China in Syria Series (IV)


This past two weeks, The Diplomat has been providing coverage of the Syrian crisis from an Asia-Pacific perspective. 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 fourth interview in the series, Walsh speaks with Steven Heydemann, Senior Vice President at the United States Institute of Peace.

Russia and China have boycotted UN Security Council talks on a Western proposal to impose sanctions on Syria's President Bashar al-Assad. While their reluctance to move forward with such sanctions was expected by many analysts, there are some who believe that China, India, and Russia won’t consider Syria to be a core interest and – in the final analysis – will act together with the West if the conflict continues to escalate. Do you agree?

The governments that have been resistant to the imposition of UN Security Council sanctions on Syria vary in the degree of importance they attach to their bi-lateral relationships with Syria, and in the extent to which they view the regime of Assad as critical to their own interests. There’s little question that some of these governments are prepared to jettison the Assad regime – under the right circumstances. 

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During a recent visit to Moscow by a delegation of Syrian opposition leaders, for instance, senior Russian officials said that they viewed their relationship with the Syrian people as more important than their relationship with a particular regime or person. 

Chinese officials have also been relatively pragmatic – as opposed to rigidly ideological – in their view of the Assad regime, distinguishing between the bi-lateral relationship, to which they attach importance and their ties to the regime, which they are prepared to view more flexibly.

The same is true of India, Brazil, South Africa and, not least, Turkey, which has been critical of the regime, but hasn’t thrown its weight behind UN Security Council sanctions. It’s worth noting that even Iran, a key ally of Syria, has been willing to distance itself from the Assad regime. 

This suggests that the BRIC countries, as well as Turkey, are prepared to exhibit flexibility on the issue of UNSC sanctions—under some conditions, among which would have to include both a willingness on the part of the United States and the EU to raise the costs for these governments of resistance to sanctions, and a much clearer sense than we have at the moment that the Assad regime will in the end fail to suppress the Syrian uprising and hold on to power.

In the absence of these conditions, other factors are driving the strategic calculus of the BRIC countries in the UN Security Council. As has often been noted, the Russian government feels strongly that the West violated the terms of UN Security Council sanctions on Libya to undertake actions that were never envisioned when it agreed to support the sanctions. After having been fooled once, in the view of Russian officials, it isn’t prepared to be fooled again by Syria sanctions that might be taken by the West as justification for measures such as military intervention in Syria. 

Along somewhat different lines, the Chinese government has used a very strict concept of state sovereignty and of the imperative of non-intervention in the internal affairs of a sovereign state in resisting sanctions – a standard it insists on in its relations with the West, and which it views as a crucial defence of its own behaviour in areas that have come under criticism from Western governments.

For countries like Brazil and India, resistance to UN Security Council sanctions reflects a mixed set of motives. They are animated in part by a sense of the opportunities that the Syrian crisis represents for them to play significant roles as mediators between Syria and the West, elevating their own standing in the international system.  They also have long-standing concerns about siding with former colonial powers and global hegemons in pressuring Third World governments. 

Finally, and by no means trivially, there are real disagreements between these governments and the West, both about the vulnerability of the Assad regime and about the most effective way to resolve the Syrian crisis. 

Russia, China, and Iran – together with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other regional actors –tend to view the Assad regime as salvageable, if barely so, and continue to view a negotiated process of reform as preferable to regime change as a way to bring the Syrian uprising to an end. 

Until these assessments change, and without significantly more pressure from the United States, countries like China, Russia, and India are thus unlikely to support sharp Security Council sanctions against Syria. 

According to recent reports, a manager of the rebel-controlled Arabian Gulf Oil Company (AGOCO) in Libya warned that China, Russia, and Brazil – as opposed to Western nations – could face serious political obstacles in reverting back to business as usual once Gaddafi had been removed from power. From your perspective, how will the political and economic challenges that arise in post-conflict Libya affect the foreign policy positions of China, Russia, India, South Africa, and Brazil on Syria?

Typically, post-authoritarian governments tend to behave quite pragmatically when it comes to managing commercial and diplomatic relations with allies of the former regime. Economic interests are likely to trump residual concerns among a new government about the failure of the Chinese, Russian or other governments to extend early support to mass uprisings. 

This has certainly been the case in Iraq, where major oil contracts have been signed with a wide range of governments, undermining the expectation that the United States would enjoy privileged access to Iraq's oil sector because of its role in overthrowing Saddam Hussein. 

