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China Tries to Remain on Syria Crisis Sidelines

  • Shannon Sant

A father comforts his son who has just undergone surgery for a bullet wound in his left shoulder in Maraat al Numan, Syria, November 18, 2012.

A father comforts his son who has just undergone surgery for a bullet wound in his left shoulder in Maraat al Numan, Syria, November 18, 2012.

China and Russia have been heavily criticized for their refusal to support United Nations sanctions against the Syrian government. Now that some Western countries have begun officially supporting the Syrian opposition, pressure is building on Chinese officials to get involved.

Fighting continued to rage in Syria this week as Britain joined France in recognizing a newly formed opposition bloc of Syrian rebels. Other countries including the United States have not recognized the group, but have repeatedly called for sanctions against Syrian President Bashir al-Assad's government.

Despite mounting pressure for China to help push for Assad's overthrow, Beijing's position remains unchanged.

When asked about Britain’s support for the Syrian opposition, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Ying Chun said Beijing believes that political resolution is the only right way out for the Syrian issue. She said any action by the international community should be conducive to ending all violence, promoting the political resolution process of the Syrian issue, and upholding peace and stability in the Middle East region.

China has twice vetoed U.N. Security Council resolutions calling for sanctions on the Assad government. Some analysts say pressure on China to take a firm position on international crises like the situation in Syria will only grow as Beijing's global economic power and influence increases.

“Holding a diplomatic position it had when it was a pretty small, developing economy, several decades ago, this seems rather strange," says Kerry Brown, Executive Director of the China Studies Center at the University of Sydney. "So I think it’s going to be forced to take positions on issues in the past it wanted to keep well away from.”

Familiar quandary

China faced a similar quandary in Libya on whether to support rebels there or the Chinese government’s longtime ally, Muammar Gadhafi. Russia and China abstained from voting on a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing a NATO air campaign over Libya. That resolution led to NATO intervention in the country and the toppling of Qaddafi’s regime.

China had large economic interests in Libya, with, according to Chinese media, $18 billion invested in construction projects. Libya was also home to 35,000 Chinese migrant workers, whom China had to evacuate when war broke out.

China’s interests in Syria, however, are very different.

“I think the thing ultimately is that in Syria Beijing is facing a lose lose situation," says Sarah Raine, a fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, "because on the one hand Beijing has no love for Assad, no major assets, resource-wise in the country, and not even a particularly sizable Chinese presence to worry about.”

Earlier this month China did put forward a four-point peace proposal for Syria, calling for a cease-fire and committee that will negotiate a political resolution to the conflict.

Although some analysts say the plan is a step towards China becoming a responsible international stakeholder, others say the proposal does nothing to resolve the crisis.

Beijing may prefer to remain largely on the sidelines of the conflict for now, but Kerry Brown says its growing economic power means that China may have to take a larger diplomatic role.

“Can we see a world in which China will start to be involved in issues of governance and issues of delivery of humanitarian relief, and interventions in other areas that don’t directly effect it?" ponders Brown. "Will we, the western powers in particular, the U.S., Europe and Australia, will we be happy to see that? On the one hand they may be willing, but on the other hand will we say this is China becoming too prominent?”

With the bloodshed in Syria continuing, international pressure is expected to increase on China to support Syria’s rebels. Members of the Friends of Syria group, which supports the Syrian opposition, meet in Tokyo on November 30.

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