more serious humanitarian disasters,” when the purpose of the UN authorization of the no-fly zone was to protect Libyan civilians.[8]   

The Chinese government learned its lesson from abstaining on Western military intervention in Libya and voiced strong opposition to any attempts to punish Syria in the Security Council and other international organizations. In rare defiance of the Western agenda, China and Russia jointly exercised their veto powers on three consecutive draft Security Council resolutions on Syria — on October 4, 2011, which condemned the Syrian government’s crackdown on protestors; February 4, 2012, which called for Assad to step down; and July 19, 2012, which would have imposed economic sanctions on the Syrian government.  Other examples of Chinese defiance of international attempts to isolate and punish Assad include China’s two “no” votes in the UN General Assembly and UN Human Rights Council. On February 16, 2012, China and Russia casted no votes in the UN General Assembly, on a draft resolution that condemned Syria and lamented the inability of the Security Council to take earlier action against Syria due to the Chinese and Russian vetoes on the first Security Council draft resolution.  On March 1, 2012, China and Russia voted against a draft resolution of the UN Human Rights Council condemning crimes in Syria.

China’s “three vetoes, two no votes” demonstrated its firm and resolute commitment to its principled stances on Syria. Beijing would not even sanction criticism of the Syrian government’s human rights violations, and it refused to accept reassurances that the proposed resolutions would not permit or lead to a military intervention in Syria. From the Chinese perspective, there was too much mistrust and suspicion directly stemming from the Libya case to bridge the perception gap in a short amount of time. As Michael Swaine argues, the Libyan and Syrian cases have hardened Beijing’s suspicions of Western calls for humanitarian intervention.[9] Thus, China was more likely responding to pressing regional concerns — namely, the risk of foreign military intervention and greater political turmoil in the region — in its policymaking on Syria.  China’s trade-offs in Syria can be framed as follows: 1) passively enabling Western countries take punitive action against Syria as they had done in Libya, which resulted in regime change; or 2) preventing Western countries from forcing regime change, but this option could possibly raise bilateral tensions with the US and European countries. China decided to take the second option, refusing to accommodate US demands on Syria for the broader goal of preventing the West from turning Syria into another Libya. For once, the Chinese government has backed up its statements on sovereignty and no military intervention with concrete actions in the Security Council and other multilateral settings. 

China-Russia Partnership in the Security Council

Perhaps no other country has played a more important role in China’s Syria policies than Russia. Without the buffer and political protection provided by Russia, China would not be able to pursue a relatively “independent” foreign policy or withstand pressure from US, European countries, and the international community over the escalating humanitarian crisis in Syria, which has claimed over 60,000 lives since the uprising started in 2011.[10] Russia, which has substantially more economic and security interests in Syria, tends to be the senior partner, taking the lead in opposing Western proposals, participating in international mediation efforts, and taking other initiatives. By contrast, China, which has minimal economic interests in Syria and tends to be risk-adverse in foreign policy, mostly plays a supporting role to Russia’s leadership position. Beijing immediately supported the Geneva Agreement reached between Russia and Western countries in June 2012, which called for a transitional government in Syria.[11]

The China-Russia partnership in the UN Security Council on Syria has arisen out of each country’s self-identification as non-Western, developing countries, as well as their views on seeking non-military solutions to international issues.  Beijing and Moscow cooperate on the basis of shared opposition to certain Western instruments of power and thus form a countervailing balance to the Western bloc in the Security Council. A Chinese media article comments: “The Sino-Russian strategic cooperation means not only that the two countries will cooperate with each other in dealing with specific international affairs, but will also restrain some countries’ impulses to change game rules at their will. The war in Syria is a good example, showing the important roles that China and Russia play in the modern world. Were it not for China and Russia, overthrowing a sovereign country’s government through external intervention would have become a new game rule in today’s world.”[12] Thus, China and Russia have several incentives to jointly coordinate their policies to increase their bargaining position vis-à-vis the Western permanent members in the Security Council.    

Furthermore, China’s close coordination of policies with Russia on Syria may be indicative of shifting trends in Chinese foreign policy. Recently, Beijing seems to have placed greater emphasis on its strategic relationship with Russia. In a meeting with a visiting Russian delegation on December 19, 2012, China’s new leader Xi Jinping remarked that China sees Russia as its most important strategic cooperation partner.[13] Closer Chinese-Russian strategic cooperation could mean that both rising powers will continue to coordinate their policies not only on the Syrian conflict but also on other pressing Middle East challenges.

