20 September 2013
Dr Tim Summers

Dr Tim Summers

Senior Consulting Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme (based in Hong Kong)


China's approach to the Syria crisis has been driven by a desire to avoid any US led military intervention.

Beijing's dissatisfaction with the West's intervention in Libya in 2011, following Security Council decision 1973, has led it to be far more circumspect in the case of Syria. It has joined Russia in vetoing three UN resolutions. Compared with Russia, however, China has attempted to be even-handed in its dealings with the Syrian government and opposition. Its direct interests in Syria are relatively limited, and when possible China has tried to keep its head down.

China's official position on the Syria crisis has been consistent. At the centre of its approach has been to advocate a political resolution to the crisis, and to oppose the imposition of solutions from the outside – especially if they involve the use of military force. In practice, this has led the Chinese government to put its faith in the UN-Arab League Special Envoys – first Kofi Annan, now Lakdhar Brahimi – and call for all relevant parties to work together towards a political settlement, despite almost no sign of this happening during the past two years.

This approach reflects an underlying principle of Chinese diplomacy: non-intervention in the internal affairs of other states, and a desire for the UN as a collective body to have more authority than individual members. In the past, such 'non-intervention' has often led Beijing to support incumbents at times of political turmoil, whatever the human rights or humanitarian situation. 

But in Syria, China has not set itself up as an ally to the Assad regime in the way Russia has. Instead, Beijing has made efforts to show impartiality in the conflict. In 2012, for example, the Chinese government hosted visits by both Syrian government and opposition figures. At the very least this ensures that it has channels to whichever side might prevail. This attempt at even-handedness differentiates Beijing's direct dealings with Syria from Moscow's. 

However, since the crisis began, China has joined with Russia in vetoing three UN resolutions on Syria. These votes have been the most significant Chinese interventions in the international diplomatic process. China has justified its votes based on their position on the 'uneven' nature of draft resolutions, in line with the idea that China stays neutral.

Logically, this might lead to an abstention, rather than veto, and abstention has been Beijing's usual practice in the past. But the Chinese government's reflection on the Libya experience – like that of Russia's – has made it determined not to give legal sanction for another Western-led intervention. Both Moscow and Beijing abstained on UN resolution 1973 imposing a no fly-zone over Libya, but felt that the West went beyond the scope of this resolution. 

It is highly unlikely that China would veto alone. Russia's opposition to Western resolutions on Syria has given China the opportunity to harden its position in the UN post-Libya, fed by an accrued dissatisfaction with Western military intervention over the last decade. It may also reflect efforts by China's new leadership to strengthen the relationship with Russia. 

Diplomatic route

Beijing condemned the August 21 chemical weapons attack in Damascus and called for a full UN investigation to be concluded, but has studiously avoided apportioning blame. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs reiterated its official position of encouraging a political solution, and emphasized (more clearly than before) that it was opposed to external military intervention, which they said would be 'against the purposes of the UN Charter and the basic norms for international relations.'

The Chinese leadership will likely be relieved that developments since then have brought the US and Russia closer together with a roadmap which may avoid the use of military force; the government has formally welcomed the framework agreement. At the same time, like Britain and France, China may have a sense of being excluded from the deliberations in Geneva which led to the US-Russia agreement.

A balancing act

Ultimately, China's direct interests in Syria are relatively limited. Beijing will keep its head down where possible, unless pragmatic steps can be taken. 

Developments in Syria will continue to provide a challenge to Chinese diplomacy. China's official position can be expected to continue to be based on the promotion of a diplomatic solution and opposition to military intervention. Any UN resolution which might open the door to military action will therefore most likely lead to a veto, assuming Moscow's position does not change.

China imports more oil from the Middle East than the US does, and its main interest is regional stability. The country’s foreign minister Wang Yi has made it clear that military action is likely to increase regional instability. There is little reason to suggest a change in that judgment any time soon. 

To comment on this article, please contact Chatham House Feedback