Chinese Navy’s Role in Syrian Chemical Weapons Disposal
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Chinese Navy’s Role in Syrian Chemical Weapons Disposal


In a regular press conference on Thursday, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokeswomen Hua Chunying announced that China will be sending one or more naval vessels to escort the Syrian chemical weapons stockpile on their Mediterranean voyage. Hua called the decision “another important move by China” in implementing relevant United Nations decisions.

The news was also reported in Chinese media outlets. The initial Global Times report, reposted by Xinhua, summarized the recent update on Syria from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), with the added information that Russia and China will provide naval escorts. The article interviewed Chen Kai, secretary-general of the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, for his take. Chen noted that China’s participation in the mission will mark the first time that China has assisted in transporting chemical weapons for destruction. Even more importantly, China will be providing a naval escort in the Mediterranean Sea for the first time.

Chen commented that China was “chosen” for this duty for two reasons: China’s navy has “strong naval escort capabilities” and China has international experience in naval escorts for its anti-pirate patrols in the Gulf of Aden. For Chen, China’s naval escort for the Syrian chemical weapons is an “embodiment of China’s international status, because not everyone who wants to participate in this activity can do it.”

An editorial published in Xinhua went even further in praising China for its role in the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons. The editorial called China’s commitment to provide naval escort vessels “a landmark development in favor of world peace and stability.” The OPCW, the author added, “welcomed China’s contribution in this regard.” Anyone reading these articles would naturally come to the conclusion that China is playing a leading role in organizing and supporting the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles.

Actually, looking at the OPCW’s statement from Tuesday, we get an entirely different picture. First, the OPCW does not specifically thank China (or any other country) for its contribution, despite what the Xinhua editorial implied. In presenting the OPCW’s plan for the destruction of chemical weapons, Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü noted that “the assisting State Parties have, in the interest of the common good, assumed onerous responsibilities.” His thanks go to all assisting State Parties, not just China.

So what “onerous responsibilities” did China assume? According to Uzumcu’s remarks, not many. The only mention of China is a note that “China is providing surveillance cameras and 10 ambulances” to assist with monitoring transportation of the chemical weapons within Syria. Neither Uzumcu nor the United Nations’ press release make any mention of China sending naval escort vessels. Instead, Uzumcu reports that “Denmark and Norway will provide vessels and military escorts for the maritime transportation of the Syrian chemicals.” There is no mention that these countries were “chosen,” for naval prowess or any other reason, in contradiction to Chen Kai’s statement.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is providing a naval vessel to serve as destruction site for the most toxic chemicals, as well as sending container drums, GPS locators, and loading, transportation, and decontamination equipment to help with the process of moving the chemicals within Syria’s borders. Russia is “providing large capacity and armored trucks, water tanks, and other logistical supplies,” and Finland will send an emergency response team in case of an accident. (However, an unnamed European diplomat did tell the New York Times that China and Russia have agreed to provide naval escorts.)

Still, based on OPCW’s official report, it appears that China’s contribution to the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons is actually smaller than that of other countries, particularly when considering the size of China’s economy and its military capabilities. Yet Chinese officials and media outlets seem to feel China’s modest contributions are earth-shaking and even world-changing.

There continues to be a disconnect between China’s perceptions of its own actions and responsibilities and the viewpoint of the international community. China clearly feels its decision to send naval escort vessels, surveillance cameras, and ambulances to Syria is not just an appropriate but a praise-worthy contribution to the global effort to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles. Yet when compared with other countries’ responses, China’s actions seem underwhelming. The same arguments have been made over many other global issues, from nonproliferation in North Korea to the global battle against climate change. China will say it is doing all it can, and even breaking historic new ground, while other countries (particularly in the West) ask why the world’s most populous country, with the second-largest economy, can’t contribute more.

To China’s leaders, China is still a developing country. Leadership will only devote so many resources to international efforts when China still has many domestic issues to deal with. Accordingly, China is generally is satisfied with whatever contributions it can make. On the other hand, Western nations have lately taken to rolling their eyes at China’s self-identification as “developing.” From their perspective, China has already arrived on the world stage and should be doing more to ensure global peace and stability.

China’s strange media interpretations of the OPCW statements show this disconnect. The OPCW’s one sentence description of China’s contribution plus its thanks for the help of “the assisting State Parties” turned into “commending China” or “welcoming China’s contribution.” Apparently, China felt its contribution was deserving of thanks, which was not forthcoming from the international community. So Beijing patted itself on the back on behalf of the OPCW.

Gregory Allen Leeds
December 30, 2013 at 16:14

China’s and Russia’s chemical weapons transported to Syria and Lebanon before the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq still have to be reconciled and dealt with. These weapons are not the Syrian binary type that need mixing before use. These undeclared weapons are much more a threat to be used by terrorist groups to hide disclosure that for over thirty years, every single permenent countries of the UN security council and many other member states,sold chemical, biological and nuclear weapons material to Iraq during the conflict with Iran despite sanctions and international treaties. This disgrace must be admitted to once and for all and permenent steps with total oversite be emplaced so another generation of children do not have to bear the genetic damage caused by past generations moral cowardice for failig in keeping their word on treatise to prevent proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Now China and Russia can provide funds for housing the refugee’s they helped create bt proping up Assad by their proxy support of Iran. Both Russia and Chins sold billions of dollars of chemical weapons to Iraq to be used on Iran. How does the Iranian goverment now reconcile those fact’s to their people who suffered the losses, and are now protected by China with the annex of their oil field’s untill 2024?

December 20, 2013 at 22:44

Where are they “supposedly” escorting these chemical weapons?Are they seriously gonna destroy or detonate these explosives and allow the chemicals to get into the ocean?Really???

December 21, 2013 at 04:12

In all likelihood, the US vessel has some furnaces on board capable of completely incinerating the chemicals in question. The explosives in the ordnance will likely be detonated at sea separate from the chemical payloads.

December 20, 2013 at 09:30

Here’s a link to the original article in the Global Times.

A lot of what the author said was there isn’t. For example, nowhere in the article does Chen state China was chosen for the duty. Either they changed the article (a distinct possibility) or there is a video segment of the announcement I have not seen (another distinct possibility).

The Xinhua article is here:

The Xinhua article was indeed pretty misleading.

But according to the Jerusalem Post, the foreign ministry said this:

“China has decided to send a military ship to participate in the protection mission for the shipping of Syrian chemical weapons,” ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a daily news briefing.

What is misleading in this article, however, is the implication that China is lying about sending naval vessels because the author neglected to mention that while the OPCW issued its statement on December 17th, China announced it would be sending a naval escort on the 18th.

All in all, I think there’s enough misleading to go around… it would appear it is not only China that has an agenda.

December 20, 2013 at 11:40

Let’s hope the Chinese boat drivers don’t cause a collision over there, as the PLA-N looks like they need to take tests on boating safety after the Cowpans near miss.

December 21, 2013 at 04:08

It was the USS Cowpens, not “Cowpans”.

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