At the beginning of 2010, the Arab world stressed the necessity of political freedom and social justice. A wave of demonstrations, protests, and civil wars rolled over the Middle East and turned out to become the main critical issue. Known as the Arab Spring, it spread from one country to another, generating numerous problems that soon attracted the attention of foreign regimes. The wave impacted Syria at the beginning of 2011, quickly turning from peaceful protests to violent fighting against the existing regime, and finally, civil war.
The crisis in the Levant led to the involvement of France, Germany, Russia, China, and other countries. The majority provided financial aid for military operations aimed at political and strategic stability. Still, China did not follow the others, avoiding such expenditures. In this way, some countries started to emphasize such an approach as a mistake. China always valued state sovereignty and tried to prevent outside interference, which affected its foreign policy greatly (Swaine, 2012).
China’s Position on the Syria Issue
As the crisis reached Syria, it affected other countries in the Middle East, creating a challenging situation for China. This happened because the Arab world plays a vital role in China’s economic expansion, being one of the leading exporters of energy resources and the region used to both demonstrate improved international status and influence.
Unlike other countries, China did not want to support violence in Syria by providing it with military assistance. Instead, the country supported unarmed observers, the United Nations (UN) supervision Mission in Syria, and other non-violent interventions. Still, China vetoed United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions on Syria, claiming that its foreign policy is based on non-interference.
The first resolution proposed by the UN reflected the sanctions that would be implemented in case of not ceasing the usage of severe measures to the representatives of the general public in Syria. It was vetoed because China considered that interference with internal affairs could worsen the crisis as well as the violation of sovereignty and integrity of the country. The second veto concerned a document that urged the president to resign, as China saw it as interference and risk of military intervention in Syria. The third resolution that called for the president to withdraw troops or refer to sanctions was vetoed because it concerned only one party involved in the conflict, and could aggravate turmoil. In addition, China thought that the resolution violated the consensus achieved in Geneva.
Still, China was not the only country to have such ideas. Its actions correlated with Russia, which also vetoed three resolutions. Both countries had similar ideas and created a kind of alliance, which helped them to increase their influence on the situation and reach personal goals. Therefore, they successfully opposed the West with its views regarding the crisis in Syria. Their actions were criticized by the US government, and Hillary Clinton was negatively disposed towards them, but it did not change the situation much. The countries acted as a bloc on paper, even though they did not agree on everything (Wong, 2012).
While China did not ignore the situation in Syria, it provided the agenda on Syria, paying much attention to the fact that the resolution should be made by peaceful means. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs prepared a blueprint that included such points:
- All violent activities conducted by both the government and the rebels are to be stopped;
- The parties should begin an unprejudiced conversation;
- China would support and assist Syria with no interference in Syria’s internal affairs;
- “Syrian independence, sovereignty, unity, and territorial integrity” should be supported by other countries in order for China to interfere (Szczudlik-Tatar, 2012, p. 780);
- China supported the UN-Arab League on the way to crisis resolution;
- The principles of the UN Charter should be followed.
In addition to the aforementioned reaction, the Chinese vice minister of foreign affairs met with the opposition and sent an envoy to Syria. However, all these activities turned out to be ineffective and failed to improve the situation.
Before dealing with the crisis in Syria, China had already had some experience with events in Libya, which provided an opportunity to reconsider the foreign policy and make sure that the reaction would bring the expected outcome. This time, China did not want to be seen as a party that supported military intervention and tried to prove that other states could call on it in case of crisis. China’s main reasons for intervention were economic, but its engagement was not as involved as in Libya, so the country got a chance to alter its tactics to improve relations with some Middle Eastern states, replacing the US (Zambelis, 2008).
Besides the US and the EU, China tried to stop violence and make Syria stable without military intervention. This time, China refused to agree on sanctions, which affected the attempt to reach consensus in the UN forum. However, humanitarian assistance received much attention, as $2 million was allocated for such purposes and delivered to Syria (Szczudlik-Tatar, 2012).
Chinese Intervention in the Syrian Crisis
Chinese intervention was triggered by economic reasons. With regard to Syria, China exports more than $4 billion in various goods for industry and purchases oil. The China National Petroleum Corporation and Sinochem cooperate closely with the Syrian oil companies and have signed transactions worth billions of dollars.
