China's Role in the Syria Crisis, Revisited
Two destroyed tanks in front of a mosque in Azaz, Syria.

China's Role in the Syria Crisis, Revisited


Recently I objected to Chinese media making political currency out of the Syrian refugee crisis by castigating the U.S. for not doing more to help. Friends and readers have since taken umbrage with the suggestion that China is throwing stones from within a glass house, and to be fair, the fault is mine for presenting an argument that appears guilty of causal oversimplification.

I had noted China’s armoring of Syria with air defense systems via Iran, but apologists have parried that this association is tenuous at best. And though it strains credulity to imagine China is ignorant of Iranian dealings, an airtight argument for China’s culpability should demonstrate causal dependence—that is, had China not taken certain actions, present circumstances wouldn’t have been possible. So, because al-Assad’s attacks supervene on his possession of chemical and ballistic technologies, we must show that China directly provided these to Syria. Fortunately, the historical record is very clear on this.

In 1988, China sold M-9 missiles to Syria, despite U.S. opposition, although U.S. diplomats later persuaded Beijing to cancel the delivery. In 1991 Bush ended satellite technology sales to China because it was selling weapons to Syria, and until Beijing promised to stop, Secretary of State James A. Baker postponed his visit to Beijing. China made that promise, but was caught armoring Syria only a few months later.

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To continue getting weapons in, despite promises not to sell missiles, China then began selling missile components to Syria. In 1996 it was again caught selling missile technology to Syria, and in 1999 it sent 10 tons of powdered aluminum to the Centre des Etudes de Recherche Scientifique (CERS) in Syria, which operates the nation’s missile program. This continued through the 2000s. For instance, in 2002 China proposed a Syrian Scud production center and from 2006 to 2010, China was one of Syria’s top five providers of conventional weaponry. And let’s not forget, this heavy weaponization of Syria took place during Syria’s 30-year military occupation of Lebanon and long after the glow of Hafez al-Assad’s promising leadership had gone dim and his tyrannical son, Bashar al-Assad, had taken power.

Finally, on February 2, 2011, 15 people held a candlelight vigil in Damascus and the government responded with brutal force, precipitating the February 3 “Day of Rage.” In 2012, former Chinese Representative to the U.N. Li Baodong commented, “[I]t is imperative to put an immediate end to all violence in Syria” — even as China continued to pump weapons into Syria.

And yet, Russia and China shot down the U.N. resolution to intervene after the massacre at Ghouta. When U.N. weapons inspectors put forward a report in September 2013 showing the use of sarin gas by al-Assad, Russia and China refused to believe it. And in April 2014 when Kafr Zita was hit with chlorine gas, evidence showed that the chlorine came from the state-owned company China North Industries (Norinco).

China later said it would investigate Norinco, and Norinco denied any involvement. But Norinco has since been found selling to South Sudan, despite the fact that the South Sudanese government has been known for “razing entire villages, burning people alive, and raping children.” And yes, in case you’re wondering, China had previously promised to stop selling weapons to this government too.

In other words, despite Syria’s military aggression toward Israel, Lebanon, and its own people, China worked hard to get as many weapons into Syria as Syria could afford, more or less ignoring U.S. protests. No one did more to help build Syria’s military than Russia, China, and Iran. And no one did more to try to keep weapons out of Syria than the United States. But now that the violence of the Syrian military has generated an international crisis, Chinese media want to pretend that their government played no role whatsoever in the unfurling of Syria’s fortunes and, moreover, that the U.S. is to blame.

Had China not armed Syria for decades, the Syrian government would not be capable of the current scale of violence. Had China taken measures to regulate companies like Norinco more carefully, the Syrian government would not have obtained chemical weapons so easily. But Beijing’s attitude has been, as one Chinese official commented, that “China’s business is its own business.”

And even if we pretend China hasn’t been arming Syria for decades, China would still have responsibilities in this crisis as a party to the U.N. refugee agreements, the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol. My purpose, however, is not simply to blame China — there’s more than enough blame here to go around — but to point out that China is in no position to feign innocence while blaming the United States.

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