China in Syria Series (V)

Leading analysts share their thoughts on what events in Syria mean for the EU’s standing in the Asia-Pacific.

By Eddie Walsh for

The past few weeks, The Diplomat has been providing coverage of the Syrian crisis from an Asia-Pacific perspective. The Diplomat’s Eddie Walsh is conducting a series of interviews with thought leaders from US and regional think tanks looking at how recent events affect China and other Asia-Pacific powers. In this fifth interview in the series, Walsh speaks with a number of analysts on some of the key issues.


How has the European Union position on Libya and Syria affected Europe’s long-term strategic influence in the Asia-Pacific?

Hosuk Lee-Makiyama (Director, European Centre for International Political Economy): ‘The EU is still struggling to define itself as a strategic actor – the soft power it claims to leverage is often subject to derision and rarely taken seriously outside Brussels. Asia-Pacific governments don’t consider the EU to be a strategic actor, given its limited geopolitical leverage and strategic resources. It’s merely influence by proxy – via France and the UK, who in turn could only seek to influence the United States towards its own position. Otherwise, EU strategic influence in the Asia-Pacific region is as a trading bloc.

Barak Seener (Middle East Studies Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute): ‘Rising powers that themselves have a deficit of democratic governance have the opposite approach to the US and EU vis-a-vis autocratic regimes that are human rights abusers – whether they be African states such as Libya and Zimbabwe or Middle Eastern states such as Iran and Syria – and are unwilling to confront them with disincentives such as sanctions or support military actions. While these rising powers are a strategic nuisance, the EU position will not in any way compromise their long-term strategic influence in Asia-Pacific.’

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Dr Frans-Paul van der Putten (Senior Research Fellow, Asia Studies/Security and Conflict Programme at Clingendael): ‘The EU has shown that without US leadership it can do little to effectively address major security crises close to its own region. And even with US support, European military intervention in Libya failed to produce a quick end to the crisis. Europe’s dependence on the United States and its limited capacity to maintain security close to its borders undermine the credibility of the EU as a relevant actor in Asia Pacific security affairs. However, at the same time, the NATO air strikes on Libya – whether effective or not – have signalled to China that the West uses its military capacity and its influence in the Security Council to get rid of unfavourable regimes. From a Chinese perspective, this is potentially threatening its own national security and a matter of great importance. In this regard, Europe is a significant partner of the United States and therefore to be taken seriously.’

Dr. Olivier Roy (Head of Mediterranean Programme atEuropean University Institute): ‘I don'tsee a connection between the EU policy towards Syria and Libya and the Asia-Pacific powers. Since the Arab Spring, (EU) policy has shifted from supporting so-called ‘secular’ dictatorships opposing a so-called ‘Islamic threat’ to the idea that democratization is an opportunity for peace and stability. The dictatorships in fact didn’t deliver the goods (control of emigration, of radical Islam, and more stability). As far as Turkey is concerned, the EU didn’t realize that thwarting the Turkish candidacy to the EU would entail a more assertive and pro-active Turkish foreign policy in the Middle East (Gaza, Syria), where Turkey acts on its own, and not as a NATO member or a would be candidate to the EU. The surge of this new actor lessens a bit more the EU influence. As far as the Far East is concerned, there’s no common (even theoretical) policy over the EU, and far less concern. Cautiousness towards local authoritarian regimes is the rule.’

Dr. Stepan Grigoryan (Chairman of the Board at Analytical Centre on Globalization and Regional Cooperation): ‘Among the EU member states, with regards to the processes taking place in Syria and Libya, there were some differences. For example, not all EU countries had agreed to conduct military operations against the regime of Gaddafi. However, the fact that all EU countries have condemned the violence and voted for sanctions against regimes that actively use the police and army against political opposition and civilians certainly increased the credibility of the EU in the world. Practically, this means that for the European Union, democratic principles and values take precedence over political expediency and conjuncture. I think it would be a serious warning to the regimes of those states that are in Eurasia and the Pacific, and most importantly, (boosts) expectations for the support and success of democratic forces in those countries.’

Stephen Booth (Research Director at Open Europe): ‘Germany’s decision to abstain in the UN vote over Libya shows that the EU remains fragmented when it comes to taking concrete action. The EU has probably been able to keep a united front in condemning the violence in Syria precisely because we haven’t yet reached a similarly critical stage. The events of the recent past, such as over Libya and also Iraq, illustrate that the EU remains a bloc of 27 individual nations, often with different external interests, which often allows the likes of Russia and China to play them off against each other.

What impact has the Libyan military intervention had international perceptions of the EUas a global security guarantor?

Dr. Karim Mezran (Centro Studi Americani): ‘Libya represents a confirmation of the decline of Europe as a powerful political and military actor. The French overestimated their power and didn’t go in with overwhelming force. Instead of sending in the French Legion, marines, and ships, they sent in a few airplanes and advisors. Certain EU member states pushed for interventionand then came calling to the US for assistance (when the conflict got difficult). Furthermore, given Europe’s serious economic and social crisis, no one could expect consistency in foreign policy. For these reasons, Libya represents an end of a common EU foreign policy – we are going back to national interests. The fact that the regime could survive six months symbolizes how the EU can’t take care of its own neighbourhood let alone project power in Asia-Pacific. This makes the EU a regional ally versus a global one for the United States and reduces French influence immensely around the world as they are trying to play a role they can’t.’

What are the risks of long-term failure in Libya for European interests?

Mezran: ‘If Gaddafi loyalists continue to resist or the transitional government goes to Islamists, Libya will go to the Chinese, Indians, and other third world countries. Another concern is that the Libyan crisis has undermined Europe’s relationship with Algeria.’

What are some of the differences over the Libyan and Syrian uprisings from EU and Chinese/Russian perspectives?

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Lee-Makiyama: ‘China never confronted the EU over Libya, as its high quality oil is destined for rusty southern Europe refineries that are unable to process Saudi oil. Meanwhile, Syria is an important node in China’s ‘New Silk Road strategy’ to reconnect east and west. China is the biggest import supplier, and has literally taken over the Syrian consumer market in a very short period of time. (In fact) every second car still carries the logos and phone numbers of their previous Chinese owners. China is omnipresent in the daily life in Damascus and on the remote countryside. China and Russia will keep the UN route on Syria closed.

EU and NATO members likely (will) avoid escalation in Syria, as opposed to how the EU had to follow through on its bet on Libya. The Assad (regime has) been allowed to go on with its atrocities in the past – his father wiped out Hama from the map. Syria is also a lesser economic interest, producing 20 percent of what Libyan oilfields do.