As the Chinese envoy and Syrian Vice President met, China claimed to pay much attention to developments in the Arab world, and their influence. It wanted to improve its relations with Syria because of the impact on the international and regional theaters, as well as the peace process. Soon it joined Russia in “vetoing an American and European initiative to condemn Syria in the Security Council” (Evron, 2013, p. 85).
Such actions proved that China wanted to preserve stability in the Arab world, emphasizing the necessity of non-intervention. Syria could not become a part of Islamic forces in this way, which was beneficial for China as they are negatively regarded by the Islamic forces. However, the fact that China supported the Assad regime generated much criticism from its citizens and developing countries. China’s support aroused concern among the public that considered that it has no independent policy, which made it take several steps to underline its reservations about Syria’s crisis and its attempts to resolve the issue. For example, it expressed its condemnation of the murders that followed a bombardment of houses under the Assad regime.
China claimed that the Syrian government should end the suppression of the rebels who are fighting for freedom.
Still, criticism was balanced with support. As the summit gathered to tighten the sanctions against the Assad regime, China decided not to take part and soon vetoed the imposition of sanctions. Then, as the US underlined that the Syrian opposition required alternative leadership, China offered an initiative that encouraged the parties to stop the violence themselves, while the international community was to consider humanitarian problems with no politicization or militarization (Evron, 2013).
Thus, China’s role in this crisis resolution was mainly based on its desire to protect personal interests in Syria. It was ready to evacuate its citizens in case of security threats and continued to oppose any international action against the Assad regime. Finally, China was expected to support a regime change that could stop the bloodshed and stabilize the region.
China’s decision to veto resolutions related to the crisis in Syria was supported only by Russia, while others considered it to be wrong. However, the fact that such an opinion turned out to be unpopular does not prove it to be poorly considered. On the contrary, the country was able to refer to its previous experience and develop consistent diplomatic rhetoric and actions.
The country decided to pay more attention to the opposition to develop a sophisticated strategy. China’s involvement in Libya’s case made the general public question China’s foreign policy, being unsure that it could resist the pressure from the West. As the compromise failed to provide the expected outcome, China altered its approach. However, other states considered the unwillingness to participate in the military campaign to be a reflection of irresponsibility. Still, China’s gains due to the vetoes seemed to exceed its losses. Blocking the UN resolution, it decided to wait and see what would happen. The country searched for “the political alternative to the military option” (Sun, 2012, p. 2). It emphasized proactive diplomacy and turned into the mediator.
China’s involvement in the Middle East does not really seem to be an attempt to help another country. It is a step to control the supply of oil and prove its international power as an alternative to the US. Right now China is ready to take more risks to promote its interests. China’s responses were triggered by economic considerations and turned out to be more substantial in Syria than in Libya. The country considered the political side of consolidating relations with Syria, as well.
Even though it claimed not to be involved in political events in the Middle East, because of its foreign policy and wish to avoid the regional quagmire, China made several steps to shape the course of events. China coordinated with other countries but acted as if an alliance with Russia against the West, appearing to believe that the UN Charter limits states’ ability to resolve international disputes. It emphasized national sovereignty and encouraged the policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries.
By its actions, China wanted to prevent the creation of precedents for international military interventions and the usage of international bodies and evolving norms to affect sovereign governments. China believed that the international order could be negatively affected, and no peaceful outcome would be reached. Its reaction showed that the country did not want democratic states to be involved in the internal affairs of non-democratic ones (to which it belongs).
China learned from its Libya experience and did its best to prevent military intervention in Syria. Still, this approach was not helpful in the situation under consideration, as it could not prevent state-sanctioned killings of the representatives of the general public and could not resolve the crisis. Thus, all in all, China’s foreign policy based on non-interference turned out to be insufficient for the case of the crisis in Syria.
Evron, Y. (2013). Chinese involvement in the Middle East: The Libyan and Syrian crises. Strategic Assessment, 16(3), 79-91.
Sun, Y. (2012). Syria: What China has learned from its Libya experience. Asia Pacific Bulletin, 152(1), 1-2.
Swaine, M. (2012). Chinese views of the Syrian conflict. China Leadership Monitor, 39(1), 1-18.
Szczudlik-Tatar, J. (2012). China’s position during the crisis in Syria. PISM Bulletin, 76(409), 780-781.
Wong, N. (2012). China’s veto on Syria: what interests are at play? Web.
Zambelis, C. (2008). The geopolitics of Sino-Syrian relations. Web.