China at Geneva II: Beijing’s Interest in Syria


When the Geneva II peace conference convenes on January 22, leaders from around the world (including Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi) will be hoping to bring Syria’s deadly civil war to a conclusion. In a statement, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the conference a “long-awaited and hugely important push for peace.” The Geneva talks, if all goes as planned, will be the first meeting since violence began in 2011 between representatives from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government and those from the Syrian National Coalition. While most of the world’s attention will be on the Syrian representatives, Russia, and the United States, China will also find itself in the new and rather uncomfortable position of international peace broker.

In preparation for the Geneva II talks, Wang Yi put forward a five-point proposal for the Syria conflict.  In a press conference on Monday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei elaborated on the proposal. The five points are as follows:

1. There must be a political settlement to the Syria conflict

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2. Syria’s fate “must be decided by its own people”

3. The political transition process must be “inclusive”

4. Syria must achieve “national reconciliation and unity”

5. The international community should provide humanitarian assistance to Syria and its neighbors

This proposal follows China’s general stance on Syria: both anodyne and vague. The fourth point, achieving “national reconciliation” is especially notable for being both unobjectionable and practically impossible. The proposal itself notes this is an “arduous task” but provides no clarification on how, exactly, to achieve this goal.

Hong described China’s position more positively, calling it “objective and just.” He further added, “China seeks no selfish gains on the Syrian issue,” implying a contrast to other nations like the U.S., Russia, and Iran who have definite interests in seeing the conflict resolved one way or the other. It is true that China has few specific interests in Syria — unlike Russia, for example, China doesn’t have significant political ties to Bashar al-Assad’s government. In terms of trade, in 2012 China-Syria trade was worth $1.2 billion, a 50 percent decrease over 2011 rates. Chinese exports to Syria accounted for $1.1 billion of the total, underlining the fact that goods imported from Syria play virtually no role in China’s economy.

This is not to say that China has no interest in the way the Syria dispute is handled. Rather, China’s interests are general rather than specific. For example, China has a definite interest in making sure the Syria conflict does not spill over to affect the broader Middle East — an interest shared among all the major players in the Geneva II conference. Violence from Syria, which is largely based along the Sunni-Shi’ite schism, has already spilled over into Lebanon and Iraq. Further escalation could begin to disrupt trade within the region as a whole, a potential disaster for China given that over half of its oil imports come from the Middle East.

On an even broader scale, China would like to prevent external political interference in the Syria conflict. China quickly came to regret its decision not to veto a UN Security Council resolution allowing for the establishment of “no-fly zone” over Libya. To Beijing, the ensuing Western-led campaign turned into an overt (but UN-sanctioned) attempt at regime change — something China would never have allowed. China will not make the same mistake again, and thus will prevent any UN action in Syria beyond providing  humanitarian aid and fostering dialogue. To this end, China has joined with Russia to veto Western-backed UN resolutions that would have placed sanctions on the al-Assad regime. The need to avoid “external imposition of political solutions” is underscored  in China’s five-point peace proposal and indeed may be China’s main interest in the conflict at this point.

For example, China had nothing but harsh words for the United States’ threat to strike the al-Assad regime for alleged chemical weapons use. An op-ed  in the Global Times suggested that, if China was vocal enough about opposing “the Western strike,” it could “help consolidate trust from some other countries.”  In other words, Beijing should burnish its international image not by putting forth its own peace proposal, but by attacking the United States’ plan of action. This reactionary foreign policy strategy has been a hallmark of China’s reaction to the Syria crisis.

On the flip side, China also responds enthusiastically to proposals it agrees with. Once a plan was in place to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles, China praised the resolution and even sent a ship to escort the mission. Again, China left the decision-making and negotiations largely to the U.S. and Russia, but jumped in to offer its assistance in order to be seen as a productive global player.

China’s stance on Syria suggests that Beijing does not want to be a global superpower in the image of the United States. China’s foreign policy stance is built on the platform of non-interference, meaning China will almost never put forth actual policy suggestions for handling what it views as other countries’ domestic issues.  On everything from North Korea’s nuclear tests to ongoing violence in Syria, China’s Foreign Ministry will do little more than call for restraint. China simply has no interest in playing world-policeman, and even less of an interest in humanitarian intervention.

Yin Gang, an expert on the Middle East at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told Sky News that the Syria conflict “is ‘inside Islam.’” “Without external interventions,” he added, these “kind[s] of conflicts will reach a new balance in a short period of time. But if external powers intervene, the conflicts will become messier and messier.” This is China’s policy in a nut-shell when it comes to intrastate violence: don’t get involved.

Even in the case of Sudan, where China has a fundamental interest in maintaining oil production, Beijing was most comfortable with a hands-off approach in dealing with that civil war. When the conflict seemingly came to an end with the establishment of South Sudan as a separate country, Beijing recognized the new nation and hoped to continue business as usual. Now that new outbreaks of violence are preventing this, China is promoting peace talks — but still retains its commitment to “non-interference in others’ internal affairs.”

China will keep to the same foreign policy path when it comes to Syria, where it has much less at stake. Beijing will continue to prioritize non-interference, especially preventing meddling from U.S.-led Western powers, over humanitarian intervention. China prefers a “wait and see” approach to other countries’ internal conflicts.

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