China has now joined Russia in twice rejecting draft UN Security Council resolutions that would seek to pressure President Bashar al-Assad to end its brutal repression of the anti-regime protesters. Interestingly, China, unlike Russia, is motivated primarily by principles rather than concrete strategic and economic interests in Syria. And China, unlike Russia, seems more open to changing its position.
For the past two decades, PRC leaders have typically opposed foreign military interventions seeking to change a regime. For example, they have regularly objected to U.S. and NATO military operations in the Middle East. But they also showed their lack of enthusiasm for Russia’s August 2008 military intervention by refusing to recognize the resulting independence declarations of the Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The Chinese government still generally upholds a traditional interpretation of national sovereignty that severely restrict the right of foreign powers or international organizations to intervene in a country’s internal affairs. In the case of Syria, PRC officials claimed that the resolution’s backers were trying to interfere in the internal affairs of a UN member country by seeking to change its regime in pursuit of their larger goals of controlling the region.
PRC officials have refused to back proposals to force Assad from office. They argue that it is improper for the international community to make such demands since the issue of Syria’s leadership should be determined by the Syrian people themselves. Furthermore, Chinese analysts do not think that Assad’s resignation would end the fighting. Instead of pacifying Assad’s opponents, they fear that it will only encourage them to escalate their demands, a dynamic they already see in play.
Chinese officials profess to see the events in Syria as a civil war between armed factions rather than a popular revolution by an oppressed people against a brutal dictator. “Currently, the situation in Syria is extremely complex,” observes the authoritative commentary published in The People’s Daily after China’s UN vote. “Simplistically supporting one side and suppressing the other might seem a helpful way of turning things around, but in fact it would be sowing fresh seeds of disaster.”
And from this perspective, if the current regime collapses, the result is less likely to be a gentle transition to a liberal democracy than fighting among the elements of the winning coalition over their division of the spoils, with the most ruthless factions, which are often Islamist extremists, having the best shot at victory. A China Daily editorial noted that the Libyan example showed how Muammar Qaddafi’s overthrow did not bring "democracy and freedom" to Libyans, but led to that country’s "falling into a sectarian civil war.” PRC officials claim to have learned from the Libyan experience that they cannot offer the Western powers anything that could justify armed intervention.
Furthermore, some Chinese leaders likely fear that these Western–backed revolts against the authoritarian governments of the Middle East might encourage similar resistance among their own people or establish precedents for foreign intervention in their own internal affairs. Professor Yin Gang, a Middle East expert with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said that, "If the UN can do this in Syria, it will do it again to another country in the future, and that is what Chinese leaders are worried about.”
Western and Arab governments denounced China and Russia for their vetoes. In a rare nationally televised address, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, a major oil supplier to China, called the UN deadlock “absolutely regrettable.” Hammam Said, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, called on Arabs and Muslims to boycott Chinese and Russian products since “they are taking part in the killing of Syrian people.” In Libya, demonstrators threw rocks, eggs and tomatoes at China’s embassy in Tripoli following the veto.
China normally does not want to strain relations with Western governments over the management of regional security crises. In addition, China has also traditionally sought not to alienate Middle Eastern regimes with whom they have cultivated valuable energy and other economic ties. Lobbying by Arab governments reportedly almost succeeded in persuading China to consider abstaining rather than voting against the UN resolution supporting the Arab League peace plan.
Ideally, Beijing would clearly like Assad either to make sufficient concessions to win over his opponents or voluntarily step aside and let someone else do so. Chinese officials recently opened formal contacts with the Syrian opposition, hosting a delegation from the Syrian National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Beijing for a few days. Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said that, "China is willing to maintain contacts and communication with relevant Syrian opposition groups, is willing to push and encourage talks and make great efforts to ameliorate the situation.” PRC officials have said they are open to cooperating with the United States and other countries to find a solution to the Syrian crisis.
In the end, China may need to agree to at least some punitive measures or other UN action just to keep the Security Council the main institutional player in the Syrian issue. Within the Council, China enjoys the unique privilege of being able to veto U.S. and other countries’ policies towards Syria. If decisions are taken elsewhere, such as in the NATO and EU headquarters in Brussels, or unilaterally by Washington, than Beijing’s influence is much less.
Having seen how the United States and Britain acted unilaterally against Kosovo in 1998 and Iraq in 2003 after they could not secure UNSC authorization to use force, PRC policy makers are presumably aware that, If Beijing were to attempt to block all UNSC sanctions, than the Council (and China) would lose influence as Assad’s opponents proceeded to act without UNSC approval. Western governments are already seeking to impose more unilateral sanctions and are considering forming a “Friends of Syria” Group to organize joint actions against them.
Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute. His current research includes regional security developments relating to Europe, Eurasia, and East Asia as well as U.S. foreign, defense, homeland security, and WMD nonproliferation policies.