Over the past eighteen months, China has distanced itself from the Assad regime and forged links with the Syrian opposition. Arguments that China is hedging its bets on Assad may be premature. However, China seems to want to be seen as part of the solution – and the United States should encourage China to go farther in this direction.
China has largely been perceived as taking a backseat to Russia on Syria. The argument is that China has opposed what it regards as dangerous escalation by the United States, while also allowing Russia to take the brunt of the criticism from the United States and others. As one RAND Corporation analyst explains, “It’s really the Russians who are out front on Syria and the Chinese benefit from that because Russia pays most of the costs while China gets a lot of the benefits.”
Nevertheless, China and Russia have not been in lockstep on Syria. Chinese media coverage of the Syrian conflict has largely avoided overt support for Assad or criticism of the rebels. According to one analysis, official Chinese media have occasionally even run articles asserting that “Assad should step down to spare his people further suffering.” This approach has set Beijing apart from Moscow, which has exhibited a much closer alignment with Assad.
Meanwhile, China has also reached out both to the Assad government and – notably – to members of the Syrian opposition to encourage a negotiated settlement. Last September, China’s Foreign Minister, Yang Jiechi, exchanged thoughts with one Syrian opposition leader, while earlier this month Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun held talks with representatives of another opposition group. Zhai’s message was that “China respects the will and choice of the Syrian people,” and not, necessarily, the regime du jour.
Some analysts have described this approach as a hedging strategy. The argument is that China cannot be sure that the Assad regime will not collapse, and thus finds it in its interests to forge ties with those who may be in power down the road. Observers cite China’s more interventionist approach in Libya, in which it established contacts with the National Transitional Council prior to Gaddafi’s exit, as a precedent.
However, the hedging argument has its limitations. There is no evidence that China has sought to supply economic or military assistance to the opposition. Moreover, it appears that Beijing’s contacts with the opposition have been somewhat superficial and infrequent. Finally, China has vetoed three draft UN Security Council resolutions on Syria; if it were truly intent on hedging its bets, China could have abstained.
There are two main reasons why China has not deepened its engagement with the opposition. First, China is seeking to strengthen its relations with Russia, which has maintained close relations with Assad. Second, China does not believe that the opposition has the wherewithal to form a credible follow-on government. For instance, one former PRC envoy to several Middle East states has written that, “The armed forces of the opposition are still weak, scattered and disunited.” For both reasons, hedging may be a risky move for Beijing.
Rather than hedging, China appears to be sending a message that it wants to be seen as part of the solution. China has underscored this message by announcing its advocacy for a negotiated settlement with both the Assad regime and the opposition in state-run media. A senior PRC analyst that I spoke with last week suggested that China is attempting to show the world that it can play a constructive role in any solution to the conflict, just as Beijing believes it has done on the issues of Darfur, Burma and elsewhere.
In sending such a message, China is likely seeking to protect its reputation as a responsible power in the face of international criticism. This has been a particular necessity as China has deepened its economic involvement in various “rogue regimes,” including Syria. As Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt and Andrew Small explain, “China’s fears about a backlash and the potential damage to its strategic and economic relationships with the United States and Europe have prompted Beijing to put great effort into demonstrating that it is a responsible power.”
The problem is that China’s message has been a relatively low-cost one. Convening meetings with the opposition does not necessarily come at a high political price, especially when China has refrained from providing material support. In addition, China’s potential antagonism of Assad in reaching out to the opposition has been balanced by its support in the UN Security Council. A stronger message from Beijing might include a clearer stand against the Assad’s use of chemical weapons, the willingness to break with Russia in a UN Security Council vote, and the use of economic pressure to encourage all sides to engage in negotiations.
The United States should applaud China’s ongoing efforts to promote negotiations – and especially its willingness to reach out to Syria’s opposition. Washington should also recognize that China may be more of a useful swing state on Syria, and not merely a follower of Russian intransigence. Nevertheless, the Obama administration should also call on Beijing to demonstrate its constructive role as evidenced by its willingness to pay a greater cost in its relations with Damascus.
Joel Wuthnow is a China analyst at CNA and author of Chinese Diplomacy and the United Nations Security Council. He is on Twitter @jwuthnow.