On August 18, 2016, senior Chinese military officials announced their intention to provide personnel training and humanitarian aid to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government. This announcement occurred just days after Chinese Rear Admiral Guan Youfei’s trip to Damascus. Guan’s diplomatic outreach to Assad’s government included bilateral negotiations with Syrian Defense Minister Fahd Jassem al-Freij and a consultation with Lt. Gen. Sergei Chvarkov, the head officer at Russia’s naval base in Latakia.
Even though China has maintained an economic and security partnership with Damascus for decades, China’s expanded involvement in Syria can only be partially explained by its historic commitments to Assad. Chinese policymakers view the Syrian crisis as a golden opportunity to advance a normative agenda that bolsters China’s influence in the developing world. The Chinese government’s active involvement in resolving the Syrian conflict has also allowed Beijing to assert itself as a major diplomatic arbiter in the Middle East.
China’s Normative Agenda in Syria
China’s handling of the Syrian civil war differs markedly from the West’s approach. Since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011, China has consistently upheld the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign countries. China’s strict interpretation of national sovereignty has caused it to view Assad’s Baathist regime as Syria’s sole legitimate governing authority. China has refuted U.S. President Barack Obama’s argument that Assad’s war crimes have caused him to lose his moral authority to govern Syria.
The Chinese government’s strident opposition to a Western-led regime change mission in Syria builds on its criticisms of the 1999 NATO bombings in Kosovo and, more recently, the 2011 overthrow of Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi. As many developing countries view Western Responsibility to Protect (R2P) norms for military interventions as a disguised form of imperialism, China’s position in Syria has helped it expand its range of international allies.
International support for China’s position on Syria is very valuable for Beijing’s broader geopolitical ambitions, particularly its quest to delegitimize The Hague’s ruling against its expansionary conduct in the South China Sea. China’s expanded attention to Syria is a powerful display of Beijing’s disagreement with the norms set by Western-dominated international institutions. By articulating an unerringly consistent message on state sovereignty, China could strengthen its alliances with developing countries that support its South China Sea claims.
Even though China shares Russia’s commitment to Assad’s survival, Chinese policymakers have implicitly questioned Russia’s commitment to a multilateral political solution to the Syrian conflict. As Shannon Tiezzi noted in October 2015, the Chinese government is uneasy with Russia’s unilateral airstrikes and missile launches on Assad’s behalf. The Chinese Foreign Ministry’s September 2015 statement that “military action is not part of the solution in Syria” is still largely representative of China’s position a year after Russia’s pro-Assad intervention began in earnest.
To demonstrate Beijing’s disenchantment with Putin’s Syria policy, China has intervened unilaterally on Assad’s behalf in ways that have occasionally clashed with Russia’s interests. Even though Putin has consistently supported the disarmament of Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal, there is evidence that China’s largest arms manufacturer, Norinco, covertly sold chlorine gas to the Syrian government in the early stages of the conflict.
Beijing’s alleged chemical weapons sales to Assad demonstrate that China is willing to diverge from Russia’s foreign policy preferences to achieve its own interests in Syria. It also reveals China’s desire to bolster its international status among anti-Western authoritarian regimes and potentially challenge Russia’s role as the leading normative counterweight to American hegemony in the Middle East.
Syria and China’s Balancing Strategy in the Middle East
China’s expanded support for Assad’s government is also a powerful indicator of Beijing’s growing power projection capacity in the Middle East. By expanding Beijing’s influence in the Middle East/North Africa region, Chinese policymakers can demonstrate to their own people and to the international community that China is on the verge of becoming a superpower with global geopolitical reach.
China’s non-interventionist stance in Syria has helped Beijing expand its soft power and range of allies in the Middle East. By fiercely opposing a military solution to the Syrian conflict, China has strengthened its relationships with both Iran and Saudi Arabia — no mean feat, as the two states have opposite positions on the civil war.
China’s staunch support for non-interference in Syria’s internal affairs has further entrenched the perception among Iranian policymakers that Beijing is a stable economic and security partner. In the years leading up to the July 2015 Iran nuclear deal, Chinese policymakers signed large-scale arms contracts with Tehran to capitalize on positive Iranian public perceptions of China. According to The Diplomat’s David Volodzko, Iran imported 31.7 percent of its weapons from China in 2014. Iran has diverted many of these Chinese-made weapons to Syria to assist Assad’s crackdowns on Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra, and moderate rebel groups.
Iran has courted Chinese diplomatic assistance in Syria to rally international support for its pro-Assad military campaign and boost its prospects of membership in the Beijing-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). China has responded to Iran’s diplomatic overtures by providing support for Assad in the UN and endorsing Iran’s SCO membership goals.
To strengthen the Beijing-Tehran relationship, the Chinese military has held joint military drills with Russia on Syria’s Mediterranean coast and maintained a strong alliance with Iran’s Lebanese ally Hezbollah. Therefore, while China has refused to militarily intervene in Syria alongside Iranian forces, its indirect pro-Assad actions have helped entrench Tehran as a vital Chinese ally in the Middle East.
At the same time, China’s unflinching opposition to military intervention in Syria has ensured that its pro-Assad actions do not jeopardize its status as Saudi Arabia’s leading trade partner. Since the start of the conflict, the Chinese government has diplomatically engaged Saudi Arabia on the Syrian crisis. China’s new chief envoy tasked with devising a workable peace settlement for Syria has pledged to visit Riyadh and devise a solution to the Syrian crisis that Saudi Arabia would find acceptable.
To demonstrate the credibility of its non-interference policy to Saudi policymakers, China has sold hundreds of millions of dollars in arms to Saudi Arabia. Many of these arms have been used to fund Syrian rebel groups. While the Saudi Arabia-China partnership remains largely economic in nature, Beijing’s accommodation of Saudi interests in Syria has allowed it to maintain a fruitful, small-scale security partnership with Riyadh.
Even though Beijing has maintained a strong relationship with Assad, China’s reluctance to intervene in Syria has set it apart from the rest of the UN Security Council. China’s ability to maintain close relations with both Iran and Saudi Arabia has bolstered its influence in the Middle East. The willingness of Western policymakers to acknowledge China’s growing importance as a power broker in Syria and diplomatically engage Chinese officials could profoundly shape the outcome of future multilateral peace negotiations in Syria.
Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a journalist who writes regularly for the Washington Post and Huffington Post. He can be followed on Twitter at samramani2 and on Facebook at Samuel Ramani.