China has over the last three decades often been accused of amoral behaviour in its approach to international issues. Beijing, it is said, wants the trappings of a great power: ability to wield both soft and hard influence, while being respected and listened to; yet when difficult issues arise - both those that touch on its own interests and those that have no direct impact - it varies between indignantly proclaiming the importance of "non-interference in the affairs of others" and running as fast as it can from any responsibility.
Against this background, Syria represents the worst of all worlds for China. The state headed by Bashar al-Assad is not a key security ally of Beijing, a big supplier of energy, nor in any meaningful diplomatic or political sense a major partner. But it is an important regional country in a vital region, and China is fully aware that continued instability in Syria - of the kind that led to the toppling of regimes elsewhere in the Arab world - will greatly affect its interests. Moreover, China knows that the United States, the European States and other powers are focusing attention on the crisis there (as in the conference in Istanbul on 1 April 2012), and posing questions to Beijing about its own stance.
The crisis in Syria erupted in February 2011 and quickly intensified as protests and repression spread across the country. The issue of humanitarian intervention soon came before the United Nations Security Council, only to be blocked by Russia's veto. China added its own veto to Moscow's, calculating that as the supportive player in a "group of two" on the council it would have at least some cover from criticism.
The furious response of the US secretary of state Hillary Clinton - who called China's stance "despicable" - made clear to China that its initial gambit of pairing off with Russia wasn’t going to work. The vote on Syria was, after all, only the seventh time China has deployed its veto since it joined the UN system in 1971. By using it - rather than, as over Libya, simply abstaining - China was seen as sending a message. Russia's decision was expected: it has intimate diplomatic and security links with Syria, its one true ally in the middle east. But China had other options. Why did it behave this way?
The view in Beijing
There are three probable reasons. The first is that China's authorities just don’t buy the dominant western-led discourse that regime-change in Syria will improve the situation. They reject the depiction of the conflict in "good vs bad" terms, and foresees a lengthy civil war in which the country will split and destabilise an already precarious region. The Syrian opposition is disorganised and disunited, and even if the conference in Turkey results in greater coordination the opposition is far from being able to lead the transition to a new government.
China also judges that Syria's sectarian politics still work overall in favour of the Assad regime, which still retains much support from the Alawite community and from other minorities who fear the possible dynamics of a post-Assad order. These groups can justify their continuing support (or consent) by relying on the state-sponsored discourse that the violence in the country is being prompted by vicious rebel gangs as well as meddling foreign interference.
The second reason for China's position is that it worries about the threat of "mission-creep" that follows intervention. Many Chinese officials argue that Nato's action in Libya went way beyond what had been originally foreseen. They now reflect that Beijing's abstention on the UN Security Council vote on Libya opened the door to far wider American and European involvement that it had mandated or foreseen. The images of a bloodied Muammar Gaddafi being beaten and murdered after his capture, which circulated widely in China, haven’t helped. For the Chinese, this was not a just or dignified end to what had been labelled necessary humanitarian intervention.
The third reason is even more potent: China's suspicion of the demand by Washington and its allies - voiced consistently over many years - that China should become a "stakeholder" in the international system. The Chinese elite increasingly suspects that this obscures a western (and especially American) strategy to maintain dominance ein the face of financial crisis and China's own rise, in which its strategic interests (in relation to maritime-border issues, for instance) are being constantly downgraded and sometimes thwarted. Why, Beijing wonders, should it become a "stakeholder" when every time it tries to promote its own case, much of the rest of the world starts shouting at it?
The time to choose
In this overall context, China’s apparent passivity over Syria makes sense. So many questions surround the conflict there: over the outcome, whether what might follow Bashar al-Assad would be an improvement, the chances of a more extreme and disruptive regime coming to power, and the dangers of regional radicalisation. But the greatest problem in China's caution is that it has failed to propose a credible alternative plan to deal with this situation, beyond the idea of simply leaving people in Syria to sort out their own problems (and thus stand by as many are slaughtered).
Beijing knows what is happening in Syria is untenable - and the comments of official spokespersons as Kofi Annan arrived in China to garner support for his UN mission may indicate a slight adjustment of its view, if no guarantee of a change. But so far, it can’t articulate an active but non-interventionist policy. At present, then, China’s position - however it is explained and however logical it can look - lays it open to accusations of expediency and moral bankruptcy.
China rejects the role of stakeholder crafted for it from outside. But this still presents it with the challenge of finding the moral courage and strategic intelligence to develop a persuasive stance of its own when international crises arise. Syria remains an opportunity as well as a challenge for China. The world is waiting.