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Does China truly support Bashar al-Assad? | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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There can be no doubt that the Chinese veto of the Arab bloc’s draft initiative at the UN Security Council has cast a pall over Chinese relations with some Arab states, particularly in the Gulf. Russia, which rejects a repeat of the Libyan model in Syria, was expected to veto the draft resolution; however China’s position has confused some, and met with condemnation from others.

China enjoyed – and continues to enjoy – strong trade relations with most Arab states. In terms of imports, it is one of the three largest importers of Gulf oil. As for exports, China is one of the five biggest exporters to the Middle East and North Africa. More than this, China’s history of voting in the UN Security Council is mostly sympathetic to draft resolutions put forward by regional states, so why did China vote in Syria’s favour?

The direct answer to this is that China had vowed to vote against the project even before it was put forward [at the UN Security Council], so this issue was no surprise. Some Arab states attempted to persuade China to reverse its decision, but China’s position was clear, namely that it would now permit Western states to repeat the Libyan model again, even if this led to them diplomatically supporting Syria.

In order to understand the Chinese position, we must look at some important issues; firstly, the Chinese position, even if it does seem to support the Bashar al-Assad regime, does not necessarily oppose change in Syria, so long as this does not take place via the UN Security Council, or Chapter VII of the UN Charter. Secondly, China has had strong trade relations with Syria, and strong economic cooperation with the Bashar al-Assad regime since 2001, after both parties signed an agreement on economic and technical cooperation; this means that China is Syria’s third most important trading partner. However the volume of trade between the two countries, which amounted to $2.2 billion in 2010, is nothing in comparison to the commercial exchange between China and the Gulf States, which exceeds more than $90 billion per year. Therefore China is not too concerned about the loss of Syria as an economic partner, however the issue is not one of profit or loss or business considerations, particularly as many Chinese interests are served by opposing the US and European movement to bring about regime change in the Middle East.

In his op-ed “Why Beijing Votes With Moscow” (published by the New York Times on 7 February, 2012], Professor Minxin Pei claims that the real reason that China utilized its veto was not to protect the al-Assad regime, but to stand with Russia against what both consider to be European and US autocracy in deciding the fate of some regimes. Pei writes “since it returned to the United Nations in 1971, China has been sparing in its use of the veto in the Security Council. It often chose to abstain in votes it did not support. Whenever it did use its veto – it has done so eight times – the issues were usually of importance to Chinese national interests.”

Everybody from Professor Steve Chang of the University of Nottingham to veteran “Newsweek” writer Melinda Liu, agree with this analysis, namely that China is indifferent to whether al-Assad survives or leaves power, but rather it is concerned about granting the West the green light to do whatever it likes with regards to deciding the fates of regimes and countries that while not directly important to Chinese interests, may have an impact on more important Chinese interests in Asia.

An op-ed appeared in the Chinese “People’s Daily” newspaper, an organ of the ruling Communist Party in China, under the pen-name “Zhong Sheng” – which translates to mean “the sound of a bell” – was clear in putting forward the Chinese position on this issue. He wrote “though China has a less direct stake in Syria than Russia, the collapse of Syria will result in the West further controlling the Middle East, and Iran taking direct strategic pressure from the West. If war broke out in Iran, China would have to rely more on Russia for energy, bringing in new uncertainty to the Sino – Russian strategic partnership.” (People’s Daily, 9 February, 2012).

Does this mean China will continue supporting al-Assad?

Not necessarily, the previous section clarifies China’s position; they do not want to remove the al-Assad regime, and then see war break out in Iran, because this would threaten China’s oil imports.

Therefore, it would be best if the Gulf States understood this message and work to reassure China, and provide additional safeguards to soften China’s position against UN action on Syria. Remember that despite China’s reservation about intervention in Libya, Beijing refrained from voting against this resolution. However what China is most concerned about is the US and Europeans exceeding any ceasefire, as they did in Libya to topple the Gaddafi regime.

There is much evidence that it is within the capability of the Gulf States to contribute to reassuring China, and let us begin by looking at the issue of Iran. China took a positive position on the European and American sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran and Iranian oil exports. Proof of this can be seen in China reducing its dependence on Iranian oil in anticipation of international action against the Iranian nuclear project, and this represents a positive shift from China that we must focus on.

China is one of the biggest buyers of Iranian oil, and it accounts for about 20 percent of its total exports, however since January, Beijing has reduced their purchase of Iranian oil by around 285,000 barrels per day or just over half of the total daily amount it imported in 2011. According to experts within the oil industry, Beijing has purchased most of the surplus in its oil supply over the past few months from Saudi Arabia and perhaps this explains the importance of the visit paid by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao [to Saudi Arabia] and his meeting with Saudi monarch King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz. Following the end of his tour of the Gulf, the Chinese Premier announced that “any extreme acts across the Strait of Hormuz, under whatever circumstances they are taken, are against the common interests and aspirations of the people across the world”, in reference to the Iranian threats to close the strait.

In my opinion, the position on China must be balanced and rational; for the negative popular reaction towards the Chinese veto – which saw Chinese flags being burned – will not contribute to persuading China to soften its stance. The Chinese have legitimate reservations, and this is based on many issues; they have no interest in the survival of the al-Assad regime, they just want to make sure that any regime change does not occur through the use of external force. Evidence of this can be seen in the fact that China is considering the issue of appointing an official envoy to the Middle East to monitor this issue, whilst Beijing also announced a few days ago that it had met a delegation from the Syrian opposition. Therefore, the Russian position and the Chinese position should not be confused with one another, for each have their own justifications and reasons, for whilst the Russians – as they have announced publicly – want a price to topple the al-Assad regime, the Chinese are more concerned about the methods and results of change, not figures.

In his latest book, “On China”, Henry Kissinger writes that Chinese policies have never been confrontational, but rather diplomatic, intelligent and cautious. He says that the Chinese are concerned about maintaining development and granting security – and freedom – to foreign markets. As for when political problems erupts, Kissinger says that the Chinese prefer to sit on the fence, or abstain from voting, whilst others take the lead. The Chinese do not take action unless they have a direct interest in this, and there is nothing wrong with that. Kissinger writes that Beijing follows the Chinese proverb that says “sitting atop a mountain to watch a fight between two tigers.”

Most likely, after China’s interests have been secured and its leadership reassured, Beijing will not be part of the fight over the future of Syria.