In fact, the backlash we’ve seen against the West because of its prior support for authoritarian incumbents in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere, together with powerful strands of economic nationalism evident in post-authoritarian Arab countries, may well counterbalance the tepid support for uprisings that has characterized the policies of leading regional powers like Brazil and India, and of emerging global economic powers like China. 

I would expect this pattern to hold in the Syrian case as well.  In other words, I’m not at all sure that governments that were late to the party will be penalized to any significant degree for the positions they took as uprisings unfolded. 

Similarly, with respect to the political and economic challenges that Libya will face in its transition to a post-Gaddafi political order, it isn’t clear that these will have significant effects on the policies of the countries mentioned above toward Syria.  

For one thing, there’s far less at stake strategically for countries like Russia and China in the political order that emerges in Libya relative to what happens in Syria.  What most every external actor prefers in the Libyan case is a rapid and peaceful restoration of order and stability, relatively quick resolution of basic issues of governance, and the rapid return of Libya to global oil markets. 

In the Syrian case, there’s much more at stake depending on the regional and international orientation of a post-Assad regime, should such an outcome materialize. 

Some commentators have argued that the Arab Spring could next spread to Saudi Arabia or Iran. Others believe that Central Asia or the Caucasus states are at risk. Is there a real concern of regional contagion beyond Syria? How important is this concern for the foreign policy approaches of regional, for example Turkey and Jordan, and international powers?

The potential for the further spread of Arab uprisings certainly does exist, though I’m not sure that any of the cases identified are the most likely to experience mass protests on the scale seen in Egypt or Syria. 

The Iranian regime has tightened its control and increased its use of coercion and repression following the Green Movement protests of 2009, which in any case were less focused on regime change than on reform. The Saudis, meanwhile, have deployed both their coercive apparatus and their vast financial resources to quell protests in that country. 

I don’t have sufficient expertise on Central Asia or the Caucasus states to comment in depth, but it seems to me that countries like Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, or Armenia and Azerbaijan, which have experienced relatively recent episodes of domestic violence and even outright war, may not be the most likely cases for mass uprisings. 

It seems far more likely that uprisings could resume in Bahrain – where an earlier round of  mass protests were violently suppressed by the Bahraini monarchy with the help of the Saudis – or in countries like Jordan, Morocco, and Algeria, where protest movements have thus far been much more limited. Still, it’s entirely possible that protest movements require a combination of conditions that are not well-represented in cases other than those in which ‘contagion’ has already occurred. 

While the West would like the Chinese to join in more aggressive approaches to Syria, analysts have commented that there’s little evidence that the West is prepared to offer substantial incentives to China to do so. If China’s main interests in the region are economic, why is the West unwilling to make the concessions necessary to secure Chinese support?

What economic incentives should the West offer to China? What economic incentives can the West offer China?  And what should be expected of China in return? 

As a market, Syria’s population of some 21 million people, with a per capita income averaging about $4,800, is hardly an economic prize.  It exports only some 140,000 barrels per day of oil, and most of this goes to Europe. China is an important import partner of Syria, but room for expansion in Syrian markets is limited. If we look to economic incentives beyond Syria, the reluctance of the West to offer concessions involving economic arenas unrelated to Syria itself is understandable. 

To establish the precedent of economic concessions to secure Chinese support for sanctions in the UN Security Council, for example, could expose the West to ongoing demands over time. In addition, the West has other instruments of leverage it can use with China – including the reluctance of the Chinese to be isolated from a growing international consensus that UN Security Council action on Syria is needed, commitments the West can offer ensuring that Security Council sanctions won’t lead to military intervention, and the reality that China doesn’t view the Assad regime per se as a critical interest. 

Some scholars argue that Israel ‘looks at Assad as the devil it knows. This is why, regardless of any other consideration, it prefers stability and a quiet border over a regime change.’ Other regional powers, such as Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan, also are hesitant to call for regime change in Syria. Does this reluctance represent a serious threat to the Administration's objectives in Syria and the region? Could other powers (ex. China, India, Iran, and Russia) exploit these differences in policy approaches to their strategic advantage?

Every MENA power recognizes that the fall of the Assad regime poses risks to the stability and security of the region, and in Israel's case, these risks pose especially severe challenges. 

Nonetheless, it’s also clear that Israel’s political leadership is far from united in its perception of the cost-benefit trade-offs associated with regime change in Syria.  There’s certainly a significant segment of Israeli officials who believe that the fall of the Assad regime would lead to a period of significant social and perhaps sectarian conflict on their northern border, with dire implications for Israel.  Yet there are others, including Shimon Peres, who have publicly expressed support for the Syrian uprising and argued that Arab political transitions are in Israeli's interests. 

