Understanding China’s Angle on Syria

To say that things aren’t moving in a positive direction in Syria would be an understatement. Observers under the mandate of the UN Supervisory Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) have been barred from viewing the site of a potential new massacre, both by government and civilians. Syria’s armed forces have been accussed of using children as human shields according to a new UN report. And Under Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Herve Ladsous told reporters that he believes that Syria is now in a “full-fledged civil war”.

As of yet, the main diplomatic push at ending the crisis has been focused on gaining Russian acquiescence on harsher movements against Damascus, including the passing of international economic sanctions via the Security Council. The phrase “Chapter VII resolution” has been thrown around several times already in relation to this, though many still conflate the idea of Chapter VII with military action. Still, Russia remains unwavering in the face of this pressure, even with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announcing that Russia is shipping a new wave of attack helicopters to Syria in an appearance at the Brookings Institution.

A recent blog post by Joel Wuthnow, a Fellow at Princeton’s China & the World Program, asked why the West isn’t focusing their pressure on China. Like Russia, China vetoed two earlier resolutions on Syria in the Security Council. Beijing also has stronger economic ties to the Syrian economy’s health, including $2.4B in exports to Syria from China, and large Chinese equities in Syria’s oil industry. Indeed, Syria pulls in 10.3% of its imports from China, compared to 4.7% from Russia. Wuthnow outlines what could induce China to being a partner of the P3 on Syria:

The message to Beijing should be twofold. First, coercion, when done properly, may be able to stem violence against civilians and avoid a collapse of the regime, a goal shared by the U.S., which is similarly skeptical about the Syrian opposition. A case must be made to China that any U.N. resolution, or other types of multilateral action, aren’t aimed at regime change, but at preventing further atrocities by the government or government-directed militias.

Second is that a willingness to use its economic and political interests will accrue diplomatic goodwill to China, in the same way that its bilateral interventions with the Sudanese government over Darfur did. The case of Syria – and, in particular, its reaction to the crimes against humanity perpetrated in Houla – offers China an opportunity to prove that it has the intention to play a constructive, and not merely a reactive, role on the world stage. It’s up to the United States and its allies to make clear that there are benefits to cooperation, and costs to continued opposition.

These arguments certainly make the case that China’s support can be won on taking firmer action in the Security Council against Syrian atrocities. The difficulty comes in what happens next, once China is brought around. Should the Assad government find itself isolated by Beijing, they would still have their consistent lifeline in the form of the Russian Federation. Despite assurances that Moscow could care less if Assad stays or goes they’ve yet to call for him to step down or place any real pressure on him to launch a process of political reconciliation.

Also, there remains the fact that there’s no guarantee whatsoever that gaining a Chinese abstention will force the same from Russia. China rarely uses the veto alone, often acting in tandem with Russia, as seen in October and February. While in the aftermath of the February vote China declared that it would be more willing to use its veto when its beliefs are on the line, the fact remains that China is still more likely to abstain when Russia does as well.  Russia does not share those same qualms.

Getting China on board for a renewed push on ending the bloodshed in Syria would be a diplomatic coup, to be certain. A Beijing that is willing to recognize the need for political concerns over pure market interests would be a game-changer in Sino-global relations. Even then, however, Beijing is unlikely to push unilateral sanctions onto Damascus, instead only doing so through the actions of the Security Council. With Russia still standing in the way, China alone does not get the international community to the point where it wants to be, as far as ceasing the violence in Syria goes, a clear example of the one area where China’s influence is still outweighed by Russia’s.


 Image credit: Crossed Flag Pins