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China’s Role in Syria

Oct 19 , 2013

The Syrian issue has offered China an opportunity, and a stage, to ponder what kind of a role it should play in the world.

On issues such as Syria, China usually adopts the stance of “non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs.” Such a stance, however, cannot exempt China from the affair. Its persistence in, and attempt to protect the “non-interference” principle has involved contradictions, conflict and even confrontation with certain Western countries, especially the United States and some European Union member states, who believe in interventionism. It is this difference in principle that has placed China in contradiction with the West on the Syrian issue.

Unlike Russia or the US and Europe, China’s presence in Syria is of no strategic bearing. It has no military facilities in that country. All it has is a limited volume of trade and other commercial businesses. The Sino-West discord on Syria stems from China’s “non-interference” principle. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, China joined Russia to veto six Western resolutions on the Syrian issue during the period from 2011 to 2013.

Obviously, China regards the domestic conflicts in Syria as a completely “internal affair.”

However, despite its non-interference stance, it is impossible for China to just stay away from Syria’s “internal affairs.”

There is no absolute “non-interference” anywhere in the world. In fact, while keeping contact with the Assad government, China has appealed to all political parties in Syria for a political solution. It also made attempts to contact the anti-Assad parties and even invited them to visit China. China joined in the international effort for the settlement of the Syrian issue, for instance the Vienna conference. All these moves suggest a kind of involvement in the “internal affairs” of Syria.

On the one hand, China will never abandon the “non-interference” principle, as it needs it to handle its relations with non-Western countries in Asia, Africa and Latin-America; as well as to resist the West’s interference in its own internal affairs. On the other hand, however, following this principle is in contradiction to the West’s interventionist diplomacy and thus will project a negative image of China in the West-dominated international community of hindering the West’s intervening efforts.

Like most other members of the international community, China also concerns itself with the aftermath of the Syrian civil war, such as the humanitarian crisis and, particularly, the refugee problem.

After having vetoed six resolutions on Syria in the UN Security Council together with Russia, China began to adjust its attitude and stance.

The incident of civilians being killed with chemical weapons in Syria in August 2013 may have prompted China to adjust its policy on the Syrian issue. From then on, China no longer simply coordinated its stance with Russia but rather returned to its independent diplomacy. In fact, it was Russia rather than China that constituted the main opposition to the US’ ideas on the Syrian issue in the UN Security Council.

After the US and Russia struck a deal for the US to scrap its plan of launching military strikes on Syria on condition of Damascus destroying its chemical weapons, China made its own judgment based on its principle and interests and then emphatically stated that a “political solution (by Syrians themselves) is the only correct solution for the Syrian crisis.”

Let’s make a comparison of the stances of China, the US and Russia on Syria.

The US still portrays itself as a “global policeman”, as is evidenced by its intervention in Syrian affairs. Russia has significant military presence and huge economic interests as well as extensive social connections in Syria. China is neither a world policeman like the US, nor has the influence and interests in Syria like Russia.

What is the role that China should play in places like Syria? This writer believes that China should be an active promoter of multilateralism, or in coordination and cooperation between major powers.

An issue such as the Syrian crisis is far beyond a single country’s “domestic affairs” but rather an issue of global concern.

Major powers’ coordination and cooperation and their success or failure determines whether the world will be an orderly one. If the Syrian issue is dominated by the US and Russia only, it is unfair, and unreasonable, to Syria, the Middle East and the whole world. So, China’s role is then particularly important, and irreplaceable.

China’s role is to prevent the Syrian issue from becoming a deal between the US and Russia only, and to push for more international cooperation. Only in this way can the Syrian issue be “settled politically” as was advocated by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at this year’s UN General Assembly.

Pang Zhongying is Professor of International Relations, School of International Studies at Renmin University of China in Beijing.

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