China in Syria Series

In the first of a series of interviews, Dean Cheng discusses the likely motivations behind China’s actions over Syria.

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China in Syria Series
Credit: Flickr / Maureen

This week, The Diplomat has been providing coverage of the Syrian crisis from an Asia-Pacific perspective. China has featured prominently, as any escalation against the Assad regime could threaten Chinese national interests. Given the country’s powerful voice within the United Nations, and its ability to undermine the effectiveness of US-led energy sanctions, The Diplomat’s Eddie Walsh will be conducting a series of interviews with thought leaders from US and regional think tanks looking at how recent events affect China's position on Syria. The first interview is with Dean Cheng, Research Fellow at the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.


Select policymakers and experts believe that China is much more concerned about Syria than Libya because of its geopolitical location. Some have argued that China fears the Arab Spring will emerge as an ‘Aral Fall’ if the West isn’t careful, placing instability at China’s doorstep. Do you agree this is a major concern for Beijing? Can it be mitigated any other way by Beijing than opposition to UN Security Council action?

I think it’s safe to say that China is concerned with the overall phenomena of the ‘Arab Spring,’ insofar as it introduces instability into potential oil suppliers and affects the global price of oil.

I think China also is concerned with the image of long-time, stable governments falling, especially as it’s preparing for its own power transition. The specter of domestic instability gnaws at the Chinese leadership. In this light, and coupled with the longstanding Chinese opposition to interference in other states’ internal affairs – this could later be applied against China – it would seem highly unlikely that China would do more than abstain on sanctions (which it did on Libya).

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If it’s true that the Chinese are concerned with the spread of the Arab Spring phenomena to China, then it would seem that it would be in their interest to stymie further examples of the Arab spring (e.g. in Syria) rather than aid and abet it.

Has the Chinese stance on the Arab Spring helped or hurt public opinion for Chinese foreign policy at home and Chinese prestige and influence abroad? Specifically China's stance on Syria?

Insofar as there have been some efforts at calling for a Jasmine Revolution in China, those have been rapidly and harshly suppressed — but it’s not clear just how large a movement this is. China’s suppression of these efforts has hurt its image abroad, but again, not enough to lead to any boycotts of Chinese goods. As for Chinese influence, that would seem to depend. Of course, the West would like the Chinese to join in sanctions, but there’s little evidence that the West is prepared to offer substantial incentives to China to do so. Conversely, it’s not clear that China's failure to support the Jasmine Revolutions has severely affected its relations with Egypt or Tunisia, or, for that matter, Bahrain or Saudi Arabia.

What are the main motivations influencing Chinese: 1) Support for Assad; 2) Support for the US/EU position?

It’s not necessarily clear that China supports Assad per se, as opposed to promoting what it perceives as stability.

Support for the US/EU position is much weaker, unless the Chinese calculate that their support will garner them distinct benefits, such as a lifting of Tiananmen technology sanctions or an end to arms export controls. Since the US/EU aren’t prepared to do so, the Chinese are unlikely to join in the US/EU position regarding sanctions.

At the same time, it’s also important to question whether failure to join in the US/UN sanctions against Syria necessarily is the same as supporting the Assad regime. Given China’s longstanding emphasis on non-interference in other states’ affairs, it would seem that China could refuse to join in sanctions without necessarily meaning that it is support for Assad, unless, of course, one is subscribing to the view that if you are against them, then you are for them.

If Libya falls to the rebels in the coming weeks, would that affect the Chinese position on Syria?

The Chinese position seems to be that it doesn’t care very much who is in power, so long as its contracts for resources are honored. And whoever rules Libya will be interested in selling its oil for as high a price as possible. As for Syria…it’s not clear what stakes China has in the ruling entity in Damascus, especially since Syria isn’t a major oil exporter, and certainly not to China.

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What is the state of Turkish-Chinese and Arab-Chinese relations? Could these relationships undercut regional support for enhanced US actions?

China has been building its ties to Turkey, including its first major overseas military exercises involving the PLA Air Force. China would therefore appear interested in developing closer ties to Ankara, presumably in order to help influence the Middle East – again more for economic/resource reasons. As for the Arab states, China’s interest is in stability, again relating to oil flow and oil market stability. Insofar as the region is uneasy with the Jasmine Revolutions, China’s stance is likely to garner appreciative stances from states such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

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].