More broadly, however, there is indeed a gap between regional powers which continue to call on the Assad regime to reform, and the US administration which now actively supports a change of regime. And it’s certainly the case that this gap can pose obstacles to the realization of US objectives in Syria. 

However, it’s important not to overstate these differences, or to imagine that they offer significant leverage to countries like Iran or Russia. It’s very difficult, for instance, to imagine Iran benefitting from differences between the United States and the Saudis over Syria. 

The Assad regime has very little support in the region, and even governments that have not endorsed US calls for Assad to resign would be prepared to accept a negotiated transition to a new political order, especially if such an approach might reduce the likelihood of further instability and violence. 

How is the Arab Spring redistribution global power? Are the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) strengthening or weakening their positions as a result of past diplomatic efforts in Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Tunisia, and Libya?

There’s no discernible effect on the global distribution of power as a result of Arab political transitions. 

Gulf Cooperation Council states have played a significant diplomatic and economic role in Libya, as has Turkey. Gulf states are also active in Egypt and, to a lesser extent, in Tunisia.  Yet the idea that these roles represent a shift in the global distribution of power is farfetched. 

On the other hand, the emergence of popular, perhaps democratic, governments in several Arab countries is likely to diminish the influence of the United States and the West in those states, as new governments reflect the nationalist, and often anti-Western, sensibilities of citizens. Whether this shift will work to the advantage of BRIC countries is far from certain, however. 

Some commentators suggest that reliance on right to protect in Libya will severely undermine Western diplomatic efforts in Asia-Pacific, especially with authoritarian regimes. Does certain European Union member states’ emphasis of right to protect (R2P) as justification for military intervention in Cote d'Ivoire and Libya represent a challenge to future European diplomatic efforts? Does the selective application of it undermine the legitimacy of possible European calls for intervention in Syria with Asia-Pacific powers?

There’s little serious support in Europe or elsewhere for military intervention in Syria. In fact, it’s the enthusiasm for intervention in Libya and the reluctance to intervene in what appear, superficially, to be similar circumstances in Syria, that have led to complaints of selectivity and double standards. 

However, I’d argue that there’s broad recognition of the differences between Syria and Libya, not least a total lack of domestic and regional support for intervention, and an understanding that R2P is not a ‘doctrine’ that can be applied uniformly without regard for the specifics of the individual cases in which it might be considered.

That said, it remains the case that R2P is highly controversial, and strongly opposed by any number of non-Western states, including China but also many other governments throughout the developing world. And despite appeals to R2P as the basis for intervention in Libya where humanitarian concerns were certainly justified by the threat that loyalist forces posed to Libyan citizens – there’s no agreed international consensus on what R2P is, on the conditions that would trigger it, or on how it is it be conducted.

Recent events in Libya may well be depicted by NATO governments as a successful case of R2P, and thus as evidence of the need to consolidate and institutionalize it as a formal part of international humanitarian frameworks, but any effort to move in this direction will no doubt provoke fierce resistance.

How does China's approach to the Arab Spring affect its relations with African countries?

It’s not clear that China's approach to the Arab spring will have a significant bearing on its relations with African countries, which are driven far more by bi-lateral considerations involving trade, investment, and the conduct of Chinese firms within Africa than by China's foreign policy toward the Arab world. 

In some specific instances, such as the new government of Arab- and Muslim-majority North Sudan, it’s possible that China’s hesitance in extending support to Arab uprisings will be seen as a net positive by the Sudanese government of Omar al-Bashir. Beyond this, it’s hard to imagine how China’s policy toward Libya, Egypt, or Tunisia might affect, for instance, its ties to Zimbabwe, the DRC, or even South Africa. 

Many analysts have suggested that China’s concerns over the Jasmine Revolution have had a major impact on how it handles the Arab Spring, especially in Syria. Do you believe that the Chinese foreign policy with respect to Arab Spring states could undermine China’s domestic stability?

I’m not by any means an expert on China and so am hesitant to speculate about the effects of Arab political transitions on Chinese stability. That said, there certainly was a measure of sympathy for the Arab spring among some Chinese, especially Chinese Muslims. However, the Chinese government seems to have moved effectively to contain such support, and we see few signs that Arab uprisings will emerge as drivers of anti-regime political mobilization among Chinese citizens.


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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