China’s Instructive Syria Policy
Image Credit: REUTERS/Keith Bedford

China’s Instructive Syria Policy

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The crisis in Syria erupted early in 2011 as part of the Arab Spring and worsened as the year went on. A first draft resolution to intervene in Syria was proposed by France, Germany, Portugal and the U.K., on October 4. This proposal was vetoed by Russia and China, marking the start of a long diplomatic impasse with Moscow and Beijing on one side and the Western powers on the other. China and Russia would later veto two more draft UN resolutions.

Three years after the clashes in Syria began, and with the civil war now being supplanted in media headlines, it is worth reviewing Chinese policy. Has Beijing purposefully been more assertive toward Western powers, and the U.S. in particular?

Western Concerns

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Chinese foreign policy worries the West on a number of fronts. One concern is the formation of a “united front” of China and Russia, to oppose Western goals. Certainly, China and Russia have together vetoed draft resolutions supported by the three other permanent members of the Security Council. The world has meanwhile witnessed China’s impressive rise in recent decades as well as Russia’s attempts to return to Great Power status. Perhaps an anti-Western alliance of those two actors could indeed challenge the U.S. and its allies.

In the meantime, the West finds itself frustrated by Chinese foreign policy pragmatism, or as the critics would have it, the absence of values. This is de facto incompatible with Western moral ideals, which invoke human rights or other ethical arguments. Chinese realpolitik is seen as amoral, if not immoral. Chinese policy is also not up for domestic debate – a lack of transparency and little civic engagement make sure of that.

Those who fear that Chinese foreign policy is driven by the intent of challenging (and eventually supplanting) the West would view Beijing’s support for the Syrian regime as ideological. This concern rises as China becomes more popular in the Middle East. Mostafa Kamel, a member of the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, “expressed admiration for China’s position and proposition on the Syrian issue and said that Egypt is willing to strengthen communications and coordination with China on the issue.” Could the influence of Western powers in the region be weakened, for the benefit of China?

All these concerns come back to one issue: China’s new role within the international community. As a new – and still growing – power, some observers fear that China may soon have the ability to challenge and threaten the Western liberal model that has dominated international organizations since the end of the Cold War.

The Reality

These concerns are misplaced. First, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has a high level of suspicion toward Western proposals at the international level and within the executive organs of the United Nations in particular. China seems to view the UN as a potential tool to oppose what it considers Western interventionist policies around the world, and it is clear that the Chinese government was greatly disappointed when the United States and its allies acted on their own to impose, by force, a regime change in Iraq in 2003. The frustration was even greater during the Libyan crisis that ended with the overthrow and execution of former leader Muammar Gaddafi. Indeed, from Beijing’s perspective, resolution 1973 of the United Nations seeking to impose a no-fly zone in Libya did not give any foreign power the right to intervene militarily on Libyan territory and against the Libyan regime. Beijing learned a lesson.

The second element may be more important: Beijing’s stance on the Syrian crisis is consistent with China’s long-term foreign policy and its fundamental principles. The basis of Chinese foreign policy is articulated in the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, enunciated by Zhou Enlai in 1954: 1) mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity; 2) mutual non-aggression; 3) non-interference in each other’s internal affairs; 4) equality and mutual benefit; and 5) peaceful coexistence in developing diplomatic relations and economic and cultural exchanges with other countries.

Since the opening of the country under Deng Xiaoping in 1978, Chinese foreign policy can be more generally characterized as pragmatic. Pragmatism and the five principles are the key to understanding China’s response to the Syrian crisis and indeed its general approach to foreign relations. This model excludes moral or ethical arguments from the practice of foreign policy, and as such is antithetical to Western ideals, which raises questions, misunderstandings, and fears among the Western powers as China emerges a major world power.

The notion of peaceful development is also important, and is central to Xi Jinping’s administration. This concept means that China seeks peaceful relations with other members of the international community to establish fruitful economic relations that will serve Chinese development goals. To achieve this goal, China needs a stable environment. The concept of peaceful development means, according to Xi Jinping, that “China will never seek hegemony or expansion.”

Although Western powers may not approve of the “Chinese Model,” it does explain Chinese policy on the Syrian crisis.

It is also worth noting the influence of China’s domestic situation on Chinese policy in Syria. Beijing cannot legitimize any insurrection abroad, as it has to deal domestically with separatist issues (such as in Tibet, Xinjiang, or Inner Mongolia.). To show that domestic considerations can logically obliterate considerations of human rights, George Abu Ahmad, taking domestic policies of Iran, Russia or China as an example, explains that “the exceptional decision to attack the population is, therefore, not only a sovereign right of the twentieth-century state, but the paramount right that guarantees a state’s integrity.” This perspective helps us to understand the way in which China may have internalized the causes of the Syrian crisis in the context of its own domestic separatist issues and thus cannot provide any legitimacy to an insurrection abroad.

A final point to make is China’s inability and unwillingness to take on a “superpower” role within the international community. China has no experience being a political leader on the international stage, and as a result has mostly abstained in the Security Council on any draft resolution that did not directly affect its own domestic situation. Nor does it like to take any strong stances that could lead to diplomatic clashes with a major power, especially the U.S. It seems improbable, given the record of Chinese positions in the UN, that China would have opposed the Western resolutions on Syria without the support of Russia.

The South China Sea, the Senkaku/Diaoyu, and the ADIZ

Some may argue that China is clearly adopting a more assertive policy in East Asia – using the South China Sea, the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands dispute, or the Air Defense Identification Zone as examples. However, there is a difference, and this has to do with the “sphere of influence” of China and, more specifically, with the sovereignty and integrity of Chinese national territory (as Beijing defines it). For the CCP, the Syrian crisis is a “pure” foreign policy issue, as the Chinese government has no territorial claim in Syria or in the Middle East in general. On the other hand, Beijing has always considered the South China Sea and the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands as part of its sphere of influence and by vigorously defending its claims on those territorial disputes, the CCP purports to do nothing but protect its territorial integrity. It’s arguable that this concern with territory has been the very first priority of China throughout its history. The debate over the East China Sea ADIZ, which China established in November, can also be related to the territorial integrity of the Middle Kingdom. However, Western criticisms should be balanced against the knowledge that the ADIZ is an American invention (1950), which South Korea (1951) and Japan (1969) adopted long before China did. At any rate, the South China Sea, the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, and the ADIZ issues are domestic issues for the CCP, rather than “pure” foreign policy matters.

This article doesn’t seek to take a normative position. Rather, the point is that in the Syrian crisis China has followed a consistent foreign policy, in line with its principles and traditions. The outcome of this policy may not satisfy many Western actors, but that is not enough to accuse China of following a more assertive foreign policy toward Western powers and the U.S. in particular. Of course, the new status of China in the international community allows it to make its voice heard, instead of the silence that may have prevailed before its economic arrival. But the considerations of the CCP as it formulates its foreign policy have remained the same since the creation of the PRC. In the future, China is likely to be more capable of achieving its goals in its “domestic” Northeast Asian claims, but there is no evidence showing that the CCP is purposefully becoming more assertive in its foreign policy towards the West.

Napoleon said two-hundred years ago that, when China wakes “she will shake the world.” It may not be time to start shaking yet.

Adrien Morin is a postgraduate student of International Affairs at Peking University. 

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