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Can China Help Save Syria?

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China Power

Can China Help Save Syria?

Much of the U.S. attention over pressuring Syria has been on Russia. But China may have a key role to play.

As the international community considers how to respond to the recent massacre of 108 civilians in the Syrian town of Houla, many eyes are focused on the position of Russia. This makes sense, given Moscow’s strategic interests in Syria, and its reluctance to approve international sanctions in the past. Yet attention should also be given to attitudes in China, which not only holds a permanent seat at the U.N. Security Council, but also has significant economic leverage at its disposal.

It’s understandable that observers, including Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, should encourage the Obama administration to redouble its pressure on Moscow. Russia, after all, is the Syrian government’s top arms supplier, and maintains a link to the Mediterranean through its naval base at Tartus.

But Russia isn’t the only great power with significant interests in Syria – China also deserves mention. Indeed, China’s overall stakes in the Syrian economy surpass those of Russia. In 2011, Syria imported at least $2.4 Billion in goods from China. Imports from Russia were less than $1.9 Billion. China’s trade is facilitated, in part, by a Syrian-Chinese Businessmen Council, formed after Assad’s inaugural visit to China in 2004.

Perhaps more importantly, China holds large equities in Syria’s oil industry. The China National Petroleum Corporation holds minority stakes in two of Syria’s largest petroleum companies, and has signed multi-billion dollar deals to assist in the exploration and development of Syria’s oil producing regions. China has also stepped in as an important consumer of Syrian oil in the aftermath of an EU embargo.

Might China be willing to break with Russia and support an elevation of pressure on Syria, such as sanctions or even an International Criminal Court indictment for individual perpetrators?

The answer depends on two factors. One is the situation on the ground. Continued bloodshed not only poses a grave humanitarian challenge, it also jeopardizes China’s economic interests and the lives of any remaining Chinese citizens in the country. As a result, further violence may give China’s leaders doubts about the viability of a hands-off approach. 

The problem with this argument is that Chinese officials and experts are concerned that a potential collapse of the Assad regime will lead to a destabilizing power vacuum. One Middle East expert that I talked with in Beijing, who had received delegations from the Syrian opposition, reported that he was not convinced that the opposition would be able to form a sustainable unity government, and that instability in a post-Assad Syria may precipitate a wider regional conflict.

Similarly, in contrast to Libya, Beijing has retained positive ties with the Assad regime. It was arguably easier for the U.S. to enlist China’s support against Gaddafi, who had alienated China just as he had alienated states in the region, than against Assad. For these reasons, China will be even more reluctant to embrace regime change, or even policies that may result in a collapse of the regime.

The second factor is the political costs associated with shielding the regime. China has already encountered regional opposition. During the Security Council’s deliberation on a draft resolution aimed at the violence in Syria in February, China’s U.N. ambassador found himself surrounded by delegates from the Arab world urging his government to abstain, and not use the veto. To the surprise of some Western observers, China ultimately did use the veto.

Unfortunately, there has been comparatively little pressure on Beijing from Washington, London, Paris and other Western governments. With attention focused on Russia, and with Beijing’s support needed on a raft of other issues, including North Korea and Iran, there hasn’t been a sustained effort to convince China that international pressure is necessary to alleviate the suffering in Syria.

Might such a campaign be effective? It’s certainly possible.

 The message to Beijing should be twofold. First, coercion, when done properly, may be able to stem violence against civilians and avoid a collapse of the regime, a goal shared by the U.S., which is similarly skeptical about the Syrian opposition. A case must be made to China that any U.N. resolution, or other types of multilateral action, aren’t aimed at regime change, but at preventing further atrocities by the government or government-directed militias.

Second is that a willingness to use its economic and political interests will accrue diplomatic goodwill to China, in the same way that its bilateral interventions with the Sudanese government over Darfur did. The case of Syria – and, in particular, its reaction to the crimes against humanity perpetrated in Houla – offers China an opportunity to prove that it has the intention to play a constructive, and not merely a reactive, role on the world stage. It’s up to the United States and its allies to make clear that there are benefits to cooperation, and costs to continued opposition.

Joel Wuthnow is a Fellow in the China & the World Program at Princeton University and author of the forthcoming book Chinese Diplomacy in the U.N. Security Council. He is on Twitter @jwuthnow.