Why does China oppose intervention in Syria? This is a question that many U.S. commentators have been asking as the Obama administration continues trying to gain congressional approval for a U.S. military response in Syria. On a parallel track, Chinese leaders are trying to make their case for nonintervention, mustering their own arsenal of arguments. While it is common for the U.S. public to look at Beijing’s positions through a realpolitik lens, China’s opposition is not an example of obstruction of its American rival. Instead, China opposes intervention in Syria primarily because of its own sense of insecurity.
So far, China has consistently blocked all Western efforts to intervene in the Syria crisis and has vetoed three U.N. resolutions. At the same time, according to a 2011 Congressional Research Service report, China transferred US$300 million worth of arms to Syria between 2007 to 2010. Additionally, last June a Syrian official revealed that China, Russia, and Iran have been helping Damascus skirt Western sanctions by providing the Assad regime with US$500 million a month in oil and credit.
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Chinese leaders, state-affiliated think tanks and state-owned media have put forth a variety of reasons for the international community to resist U.S. military intervention in Syria. At a press briefing, for instance, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei argued, “Unilateral military actions go against international law and the norms of international relations and will further complicate the Syrian issue and cause the Middle East more turbulence.” Hong added that China believes, “a political resolution is the only realistic way to solve the Syrian issue.”
Before the G20 had even begun, China’s Vice Finance Minister Zhu Guangyao warned of the potential economic repercussions to U.S. military action in Syria. “Military action would have a negative impact on the global economy, especially on the oil price – it will cause a hike in the oil price,” he said.
In addition, some Chinese analysts have also questioned whether there is sufficent evidence to prove that the Syrian government and not the rebels were behind the August 21 sarin gas attacks in Syria. More skeptical commentators perceive an ulterior motive in the U.S. campaign to intervene militarily in Syria; specifically, they argue that the proposed attacks against the Assad regime are indirectly aimed at Iran and Russia.
Chinese officials’ comments, like those mentioned earlier from Hong Lei and Zhu Guangyao, point to two of China’s major concerns: unilateralism and Middle East stability.
In regards to unilateralism, China fears that the U.S. will undermine the growing norm of international crises being handled multilaterally under the auspices of the United Nations. Beijing already saw the deterioration of this norm during the presidency of George W. Bush in the case of Iraq. While the rest of the world may see China as a behemoth on the international stage, the opposite perception holds in Zhongnanhai. Hence, international norms, while at times problematic for China’s human rights record, also benefit Beijing by limiting U.S. adventurism.
As for Middle East stability, China is obsessed with stability, whether it is in Afghanistan or in Syria. The concern in Beijing is that turmoil in Syria will spread extremist ideologies in the region and perhaps even radicalize its own Uighur population in Xinjiang. Unrest in Syria can also spread to the oil-rich parts of the Middle East, which would threaten China’s oil supplies from that region.
The Explanatory Power of Insecurity
To understand China’s concerns, however, we must appreciate its broad sense of vulnerability, and the multifaceted nature of Sino-Middle East relations.
In general, Chinese foreign policy is dominated by a feeling of besiegement. Militarily, it is surrounded on all sides by states friendly with the United States who are afraid of China’s growing influence. Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Myanmar are just several examples. Economically, Deng Xiaoping’s reforms have made China’s economy intertwined with the U.S. economy. Its energy supply is reliant on U.S.-protected shipping lanes and difficult security environments in Central Asia and the Middle East. Socially and politically, human rights organizations and Western values have penetrated the Chinese populace. With these circumstances, it is no wonder that China feels insecure.
In the Middle East specifically, the last few years have been rough. The toppling of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Muhammad Morsi’s ouster sent ripple effects that touched China. At home, the Party sees parallels between Gaddafi and Morsi and its own regime. Any legitimization of the West’s role in their demises is inherently a legitimization of future interference in China with the aim of undermining the Party.
Abroad, both Gaddafi and Morsi were allies of China. China abstained from the U.N vote to impose a no-fly-zone in Libya, but when the military campaign led to Gaddafi’s end, Beijing accused the U.S.-led powers of going beyond the spirit of the resolution. Lesson learned: the United States is not to be trusted in (limited) foreign interventions. Morsi’s demise is also unfortunate history for China. Morsi made Egypt a new ally of China, since Hosni Mubarak was long beholden to Washington. But Morsi’s hold on power proved short lived. China is increasingly isolated in the Middle East and its soft power is in steep decline due to its support for unpopular leaders.
Beijing’s obstructionist behavior is not an alliance with Russia with the aim of rivaling the United States and her allies in the United Nations. While Russia may be playing geopolitics, China’s game is altogether different. Beijing’s decisions on Syria stem from insecurity, both broadly and specifically in the Middle East. Chinese officials do not trust their U.S. counterparts. A trust deficit fueled by insecurity will only lead to more difficulties for the United States as the Syria crisis continues to unfold.
Kendrick Kuo is a China specialist pursuing graduate studies at Johns Hopkins SAIS in Washington, DC.