China’s Diplomatic Activism

China’s recent diplomatic activism on the Syrian crisis underscores its desire to exercise its newfound influence and international leadership potential. As a non-dominant external power in the region sidelined from the Quartet, Beijing’s diplomatic activism in recent years have mostly been geared towards promoting international efforts to mitigate the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The Chinese government appointed several Special Envoys to the Middle East to meet and hold discussions with relevant stakeholders in the peace process.[14] The Chinese have similarly invested much diplomatic capital on the Syrian case. Beijing appointed Assistant Foreign Minister Zhang Ming and former Chinese Ambassador to Syria Li Huaxin as Special Envoys to Syria to perform “mediator” roles in the Syrian conflict.[15] In October 2012, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi announced a four-point proposal to establish a transitional governing body during talks with UN-Arab League Joint Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi in Beijing. Chinese media have also called attention to China’s constructive role in helping to “mediate” and seek peaceful solutions to the Syrian conflict.[16]

As for any criticism that Beijing was violating its own principle of political non-interference in other states, the Chinese have now interpreted non-interference in a way that does not contradict its newfound activism on the issue. China’s Special Envoy to the Middle East Wu Sike remarked, “Non-interference in each other’s internal affairs does not mean doing nothing.”[17] Instead, China is still adhering to its non-interference principle because Beijing supports decisions made by the Syrian people and advocates political, as opposed to military, means to resolve the conflict.[18] The Chinese government’s strong principled stance and adherence to international norms suggest a fundamental difference between the dominant Western powers and the kind of rising power China is seeking to become.

Conclusion

China’s Syria policies represent a substantial turning point in its Security Council diplomacy on Middle East issues. In the past, China expressed its dissatisfaction with foreign military intervention in the Middle East by abstaining on Security Council votes, which enabled the adoption of such resolutions on Iraq and Libya. However, the disastrous effects of abstaining in the Libya case spurred China and Russia to avoid repeating those mistakes in Syria.  As a result, China took firmer action on the Syrian conflict ― as seen by its three vetoes and two no votes. Additionally, China has stood resolutely behind its unprecedented three vetoes of draft Security Council resolutions on Syria. In spite of criticism from the US and Western countries, the Chinese government continued to frame its voting behaviors as “responsible” for promoting peace, not war — drawing a stark contrast to the Western practice of military intervention that Beijing argues would create more political chaos and instability in Syria and could potentially spill over to other countries in the region.[19]

In addition, Beijing’s activism and mediating role in the Syrian conflict demonstrate its attempts to expand Chinese influence in resolving international crises. As a rising power seeking to elevate its international diplomatic profile, especially vis-à-vis the American hegemon, China has both internal and external pressures to act responsibly. However, it is unclear how sustainable is China’s new activism in the Middle East, given that Syria represents a departure from the core of China’s Middle East policies. In the past China acceded to Western pressure to sanction the Iranian regime and supported four consecutive UN Security Council resolutions targeting Iran. Will this new shift affect China’s future positions on the Iranian nuclear issue?  The sustainability of this foreign policy shift may continue to be influenced by Chinese mistrust and suspicion of the Western proclivity toward coercive measures and military intervention, coupled with China’s expanding global interests in global governance and crisis resolution.


[1] “China Opposes Armed Intervention or Forcing ‘Regime Change’ in Syria,” Xinhua, February 17, 2012, http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/90777/7732804.html.

[2] “China Opposes Armed Intervention or Forcing ‘Regime Change’ in Syria,” Xinhua, February 17, 2012, http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/90777/7732804.html.

[3] Michael Swaine, “Chinese Views of the Syrian Conflict,” China Leadership Monitor,  No. 39,  p. 4.

[4] “China Opposes Armed Intervention or Forcing ‘Regime Change’ in Syria,” Xinhua, February 17, 2012, http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/90777/7732804.html.

[5] For example, Michael Swaine, “Chinese Views of the Syrian Conflict,” China Leadership Monitor,  No. 39; and Yun Sun, “Syria: What China Has Learned from its Libya Experience,” Asia Pacific Bulletin, No. 152,  February 27, 2012.

[6] The five abstaining countries were China, Russia, Germany, India, and Brazil. United Nations Security Council, “Security Council Approves ‘No-Fly Zone’ over Libya, Authorizing ‘All Necessary Measures’ to Protect Civilians, by Vote of 10 in Favour with 5 Abstentions,” March 17, 2011, http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2011/sc10200.doc.htm.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Michael Swaine, “Chinese Views of the Syrian Conflict,” China Leadership Monitor, No. 39, p. 10.

[10] Joe Sterling and Salam Abdelaziz, “U.N.’s Syria Death Toll Jumps Dramatically to 60,000-plus,” CNN, January 3, 2013 http://www.cnn.com/2013/01/02/world/meast/syria-civil-war.

[11] “China Speaks Positively of Geneva Meeting on Syria,” Xinhua, July 1, 2012 http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2012-07/01/c_131686885.htm.

[12] “Sino-Russia Strategic Cooperation Contributes to World Peace,” The China Daily, December 26, 2012.

[13] Ibid.

[14] The Special Envoys to the Middle East specifically for the Arab-Israeli peace process include Wang Shijie, Sun Bigan, and Wu Sike.

[15] Cheng Guangjin, “China Cements Role as Global Mediator,” The China Daily, December 28, 2012. http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/epaper/2012-12/28/content_16065082.htm .  

[16] Ibid.  

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid

 

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