China's stake in the Syria stand-off

Chinese Ambassador to the United Nations Li Baodong votes to block a Security Council resolution backing an Arab League call for Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down, at UN headquarters on 4 February 2012 China's outspoken opposition to international action on Syria is not easy to explain

In Tunisia, representatives of 70 nations are trying to find ways to pressure Syria into accepting a ceasefire, to allow humanitarian access, and to show support for Syria's opposition.

But it's in Beijing and Moscow, far away, where the power to end Syria's bloodshed really lies.

So far China and Russia have provided the diplomatic support that has shielded Syria from international pressure.

Some say their actions have emboldened the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria to believe it can act with impunity.

They are the two major powers that have blocked efforts in the UN Security Council and the Arab League to force Syria to halt its military offensive against its own people. They have vetoed UN resolutions and stalled efforts to condemn the actions of the Assad regime.

Why China?

Russia has clear interests in Syria. It has long given military and diplomatic support to the Syrian government. It supplies Syria with many of its guns, tanks and shells. If the Assad regime fell Russia would lose much of its influence in the Middle East.

Much harder to explain is why China has taken the same line, and why it continues to stand so firmly against tougher action over Syria.

China does not have direct interests at stake in Syria in the same way that Russia does. It does not sell Syria many weapons or rely on it as an ally.

In fact, standing up now puts China in an uncharacteristically exposed position. China's diplomacy is usually about keeping a low profile and leaving others to take the lead.

So what is China's motivation? There are many theories.

First is the explanation that China itself gives, publicly at least, that it has a long-standing policy of non-intervention and is sticking to that.

But this is not easy to square with the fact that China actively decided to veto the UN resolutions. It didn't need to use its blocking power. Russia seemed set to frustrate action at the UN anyway.

China could have left Russia to veto action, and allowed the resolution to fail without sticking its own neck out.


Second is the explanation that this is a sign of China's growing assertiveness - that China is starting to stand up for what it believes in.

A handout picture released by activist group the Local Co-ordination Committees in Syria (LCC Syria) on 22 February 2012 shows fire on the roof of a building in the Baba Amr neighbourhood of the flashpoint city of Homs, allegedly during the bombardment of the city The tension over the issue of Syria becomes more strained as Syrian army action intensifies

But China's veto has left Beijing open to criticism that it sides with dictators and repressive regimes and is encouraging Syria's crackdown. So this would be an odd issue to choose to make a stand over.

Third is the idea that China and Russia were outraged by what happened in Libya - where they allowed a UN resolution imposing a no-fly zone but then saw it used by Western powers to bring down the Gaddafi regime - and don't want a repeat of that experience.

But this also doesn't stand up to much scrutiny. China's diplomats at the UN are said to be some of its best. The idea they were blindsided and failed to realise that the UN resolution would bring Gaddafi under enormous pressure makes them look foolish and hardly seems credible.

Even if it were true, it does not explain why China has blocked new UN resolutions that explicitly do not allow for intervention.

Fourth is the possibility that China is worried that radical Islamic groups are backing the uprising in Syria. Beijing may be concerned that their influence could end up spreading down the old Silk Road to China's own Muslim populations in Xinjiang.

This is certainly a concern for China but probably not enough to shape its whole policy towards Syria.

Domino effect

Fifth, and plausible, is the fact that China along with Russia, both authoritarian states themselves, are concerned about the way repressive regimes have been falling in the Arab Spring.

Both Beijing and Moscow have shown they are concerned about the ripples from the Middle East, and both believe the UN Security Council has been used to help topple regimes the West does not like.

So backing Syria may be a way of trying to stop the dominoes falling.

The weakness with this argument is that the Assad regime may be doomed already.

When the man expected to be China's next president, Xi Jinping, was in Washington this month, the Obama administration told him that China risks being on the wrong side of history over Syria. China could see its standing in the Middle East badly damaged.

China's stance has already left it quite isolated. In the UN General Assembly this month, 137 nations voted to back the Arab League's plan to end the Syrian crisis, while only 12 nations, including China, opposed it.


Arab nations have implored China to back them but it has declined to.

So the final explanation is that Beijing is acting alongside Moscow as a deliberate choice, building a coalition of interests.

Russia, with its bigger stake in Syria, may have sought China's help. China may have calculated that to abstain in the UN would have left it open to criticism anyway, and it is better to take an active position alongside Russia.

China may now be in a position to ask Russia to return the favour at a later date, perhaps over North Korea.

Beijing's Global Times newspaper, linked to the ruling Communist Party, said in Friday's editorial: "What's important is that China co-ordinates well and maintains a tacit understanding with Russia on this issue.

"The issue of Syria has so far added points to the quality of strategic co-operation between China and Russia, and this should be seen as China's achievement in a difficult environment."

Civilians are continuing to die in Syria in their dozens. To say that China's achievement has been building closer ties with Russia implies that China's diplomacy is not at all about principles and protecting civilians in a far-off nation, but about hard-headed self interest.

If that's true, don't expect China to change course over Syria any time soon.

In Homs, every few seconds, at the height of the daily bombardment, Syrian government forces are firing rockets and shells into civilian areas.

Across Syria, every day, men, women and children are dying as Bashar al-Assad's regime struggles to put down the uprising against it.

Damian Grammaticas Article written by Damian Grammaticas Damian Grammaticas China correspondent

Uncovering China's illegal ivory trade

Demand for ivory in China has pushed levels of poaching to new highs. The BBC's Damian Grammaticas investigates China's illegal ivory traders.

Read full article


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 51.


    33. theilliberal
    But we are getting away from the very subject. Do you belive that the anti-Assad policy of Western governments is based on their pure love for the Syrian people?
    Love?! Like China loves Tibet?

    PS It's hard to take serious your views on history, sounds more like Chinese communist propaganda!

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    Definitely my final point now! This time to those commenting on Damian Grammaticas. If you think that DG is not painting a fair picture of China why not write a complaint? The BBC takes impartiality very seriously, a rare quality in any news service.

    I read these articles a lot and I have a great interest in the region. Now OK, I've commented on Communist oppression before; it's not great and my opinion won't change on that. But why not write about their good aspects too BBC? e.g the efficiency with which development takes place, alleviating poverty. UK could not achieve this any more.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    An aside here to some posters - I've been commenting against western policy, but in the interests of being balanced, please remember that it is not just the west that can be evil. I mentioned Iraq before as an example of why regime change is bad. But who actually did the vast majority of murdering there? Not the UK/US, but other Iraqis and Arabs. We may have triggered it, but others are just as capable of bad things. And remember that the protests in the west against the Iraq war were the largest in human history. The longing for peace is worldwide, we just need to see beyond our governments.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    Following on from my last post.
    I have to agree with #41 that sometimes we just have to stay out of these issues. It is deeply upsetting to be seeing these scenes of violence every day is Syria, but history has surely shown us by now that regime change is a bad idea, however noble spreading 'freedom' may be. It seems that a lot of these countries want to establish a democratic system of their own anyway. Would we not gain some credibility by not interfering so much?

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    #7 and #9 I think you are absolutely right. Foreign policy is dictated predominantly by self interest, without doubt. This is true whether we are talking about the UK, US, China or whoever. I do think there is genuine concern on the part of the west with regards to the plight of the Syrian people, but clearly we have an ulterior motive for regime change. We always do.
    A few questions - are we really supposed to believe that it is only Assad who is doing the killing? And would regime change really improve the lives for all Syrians long term? Is Iraq indisputably better now? Tricky to know.


Comments 5 of 51



Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.