According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as of January 19, over 4.6 million Syrians had fled the terror of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) and Bashar al-Assad’s barrel bombs. Most of those refugees ended up in Turkey, Lebanon, or Jordan, but a significant number sought refuge in Europe.
China is far from becoming a preferred destination for migrants from the Middle East, and the Chinese government is also not going to open its doors to refugees. Nevertheless, Beijing could play a constructive role in the ongoing crisis.
Currently China’s refugee aid in the Levant equals the contribution of Austria. Given the size and economic capabilities of the PRC, this is very little. According to UN data, by October 2015 China had contributed $14 million in humanitarian aid to Syria since the beginning of the crisis in 2011. In October and December 2015, the Chinese Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced the provision of additional sums of $16 million and $6 million respectively. In comparison, the United States has given $2.9 billion, Germany $1.4 billion, and the U.K. over $1.5 billion since the beginning of the Syrian conflict.
Within China there is a vivid discussion on how Beijing should respond to the refugee crisis. Some intellectuals, including Professor Wan Meng from Beijing Foreign Studies University, argue that China, as a responsible rising power, should help to ease the situation. Beijing should be able to increase its financial contributions, since it is already evolving into a global player in disaster relief and humanitarian aid: During the Ebola crisis in 2014, China sent medical aid worth over $200 million as well as medical experts and even PLA medical staff. After last year’s earthquake in Nepal, Beijing pledged $500 million for reconstruction and medical aid and it recently offered help to Indonesia to cope with forest fires raging in Sumatra and Kalimantan. In addition, China has and is contributing troops to UN peacekeeping missions, for instance in Mali and South Sudan.
However, another faction – which seems to be prevailing within China – argues that the United States and Europe caused much of the crisis in the Middle East, and should therefore take the responsibility and deal with the consequences. The West, meanwhile, should respect China’s reluctance to get involved. As Wu Sike, China’s former special envoy to the Middle East, stated in November 2015, “The interfering policies of the United States, Europe and other Western nations and their trying to push their own values to change the Middle East have bought long-term turmoil and have been an important inducement to this wave of refugees.” In November 2015, during the German-Chinese human rights dialogue, Chinese representatives even criticized Germany’s handling of the refugee crisis on human rights grounds.
Recently China has moved swiftly on the diplomatic stage, but it remains unlikely that China is willing or able to play a significant role in solving the crisis. Beijing could, however, increase its financial support and should do so, out of mere self-interest.
More financial aid by Beijing would be a “low cost, low risk engagement,” in particular compared to the billions of U.S. dollars China has pledged to the “One Belt, One Road (OBOR)” initiative. Stability is the Achilles’ heel for the success of OBOR in the region. By increasing financial contributions, Beijing would not be drawn into the Syrian conflict and it would not deviate from the principle of non-interference. In fact, China could actually play a constructive role in stabilizing the region. At a time when China desperately needs to create a positive image of itself in the world, helping to curb the refugee crisis could turn out to be a great PR coup for Beijing.
In addition, China could illustrate that it is a responsible global stakeholder by stepping up its financial support to the UNHCR. Financial aid to upgrade refugee camps in the Middle East or parts of Eastern Europe (e.g. Lebanon or Macedonia) could be beneficial to the refugees as well as to the overwhelmed countries hosting them. It could even help to curb the influx of refugees to Europe and turn out to be a significant trust-building measure between Europe and China.
For the last few months, some EU member states, such as Germany, have tried to involve China in solving the refugee crisis. During an interview with the South China Morning Post, the German ambassador to China, Michael Clauss, stated that “any contribution from China’s side would be more than welcome.” In late December during the visit of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Berlin, he and his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier also discussed the refugee crisis. And in early January, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang talked about China’s potential role in responding to the refugee crisis during a telephone conversation.
On February 4, an international high-ranking donors conference for Syria will take place in London. The conference was co-organized by Norway, the U.K., Germany, and Kuwait as well as the UN. China has not yet indicated whether it will respond to the recent $7 billion UN appeal for aid to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Syria. But a U.K.-China Joint Statement on Syria, released one month prior to the conference in London, implies that China could use this stage to step up and announce more financial contributions.
The long-term objective for Europe should be to establish a sustainable mechanism to involve China in managing the refugee crisis beyond ad hoc responses. The most obvious channel would be the UNHCR, which is chronically underfunded. Germany in particular should strive to actively engage China and put the refugee crisis on the agenda during its OECD presidency this year. Furthermore, Germany will follow China as chair of the G20 in 2017, which represents another window of opportunity to engage China.
Moritz Rudolf is a research associate at the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) in Berlin. Angela Stanzel is Policy Fellow in the Asia and China program at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).