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

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  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    China does't care about human rights or lives for sure! They just want to show the west how powerful they are..

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    The Biggest root cause of the chaos and Wars around the World is "Israel" , Just think about it, every Modern conflict starts from there and finishes there as well.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    Damian Grammaticas is no Marie Colvin, and never will be. His unpleasant experiences from Chinese authorities is his career hindrance.
    There is now a chance for western journalists to pursue the case of Christopher Tappin, along with Matrix Churchill in the past, who knows what the truth is? There is still the issue of Gary McKinnon.
    Western journalists are too busy degrading other countries and forget the west and its allies have serious and subtle shortcomings.
    Or perhaps the China assignment can be a cushy lifestyle number to for Grammaticas stick with?
    I was naive and expected objectivity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    i have read many articles written by Damian Grammaticas .But sorry to say it seems that he never has a fair attitude towards China . And i really wonder has Damian Grammaticas been to China ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Hmm, maybe China has had enough of Western governments using political turmoil in developing countries to take advantage of them, and stealing their natural resources when they are at their most weak. The only reason we intervened in Libya is because it has the most oil out of any African country. Syria is 2nd in the list. Its strange how we're not really interested in the famine going on in Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia where over 200,000 people died of starvation last year. Quite a lot of dead people. What about intervention in Bahrain, Sudan etc???

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    The ultimate goal of the US is to take the resources of Africa and Middle East under military control to block economic growth in China and Russia, thus taking the whole of Eurasia under control. These are not my words, nor are they the words of any Chinese or Russian, these are the words of an American scholar Frederick Wilhelm Engdahl.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    china is a nation that has no regards for human rights, supports most of the dictators and tyrants around the world, and butchers its own people. Does anyone in their right mind really think that they will care about the deaths of civiliansin Syria?

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    "A country does not have permanent friends,only permanent interests."

    The western countries know better than any other parts of nations.

    Some Western countries accumulated wealth via colonizing the world,and laid the foundation of their powers,now they are still pointing fingers at others.

    China was humiliated by the western powers for a century like what happened in Iraq and Arab world.

    It's time we defend our own interests.

    Like what Napoleon said," When China awakens, the world will be sorry."

  • Comment number 23.

    This comment has been referred for further consideration. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    I am not saying we should justify Syrian regime's atrocities.
    But to use military means to intervene another sovereign country is a right choice.
    This might cause more civilians to die and even if the Assad regime was brought down, how would we assure a stable Syria later?
    Look at Iraq, more civilians died after US invasion; and people are still suffering today.(US soldiers can leave,but people in Iraq can't)
    Look at Egypt, are they getting any better?
    Maybe Tunisia and Libya are better than these nations; but this proves that the result of interventtion differs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Does the author want us to believe that this uprising is 100% a natural people's will? Like in Libya? Like in Irak? Why doesn't he write on the reasons why the west want to topple Assad?

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Well judging by the conduct of Western culture, people in the rest of the world feel hard pressed to consider the West equal!

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    The United States is just using Human Rights and Democracy as an excuse to start a new era of Imperialistic Expansion. Iraq and Afghanistan, now Libya and Syria. It wasn't Hitler that invented the Concentration Camp, it was Britain during the Boer War. Democratic France still saw it fit to slaughter millions of natives in its colonies in Africa and Asia, America conveniently forgets about it's atrocities in the Philipines and Cuba in the C19th, and lets not forget China was also a victim of Imperialistic Expansion. China is doing the right thing by making a stand against Democracy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.


    When will we stop forcing our own Western standards upon other countries and civilizations? Our superiority complex over the non-Christian world is supposed to have passed along with our colonial history. Maybe people with a colonial master's background like this author just won't let it die. It is possible that China vetoed the Security Council's resolution because it does not agree with the idea that only killings by the Western powers is just and all others must obey.

    Judging by the conduct of these cultures, people here feel hard pressed to consider them equal!

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Another less than objective and less than impartial article by Grammaticus, which is what I come to expect from his correspondence. The fallacy is that "International" moral standards exist, and that they really do "care".
    The reality is that "international" means that many countries are dependent upon the west and are required to toe the line when demanded. Otherwise they are free to be corrupt (eg. Olympics, football world cup) or free to violate human rights (eg. Sri Lanka).

    Why should China toe the line? Syria is a complex issue with serious consequences for Christians and minorities.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    There is another possibility: Russia already has a naval base in Syria, perhaps China is hoping to build one too? Together, Russia and China will run a Syrian puppet government, in order to control the Eastern Mediterranean. How's that for a Great Game?

    NATO will be freaking out, and will do everything it can to get both Russia and China out, including armed intervention if necessary. But that risks NATO and Russian armed forces coming into direct conflict...oh dear, better start building my Anderson shelter.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Damian finally wrote a deep discussion on issue related with China. Cooperation with Russia is one big reason to resist Western's actions against China though it's not trusty, and in heart, the government in China fears what happening in middle east countries will happen in China if China doesn't veto it. Make the situations more complex will waste Western's time and power in middle east, not far east, to have time to grow stronger.What Western does in Syria fulfill Western's interests, and what China does fulfill China's interests, so the Western can't blame what China does.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Russia and China, through their veto, "have emboldened the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria to believe it can act with impunity." Hmm. If we replace "Russia and China" with "The USA", and "the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria" with "Israel", we would have a very accurate picture of the other side of the coin. Russia and China have their reasons, just as we have ours. Before we accuse others, we should look at ourselves first. We will have the right to demand that others be reasonable once we have become reasonable ourselves.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Usually external intervention comes ONLY after VERY large scale atrocities. Few dozen, few hundred or even few thousand deaths rarely initiate such intervention. Moreover, Damian Grammaticas stated "that China along with Russia, both authoritarian states themselves, are concerned about the way repressive regimes have been falling in the Arab Spring." They are therefore scared. It is also highly unlikely that authoritarian states will have empathy like democratic states. Russia and China therefore will hardly be concerned since they themselves carried out large scale state sponsored atrocities.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    I think China is right to not get involved in another countries issues. The Syrian government have a right to maintain security in their own country and I tend to view the West's coverage of events with scepticism. The rebels are terrorists using violence to over throw the Syria;s rule of law. If journalists in their vain glory attempts stand in the firing line they can expect to get shot. Of course China also has a right to use force to maintain its internal security, just as the USA does on a daily basis with homeland defence policies and actions.


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