China’s successful mediation of the Iran-Saudi rivalry has raised expectations for a larger Chinese role in resolving other conflicts in the region, including in Yemen and Syria, and most recently, between Israel and Palestine. The Iran-Saudi mediation also reinforced Chinese claims to regional leadership in the Middle East made at the China-Arab Summit in December 2022.
Beijing has indeed presented itself as a political partner for resolving regional conflicts, but it has rejected any such role in resolving the region’s many humanitarian crises. Despite being one of the most influential and powerful nations, China has largely remained on the sidelines of humanitarian efforts in the region and resigned itself to the pursuit of economic interests. Instead, it has been pouring development assistance and investment under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), normally reserved for developing countries, into Saudi Arabia – the country which has the least need for economic aid in the region – while leaving those affected by conflicts across the region in dire straits.
Beijing’s View of Humanitarian Crises
Beijing’s stance on humanitarian crises is that “war, conflict, and poverty” are the primary drivers of refugee crises, and that the only way to resolve them is through “peace and development.” Using that framework, China participates in many of the United Nations’ forums and processes on refugees and migration, particularly high visibility events that align with its foreign policy priorities and improve its image.
In October, China’s U.N. Ambassador Chen Xu argued at the 73rd Executive Committee of the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR for Beijing’s policy of “common but differentiated responsibilities” for developed and developing countries. He emphasized the financial obligation of Western nations – as exporters of “wars and turmoil” – to address the “symptoms” of refugee crises in developing countries by fulfilling aid commitments, supporting reconstruction, and increasing financial aid to refugee-hosting countries.
Interestingly, China, a self-proclaimed developing country despite being the world’s second-largest economy, absolved itself from any such obligation to provide financial assistance on a large scale to address refugee crises. Rather, Beijing has prioritized economic gains over humanitarian ones.
Chinese officials maintain that their policies are designed to address the root causes of refugee crises, such as armed conflict, impoverishment, and the lack of progress. They believe that the implementing the BRI in areas of conflict is an effective way to achieve peace. This view holds that development is essential for peace and that a strong central government is necessary for successful national reconstruction, commercial activity, investment, and infrastructure growth.
High Visibility, Low Impact
In practice, China’s “development as peace” approach largely overlooks conflict zones in favor of energy-rich countries. BRI funds have dried up in the Levant region – Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria – and migrated to the Arab Gulf. For low- and middle-income countries, like Jordan, many BRI projects never materialized, despite the lofty rhetoric. Those that did have been plagued by the exclusion of local labor participation and dashed expectations of economic development.
Instead, the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on local economies pushed Beijing to reduce BRI lending and reprioritize investment to Gulf Cooperation Council markets, where it can reap higher returns. For example, Saudi Arabia was one of the largest global recipients of BRI funding globally in 2022, totaling $5.5 billion, and the two nations are expected to rapidly expand bilateral trade and investment by an estimated $20 billion.
China does employ humanitarian diplomacy in the Middle East, often around high visibility crises like Syria and Yemen, to bolster Beijing’s international image and improve its perception in the region. Instead of providing meaningful relief, China actively broadcasts its minuscule aid provisions through the nation’s propaganda machine in order to project an image of itself as a responsible world power. The substance of its actual engagements, however, has little to no impact on alleviating Middle East crises.
Beijing prefers to remain above the fray in the region’s conflicts and eschews entanglement in the geopolitics of conflict. However, its prioritization of BRI funding over meaningful humanitarian action commensurate with its economic standing sends powerful signals to the international humanitarian community, particularly U.N. agencies, who increasingly are expected to do more with less. And China’s short-term, one-off aid provisions do little to support the multilateral aid effort.
