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Foreign Policy

China’s Calculated Moves in Syria

Nov 09 , 2016
  • Yun Sun

    Senior Associate with the East Asia Program, Henry L. Stimson Center

More than five years have passed since the beginning of the Syrian civil war. Hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost. Millions have been forced to leave their homes and become refugees. While the U.S. and Russia have often been on the frontline in the Syrian crisis, China, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and an emerging global power, has played a relative obscure and elusive role in the conflict resolution. How China maps its interests and actions in Syria has been an intriguing question.

To begin with, the Syrian civil war has not been a priority for the Chinese foreign policy apparatus. Due to the geographic distance, China has not been a direct victim of the refugee crisis or the spillover effect of the ongoing war, immediately across the border. Chinese economic interests in Syria had been insignificant before the war, and further engagements have been thwarted by the escalating violence. China’s Syria policy stands in stark contrast to its reaction to the Libyan civil war. In the case of Libya, China had significant economic interests and personnel on the ground at the time of war, making it a much higher priority for Beijing.  

There is a strong belief in China that the U.S. and Russia should be the primary responsible parties for the developments in Syria, and that China does not have a central role to play in either starting or ending the conflict. Some Chinese trace the origin of the Syrian war to the Arab Spring supported by the U.S. and other Western countries and perceive the anti-Assad campaign as aimed at undermining the Russian and Iranian influence in the Middle East. Russia, on the other hand, is believed to be supporting the Assad government to defend its traditional sphere of influence.

On the strategic level, the Syrian civil war is believed to have brought key strategic benefits to China. There are plenty Chinese strategic thinkers who see Syria as a strategic opportunity for China coming to its strategic competition with the U.S. When the U.S. “red line” on chemical weapons was crossed in the summer of 2012, many in China hoped that Washington would engage in direct military intervention and become deeply entrenched in the Middle East again. Such a scenario would divert U.S. attention/resources from its rebalancing to Asia strategy and reduce the heightened pressure on China in the West Pacific. Although this desired scenario did not transpire, Russia’s assertive military intervention in Syria has certainly created enough problems for the U.S. foreign policy. Another byproduct of the Russia-U.S. showdown in Syria for China is that it has also facilitated a deepening alignment between China and Russia, a trajectory that had accelerated after the Ukraine crisis.  

Strategic power equilibriums aside, China does share many of Russia’s political convictions on Syria. China is against Western direct interference or indirect support of domestic oppositions to overthrow a sovereign government, even if it is headed by Assad. Associated with Beijing’s own vulnerability on legitimacy, the Western calling for democratization and intervention has always been a sore spot for China. As attested by cases like Syria, the Arab Spring in many countries has resulted in major domestic instability and a refugee crisis. In a sense, for China, Syria is a living example of the fallacy and disastrous outcome of the Western interference in a foreign nation’s domestic affairs. China is also supportive of Russia’s emphasis on political dialogue and joint counter-terrorism activities, which reflects China’s strong belief in inclusive political arrangements and its concern over ISIS.

40 percent of China’s total ten vetoes ever casted at the UN Security Council have been on Syria, making it the most-vetoed issue of all time for China. The four vetoes and most recent abstention from the French-drafted resolution underscore China’s increasingly assertive stance on state sovereignty, territorial integrity and its repulsion to foreign interference. China still upholds the UN as the ultimate multilateral platform to resolve the Syrian crisis and will criticize any framework outside the UN as biased and illegitimate. As a P5 member, China can apply effective control over the UNSC resolutions and actions, hence preventing any unilateral actions to be taken by the West.

The most real and tangible security threat from Syria to China lies in the terrorism and extremism linkage the Chinese Uyghur militants have formed with their Syrian counterparts. Beijing is convinced that Uyghur separatist and terrorist organizations such as Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) have thrived in the Syrian civil war, receiving both military training and extremist religious teachings on the ground. Allegedly, some of these organizations have engaged in terrorist and violent attacks against civilians inside China, including the 301 Kunming Train Station Attack. Based on the Chinese statements, the humanitarian aid and training to Syria announced by Rear Admiral Guan Youfei and his military delegation to Syria this past August are aimed at strengthening the counter-terrorism capacity of the Syrian government and its cooperation with China. Needless to say, the Chinese aid and training will be provided to the Assad government. What role this military aid will play in the Syrian civil war will be very interesting to observe.

China certainly sees the Syrian civil war as an international crisis where China needs to be a responsible stakeholder and provide assistance and mediation. In fact, China has done its fair share of those. However, on an issue remote to China’s immediate national security and economic interests, China’s moves are well-calculated and highly correlated with its belief in state sovereignty and its opposition to Western intervention. China sides with Russia on Syria politically, but will not engage in direct military involvement. Beyond its immediate concern over the related impact of terrorism on China, Beijing secretly sees the U.S.-Russia spat over Syria as an opportunity rather than a problem for China. Syria is indeed an international crisis that demands all countries’ efforts. Yet to expect China to play a direct or central role is still too early and too soon. 

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