China’s veto on Syria: what interests are at play?

China's motivations regarding how to deal with Syria differ from those of Russia, and constitute a new, more assertive foreign policy. However, engaging the government and its opposition on equal terms might come back to haunt China in the future.

Nicholas Wong
25 July 2012

Though widely interpreted as the anti-western duo in the UN Security Council, China and Russia in fact have different calculations for casting their respective vetoes on the UN resolution for Syria. With little stakes involved in Syria, Chinese vetoes are a performative move, announcing to the world that the country will take a more proactive approach in future international conflicts.

On paper, Russia and China do appear to act as a bloc. The two countries contest the validity of the use of the UN Charter’s Chapter VII, quoted in the British-drafted plan. The west insists the resolution will only authorize further non-military economic sanctions. Russia instead claims that this plan will open the path to “external military involvement in Syrian domestic affairs.” China’s UN ambassador Li Baodong agrees, adding that the “unbalanced” content of the drafted resolution will only spread violence to other parts of the region.

There are a number of plausible explanations regarding Russian interests in Syria. Russia continues to supply the Syrian government with arms, and has reportedly dispatched warships to Tartus. The Syrian port city is the location of Russia’s only military facility outside of ex-Soviet space, though it has been pointed out that the base is actually of minimal military value. Some commentators turn to the symbolic nature of Russian presence, said to be crucial for maintaining its influence in the Middle East peace process. Another might say that protecting Syria is about reassuring authoritarian presidents in the post-Soviet space.

The reasoning on the Chinese side is not as obvious. There are certainly tight economic ties; a few years ago China became Syria’s largest supplier of imported products. China invested in Syria’s oil sector a few years ago, and as late as March China reportedly continued to buy oil to support the Syrian regime's survival amid UN sanctions. However, given the scale of the Syrian economy and oil production, such economic interests are not significant enough for China to protect Assad’s government.

Given that China imposes strict internet censorship, a review of discourse among Chinese netizens and political commentary on official state media might nevertheless reveal the true nature of Chinese foreign policy towards Syria.

A widely circulated realist viewpoint suggests that China’s support for Syria is an act to protect its strategic interests in the Middle East. The logic goes as follows: since Syria is a close ally of Iran, by keeping the Syrian regime intact, or more importantly, preventing a pro-western replacement, China is in fact ensuring that Iran retains its regional support and will not fall prey to another western-led invasion. One forum even erroneously cited Syria to be a major oil-producing country in the region.

The underlying message in such assumptions is hinting at a Cold War-style geopolitical game, the players being the West vs China & Russia. This is plausible, but given Syria’s actual military power, its presence and alliance would not have a significant impact even if the west does decide to strike Iran.  Discourse of this sort could otherwise be interpreted as a way to manage the nationalist expectations of Chinese citizens.

The assumption that China is maintaining its Middle East sphere of influence is consistent with commentaries on Syria published on the state organ People’s Daily, in which a recurring rhetoric suggests that 'the West' has been acting on a hidden agenda. According to such rhetoric, 'the West' has been trying to push for a power transition of Assad’s government, furthering its geopolitical interests, or maintaining US hegemony in the region.

Beyond the usual anti-western rhetoric, China’s official stance on Syria throughout the crisis could reveal more about China’s intentions. As early as in June 2011, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hong Lei remarked that China supports “relevant parties in Syria properly resolving internal differences through dialogue and negotiation.” This is what China calls the “political solution line” it has been following all along; pressure must be applied to both parties of the conflict in a balanced manner to push for a peaceful solution, or what a Chinese scholar calls “soft landing” for Syria. Another repeated point of emphasis is that the UN Security Council should act according to the principles and spirit of the UN Charter, i.e. respecting the sovereignty of all nations, and non-interference in the internal politics of sovereign states.

This official Chinese position is reflected in China's recent participation in the Action Group for Syria which convened early July in Geneva, in which all participants signed an agreement to push for a Syrian-led political transition “that would meet the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people.” Note that China has so far refused to participate in Friends of Syria conferences. After the third Friends of Syria conference on July 6, a commentary published in People’s Daily condemned Hillary Clinton’s criticism of China and Russia during the conference, as its recommendations worked against the agreement reached at the Action Group for Syria meeting.

China’s recent use of vetoes is also somewhat telling. After abstention on Libya’s no-fly zone, China used three vetoes on the Syria crisis alone. This is quite revealing when put in historical context; since the People’s Republic of China entry into the UN in 1971, the country has only used the veto eight times.

All this suggests changes in China’s foreign policy strategy. Repeated uses of veto are a clear sign that it will henceforth become more active in international affairs. China is weary of seeing yet another western-led military intervention in the region, under whatever pretext. Selective participation in the Action Group for Syria means that China will only join committees in which it has agenda-setting power. The emphasis on UN principles not only fit in with China’s official doctrine of non-interference, but also indicates that China will carry out this foreign policy strategy within the UN framework, an act that appears legitimate in the international arena.

Simon Shen, an International Relations scholar from Hong Kong, believes that if China takes on the responsibility to mediate in a country like Syria, in which it has little stake, in theory it will have the responsibility to mediate in future more important international conflicts. Shen further points out that although the Action Group for Syria was coated in the UN framework, it is in fact a compromise among the powers: the US excluded Iran’s participation, and in retaliation Russia barred Saudi Arabia’s participation. This means that as long as the 5 permanent members of the Security Council are in agreement for a certain arrangement, China will accept its inclusion within the UN framework. [1] This in effect places the P5 in a more important position, transforming the UN into a wrestling ground for big powers and rendering the other member-states less relevant.

China’s use of a particular conflict to make its mark in the world is not unprecedented. Parallels can be drawn with the Gulf Crisis. After the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989, Chinese diplomatic relations with the west cooled. The Gulf Crisis in 1990 provided just the perfect opportunity for China to mend its damaged international image. According to scholar Yitzhak Shichor, China took on a double-edged policy; on one hand it supported UN Resolution 660 that approved use of all means to force Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, and on the other hand China actively supported efforts to work out a peaceful solution. The then Foreign Minister Qian Qichen travelled back and forth between Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Iraq with the stated purpose of exploring the possibility of a peaceful solution with each country’s respective leader. [2] According to Shichor, the result was the immediate improvement of Sino-western relations, and the realization by the international community that settlement of major international problems is impossible without Chinese participation.

Mark Qian’s words during the Gulf Crisis: “I have not brought any specific proposal, nor am I going to be a mediator.” Times have clearly changed.

There is a catch, however, in China’s newfound strategy on Syria. Active mediation is, in a way, in conflict with China’s stance of non-interference in the internal politics of other states. More importantly, by engaging a government and its opposition on equal terms, it in effect violates what China insists as the UN principle for respecting the sovereignty of that particular government. China itself also faces an internal opposition movement; if China’s stance on Syria is taken as precedent, and should opposition to the CCP garner enough momentum, in theory the international community could apply the same rules to China. This is a potentially tricky situation.


[1] Shen, Simon. "No Longer Keeping a Low Profile: Change in Diplomacy in China's involvement in Syria ." Ming Pao [Hong Kong] 13 July 2012: A. Print.

[2] Shichor, Yitzhak. "China and the Middle East Since Tiananmen." American Academy of Political and Social Science 519 (1992): 86-100. Print.

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