Pascale Trouillaud, AFP
Last updated: 7 June, 2012

China’s Syria policy guided by principle, analysts say

China has stuck by the Syrian regime through nearly 15 months of bloody revolt, a position analysts say stems largely from its principle of not getting involved in other countries’ affairs.

Rights groups say more than 13,500 people have died in the Syrian uprising since March 2011, and Western powers are pushing for increased pressure on President Bashar al-Assad to stop the regime’s assault against the population.

Despite having few interests in Syria, Beijing has steadfastly maintained that its ally Assad must not be forced from power, resisting Western pressure.

Its stance is faithful to its long-held principle that no country should interfere in other states’ domestic affairs — a tenet that allows it to reject any foreign criticism of its policies on issues such as Tibet and Taiwan.

Analysts say China’s intransigence may stem from its discomfort with Western military action after last year’s uprising in Libya, which eventually led to the fall of leader Moamer Kadhafi.

China consistently opposed military action in Libya within the 15-member United Nations Security Council, but did not use its veto to block the March 2011 resolution authorising the operation, instead abstaining in the vote.

But it believes that the West misinterpreted the resolution and went too far.

China “has always insisted on the fact that Syria’s internal affairs must be decided by its population,” said He Wenping, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

“Non-interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state is one of the principles that safeguards world peace.”

Beijing has also repeatedly said it “opposes military intervention in Syria and opposes regime change by force” — a claim reiterated after the Houla massacre at the end of May that saw 108 people die and shocked the world.

It keeps calling for “all parties” to observe a ceasefire in Syria, and is “unwilling to identify one side as more responsible for the violence than another,” according to Brad Glosserman, executive director of the Pacific Forum CSIS.

Francois Godement, head of strategy at the Paris-based Asia Centre, dubbed China’s stance on Syria “dogmatic stubbornness” and said it was a “sanction against the West for going beyond (the remit of) UN resolutions on Libya.”

But he pointed out that China “does not risk much from the downfall of the (Assad) regime, which is different from Libya and Sudan.”

China had huge interests in Libya — and not only in the oil sector — and more than 30,000 of its nationals lived and worked there. In Sudan, the energy-hungry Asian country buys large amounts of petrol.

But Syria’s small amounts of oil go to Europe and Chinese commercial interests there are minimal. In 2010, China’s exports to the country came to just $2.4 billion.

“Intransigence clearly rules,” said Jonathan Holslag of the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies, adding that Beijing has a “fixation with Western intervention”.

Beijing has done what it usually does in times of crisis. It sent an envoy and has called for restraint, but “it has neither tried to mediate, nor has it thrown its weight behind the action plan of the Arab League”, he added.

China has walked in lockstep with Russia, whose President Vladimir Putin is currently in Beijing to bolster the two giant neighbours’ alliance, particularly on the diplomatic front.

Russia said on Tuesday that Assad could leave power as part of a settlement to end bloodshed in Syria, as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on Moscow and Beijing to be “part of the solution” to the crisis.

Beijing and Moscow, both permanent members of the UN Security Council, used their veto power earlier this year to block action against Damascus, and the two leaders vowed Tuesday to bolster their partnership in the UN.

Their united stance has angered Arab and Western countries. But Godement believes China’s support for Russia, Syria’s staunchest ally, may bring a “reciprocal commitment from Russia on the North Korea issue”, as China is under pressure to act more decisively to stop the isolated state’s nuclear ambitions.

As violence continues in Syria, China has warned of “chaos” in the country if a six-point peace plan brokered by UN-Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan — which is looking increasingly ineffective — is abandoned.

According to Glosserman, China is worried “that escalation via Western involvement could cause a deterioration in the situation in the region, and this would not be in China’s interest.”

At the same time though, he believes “China is content with a festering situation in the Middle East that focuses US attention and somewhat prevents Washington from ‘refocusing’ on Asia.”