China is far removed from the Syria conflict, at least geographically: The flight distance between Beijing and Damascus is 6,900 kilometers (about 4,300 miles), and unlike the EU, China will not be confronted with an influx of refugees from the war-torn country. Nevertheless, Beijing has started to actively engage with both the Syrian government and opposition leaders in an apparent effort to mediate the conflict. The reasons for China’s new approach are a mix of geostrategic interests and the desire to be seen as an influential actor on the stage of global diplomacy.
Starting this week, representatives of the Syrian government and opposition groups are set to meet in Geneva in yet another attempt to find a solution to the four-year long civil war – and unlike in the past, the Chinese government has actively participated in the pre-summit diplomacy. On December 24, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi hosted his Syrian counterpart Walid al-Moallem in Beijing. Shortly thereafter Khaled Khoja, the president of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, arrived on January 5 for a multi-day visit.
China’s interests in Syria
It is a novelty for Beijing to be so diplomatically active in the Middle East. China had a seat at the table during two previous rounds of Syria peace talks in Vienna. Yet, Wang’s announcement on December 18, inviting representatives from both sides of the conflict to China, came as a surprise. Beijing had never before gone beyond making rhetorical calls for a peaceful solution, explaining its reluctance to engage out of respect for Syria’s sovereignty.
It is certain that Beijing will not support a coalition against Syria’s leader, Bashar al-Assad. China has good relations with his regime, which it has supplied with weapons in the past. At the same time, claims by Israel’s intelligence service DEBKAfile that China has become military involved alongside Russia are equally incredible. It is more likely that Beijing has dispatched military observers — with the approval of the Assad government — as it has done in Iraq.
Though Syria itself is mostly irrelevant as a trading partner for China, the region’s stability is nevertheless one of Beijing’s core concerns, not only because Iraq is among its main oil suppliers. Beijing’s $900-billion Silk Road initiative aims to connect Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe through a wide-ranging infrastructure network. But on-going fighting and terror attacks are putting this mega-project at risk.
The Chinese leadership also worries that the terrorist threat from Syria and Iraq could impact their own country. A few weeks ago, a recording produced for a Chinese audience by the Islamic State showed that the terror organization sees the People’s Republic as a target. According to official sources in Beijing, there were numerous terrorist attacks in China with an Islamist background in 2014 and 2015. A strict new Chinese counterterrorism law, which came into force this year, underscores the leadership’s terrorism fears.
But there is yet another reason for China’s unprecedented involvement in Syria: It is seen as a diplomatic trial balloon. The Syrian peace process provides a unique opportunity for China’s diplomats to broaden their experience with multilateral global crisis management and conflict mediation. The ability to shape the resolution of international conflicts is central to Chinese president and party leader Xi Jinping’s vision of an assertive China taking on more international responsibilities, reflecting its status as a global power.
In pursuit of this vision, Chinese diplomats are now involved in more international negotiations than ever before. Beijing’s recent efforts in Afghanistan are a good example of this approach, with Chinese diplomats offering to mediate between the Afghan government and the Taliban. And just this January, China dispatched an envoy to Iran and Saudi Arabia, calling on its oil suppliers to exercise restraint in their current diplomatic clash.
Involvement without impact
However, it is doubtful that Beijing’s involvement can contribute to either a resolution of the conflict in Syria or a mitigation of the dispute between regional powers Iran and Saudi Arabia. Chinese negotiators lack experience in conflict resolution in the Middle East. As of now, Beijing’s diplomatic approach consists mainly of copying existing strategies, such as talking to Syrian opposition leaders like Khoja, who is an important voice within the secular opposition abroad, but has little influence inside Syria.
Xi Jinping’s state visits to Saudi-Arabia, Egypt, and Iran (January 19-23) — making the Middle East the last major world region for Xi to visit since taking office — also illustrated that China is not yet willing or capable to act as a diplomatic heavyweight in the Middle East and press the most urgent questions in the region. During his visit Xi put the most emphasis on promoting the “Belt and Road Initiative” and China’s first Arab Policy Paper, which focuses on increasing energy-cooperation and infrastructure investments as well as cooperation in the high-tech sector.
Only in Egypt did Xi openly address the Syrian issue and call for a political solution of the conflict. This is remarkable, since the ongoing conflict is widely considered a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In Riyadh and Tehran however, Xi did not present himself as a mediator, but rather as a check-book diplomat, brokering deals.
Working with China
Outside of China’s foray into crisis diplomacy in Syria, the country’s increasing involvement in other multilateral security endeavors has so far mostly occurred in its own backyard or through the United Nations. The G20 group, which is chaired by China this year, could provide new channels for cooperation, and Xi has declared the fight against terrorism one of the core issues for China’s presidency. On the specific area of targeting ISIS, the G20 could prove to be an efficient platform. When engaging China on international counterterrorism efforts, it is however necessary to clearly separate the domestic Chinese Uyghur issue from the fight against ISIS. Otherwise, the space for cooperation on counterterrorism will remain very limited.
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) could provide another venue for working with China on counterterrorism, especially in Central Asia. Berlin wants to use Germany’s chairmanship of the organization this year to launch closer cooperation with Beijing through its outreach programs. These formats normally focus on economic issues, but China’s diplomatic forays in Syria could prompt the inclusion of security issues in the agenda.
One thing is certain: The international community should identify an increasing number of appropriate channels to include China in managing global security. Otherwise Beijing will unilaterally initiate and foster parallel security structures — making it even more complicated to reach diplomatic solutions in international conflicts.
Moritz Rudolf is a research associate at the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) in Berlin.