A Troubled Track Record
Aid actors often criticize Beijing’s humanitarian contributions as meager and insufficient to support the region’s varied humanitarian and refugee crises. Beijing gives significantly less than peer competitors, like the United States, in foreign aid. For example, in 2019, Beijing’s total foreign aid was estimated to between $4.8 billion and $5.9 billion, whereas U.S. global foreign aid – excluding military and security funds – amounted to $31 billion. Chinese contributions come in the form of commitments and in-kind donations of relief items to U.N. agencies – such as UNHCR, UNICEF, and the World Food Programme – through its state-led aid agencies, the Global Development and South-South Cooperation Fund and the China International Development Cooperation Agency.
In Syria, for example, Beijing does not even rank among the top 50 donors to the U.N.-led response. China committed an average of $1.8 million to the U.N. Humanitarian Response Plan Regional Response Plan for only six out of the 12 years of war in Syria. Instead, Beijing has directly provided the Syrian government with an estimated $54 million in bilateral economic support. Compare that to the United States, which has provided nearly $15 billion in humanitarian assistance to Syria and the surrounding region since 2011. Meanwhile, Syria’s neighbors, Lebanon and Jordan, have received little in terms of Chinese aid.
Beyond humanitarian commitments, China’s behavior as a U.N. Security Council (UNSC) member, notorious for its vetoes over action in humanitarian crises, has also created a more restrictive and convoluted aid environment for humanitarian actors, who must operate under extreme top-down pressure from China as a permanent UNSC member. For example, in the ongoing debate over U.N. Resolution 2642 – which authorizes U.N. cross-border humanitarian assistance in Syria to areas outside of the control of the Syrian government – Chinese and Russian pressure on U.N. agencies to shift from providing aid across international borders to providing aid across battle lines inside of Syria threatens to undermine hard-fought access to remote areas across the country.
Furthermore, Beijing’s increasing pressure, alongside Russia, does not come with any additional guarantees of increased funding or contributions to bolster multilateral aid efforts. Instead, Beijing and Moscow are pressuring U.N. relief agencies to centralize in Damascus, under the purview of the Syrian regime, subjugating the Syrian aid environment to a government still actively at war with its people.
As in the case of Syria, China prefers to give foreign aid bilaterally to partner governments. This aid, at times, has sustained belligerent regimes, notably in Syria and previously in Sudan, during protracted periods of state-led crises and genocide. In the case of Sudan, Beijing’s humanitarian aid during the Darfur crisis in the 2000s largely flowed through the Sudanese government, despite its role as a combatant in the conflict. Under Chinese pressure, Khartoum eventually consented to a U.N. peacekeeping mission in Darfur. Chinese pressure on the embattled regime was a last resort for China to preserve its energy and oil interests in Sudan, stave off calls for stronger international intervention, and restore China’s international image, which came under extensive scrutiny in advance of the 2008 Olympics.
China’s global rise foreshadows Beijing gaining an outsized voice over humanitarian issues in the future. Its current lackluster relief efforts, limited commitments, and trend of supporting belligerent regimes to date is largely in opposition to hopes that China would be a constructive actor, particularly as it pursues great power status. Despite its track record, others in the humanitarian community are recognizing Beijing’s growing role, and calling on China to assume a more active and productive approach to relief.
In 2021, International Committee for the Red Cross President Peter Maurer called on Chinese officials to step up their role in humanitarian assistance and integrate a humanitarian dimension into the BRI, particularly by supporting and financing humanitarian action and empowering victims of conflict to co-design preparedness and response strategies. However, the current UNSC debate over humanitarian access in Syria is one example the scale of the divide between China and its Western counterparts on the governance of humanitarian affairs.
Commensurate with its GDP and global standing, China could certainly be doing more financially to alleviate humanitarian crises – particularly in the Middle East where humanitarian responses to regional crises are already underfunded. Refugee-hosting countries like Jordan and Lebanon are struggling to meet the needs of both refugees and their host communities. If Beijing wants to play a more constructive role in humanitarian relief, it can enhance its contributions to U.N.-led multilateral aid efforts in support of these struggling nations rather than throwing cash at belligerent regimes, like the Assad government in Syria, which will only embolden those regimes to deepen their control over the humanitarian environment.