Will Piekos is a Research Associate for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
On August 3, the United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly approved a non-binding resolution condemning the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad for its human rights violations against opposition rebels. The West, the Arab League, and most other UN member states voted to censure Assad’s government, while China, Russia, and an array of authoritarian states—including North Korea, Belarus, Zimbabwe, Iran, Myanmar, and Cuba—voted against the resolution. Though China’s vote is not unexpected, it does little to enhance Beijing’s efforts to be considered a responsible power.
China, along with a vocal Russia, has often stated that the Syrian conflict should be resolved diplomatically with as little external interference as possible. Just two weeks before the August 3 vote, China and Russia joined forces to veto a July 20 Security Council resolution that would have authorized economic sanctions under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter should the Assad government fail to implement former UN-Arab League mediator Kofi Annan’s peace plan.
There are several reasons behind China’s current stance. For one, Beijing is adhering to its long-standing foreign policy principles of sovereignty and non-intervention. A recent People’s Daily opinion piece reaffirmed that “External forces should not intervene in the regime change of a state….” By adhering to its policy of non-intervention, China has often found itself at odds with the West, supporting repressive regimes such as North Korea, Sudan, and Iran.
Moreover, China’s foreign policy principles appear to have gained increasing resonance in the wake of the NATO and Arab League intervention in Libya. Chinese international relations specialist Shi Yinhong, for example, has stated, “China’s worry about the resurgent Western ‘liberal interventionism’ is playing a substantial part” in determining Beijing’s stance on UN actions in Syria; part of China’s insistence on non-intervention is likely due to its fear of possible international intervention to support separatist movements in Xinjiang and Tibet. Some analysts even suggest that China’s support of Assad is rooted in fears that Iran would be in danger of Western intervention should Syria’s regime fall.
Finally, even when China acquiesces to Western precepts, as it did in Libya by abstaining from UNSC Resolution 1973, some Chinese experts contend that (pdf) Beijing’s actions did not improve its image and led to sizeable Chinese economic losses. Thus, Beijing would gain little if it were to abandon its principled stand in Syria.
China has argued it is following a different path than the West—pursuing the same goal of peace and stability but without the need for military intervention. The Chinese leadership has publicized its attempts to engage both the Syrian government and the opposition, and it has been supportive of Kofi Annan’s six-point peace plan. Chinese analysts have praised Beijing’s active diplomatic role in the Syria conflict, maintaining that their mediation efforts will help solve the situation if given enough time. As Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang has indicated, “To promote the political solution to the Syria issues, China has always actively balanced its work between the Syrian government and the opposition.” Western news outlets, though, have been quick to dismiss these efforts, stating that they are intended “to defuse criticism of [China’s] policy on Syria’s violence….”
Thus far, China’s diplomatic entreaties have proven fruitless, and Beijing is likely to face an increasingly untenable geopolitical position. Its relations with Arab nations, most of whom support the anti-Assad rebels, may well suffer. Though these countries have not denounced China directly, they are clearly of a different mind on the issue; Syria’s government has already been suspended from both the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
Moreover, China is hurting its international image by opposing harsher measures against the Assad regime. For some time now, Beijing has taken great pain to be seen by the world community as a great power and earn the political respect that accompanies economic success. One such example is China’s efforts to have the EU lift its arms embargo on China (initially a response to the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown). Ironically, China has argued that it is degrading to be put in the same category as other EU-sanctioned countries such as Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Myanmar—the same countries with which it often allies.
Beijing cannot expect to be seen as a responsible world power while it associates with pariah states and defends a Syrian dictator engaged in a bloody civil war to keep power. By affiliating itself with countries on the edge of the current world order, China is undermining its own strategic aspirations. It will not be able to gain the respect of the international community or inject its ideas into the global conscience. China’s leadership would be wise to remember the old adage, “You are known by the company you keep.”