China in Syria Series (III)


This past week, The Diplomat has been providing coverage of the Syrian crisis from an Asia-Pacific perspective. China has featured prominently, as any escalation against the Assad regime could threaten Chinese national interests. The Diplomat’s Eddie Walsh is conducting a series of interviews with thought leaders from US and regional think tanks looking at how recent events affect China and other Asia-Pacific powers. In this third interview in the series, Walsh speaks with Nina Hachigian and Peter Juul of the Center for American Progress.

According to Chinese media, China’s Foreign Ministry pushed back last week against the United States and Europe calling for regime change in Syria. The foreign minister is said to have taken the position that the country’s future should be decided internally. Do you believe that the US administration expected such push back from China? How can it mitigate Chinese efforts to undermine the effectiveness of the US and EU approach in Syria?

When it comes to questions of intervention in other countries’ political affairs, China is always reluctant, so the administration doubtlessly expected some push back. That said, China’s fierce adherence to state sovereignty is slowly evolving. In the Libya case, for example, Beijing didn’t stand in the way of the international coalition.

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In any event, it’s not clear how much China can do to undermine the effectiveness of US/EU sanctions on Syria. Unlike Iran, which has natural resources China increasingly needs, and which provides investment opportunities for Chinese companies, Syria is running out of oil and has much stronger trading relationships with neighbours like Turkey.

Russia has suggested that the UN Security Council use dialogue to persuade Syria to end its violent crackdown on protesters rather than impose an arms embargo and other, more aggressive, measures. Does Russia’s continued reluctance to support US calls for regime change in Syria undermine the effectiveness of the American approach? Can the United States achieve regime change without the support of veto-wielding Security Council members such as China and Russia?

First, the US isn’t going to ‘achieve regime change.’ That’s the work of the Syrian people, and Washington is trying to support their efforts. So the question is whether or not the support or absence of support from the UN Security Council makes Assad’s fall more or less likely.  The refusal of Moscow or Beijing to contemplate anything stronger than ‘dialogue’ could undermine the pressure track that the US and EU are trying to use to help the Syrians overthrow Assad because it reinforces Assad’s sense that he has ‘allies’ in Moscow and Beijing who will function as diplomatic safety valves from US/EU pressure.

Neither India nor South Africa, two rising powers in the Indian Ocean, so far support the draft resolution to be put before the UN Security Council. Some experts suggested prior to US calls for regime change and energy sanctions that the United States needed to get regional partners on board. Did the US administration jeopardize its long-term objectives by announcing the energy sanctions and calling for regime change without a joint position with regional partners such as Turkey?

Every case in the region is different. Whereas in Libya, the administration was able to build a large coalition for action, in this situation, the administration judged that it was more prudent to first begin to take action that could pressure the regime to bring the bloodshed to an end.  But assembling a united coalition is likely to be more difficult in this case.

China, India and South Africa also jealously protect the principle of state sovereignty. While coordinating strategy with regional partners like Turkey, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia is vital for any successful US policy, it wouldn’t necessarily change the views of India or South Africa on sanctions.Saudi Arabia has, in fact, been very forceful in its condemnation of Assad’s actions.  Even so, neither India nor South Africa are likely to support a strong resolution on Syria; the best the United States, EU and Syrian people could hope for is abstention.

Some commentators suggest that Chinese interests in Syria are purely economic. By this reckoning, the administration should be able to provide economic guarantees to China, similar to Libya, in order to secure their support. Why does this not appear to be happening?

The Libya factor is likely at work here. Beijing wants to prevent another major international action in a country’s internal politics on the heels of the NATO campaign. This comes from an ideological devotion to absolutist state sovereignty and non-intervention, but also from a more direct desire that the international community never step into China’s dealings with Tibet, Taiwan or Xinjiang. Moreover, there’s certainly a major concern within the Chinese leadership about a Jasmine revolution, as James Fallows has recently detailed.

Insiders suggest that while Syria was on the agenda for Vice President Joe Biden’s recent visit to China, it wasn’t a major priority for the delegation. Do you believe this was the case?

Vice President Biden and the Chinese leadership certainly discussed Syria, but since their conversations were private, there’s no way to judge how much time that discussion took place relative to other critical topics. In terms of the US-China relationship, North Korea’s nuclear programme and the South China Seas disputes are arguably more important.

It wasn’t a huge risk to call for President Assad to step down, in our view. The United States has been very clear in its criticism of Assad’s actions all along. And it would have also been risky not to say or do anything while Assad continued to slaughter and torture innocent protesters.  Some 1,600 Syrians have now been killed.

How will the overthrow of Gaddafi in Libya affect American and European efforts to persuade Asia-Pacific powers, including China, India, and Russia, to support regime change in Syria? Do you believe that a possible Islamist rise to political power following his overthrow would threaten long-term American and European interests around the world?

The NATO campaign is likely a factor in dissuading China, India, South Africa, and others from supporting regime change in Syria – some feel NATO overstepped the UN mandate they were given to pursue regime change, and are afraid of giving the United States and EU the same license to do so in Syria. Gaddafi’s overthrow doesn’t change that.

We can’t assume that Islamists will necessarily rise to power in Libya now – the TNC is now the official government, and the transition process is just beginning. Given the nature of Gaddafi’s rule – no formal government, no civil society, no political parties, etc – it’s hard to gauge how much support various political ideas have right now, or how Libyans’ views will change as they participate in the transition process. But the TNC – which includes Islamists – has committed to a democratic, constitutional future for Libya, and if they can manage the transition process effectively, which will be extraordinarily difficult, then Islamists may not pose much of a threat. They will be constrained within a political system in which they will have to compete with others for support and power.

Ironically, we think Libya has an advantage over places like Egypt, where Mubarak weakened secular opposition forces but Islamists were able to use the sanctity of the mosque to keep organized. Libya is basically starting from scratch, whereas the Islamist parties in Egypt have had a years-long head start on secular parties and organizations that are either weak or essentially brand new.

Commentators suggest that Syria is one of the few issues that united politicians from both sides of the aisle in the United States. Do you think this is the case?

Yes and no.

Neoconservatives have been trying to use Syria as a political club to beat the administration on foreign policy, even before the uprising of this year. So there’s a shallow unity in that no one is a fan of President Assad and they would rather see him out, but there’s a deeper disunity over how to do that.

The neocons seem to think that some rhetoric and posturing will get the job done, and effectively accuse it of siding with Assad because it wouldn’t recall the US ambassador or call strongly enough for Assad to go.  In reality, an effective strategy to help Syrians remove Assad from power, now that it’s clear that he has lost legitimacy, is going to have to go beyond heated rhetoric.

Eddie Walsh is a freelance journalist and academic based in Washington DC. His work has been featured by ISN Insights, The East Asia Forum, The Jakarta Globe, and The Journal of Energy Security. He is currently DC / Pentagon correspondent for The Diplomat and recently completed post-MA coursework at The Johns Hopkins University SAIS. He can be reached at [email protected].

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