Syria is a diplomatic challenge for China

China vetoes all three UN resolutions on Syria

China vetoes all three UN resolutions on Syria

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.

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

Recent 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.

Source: Chatham House, “Syria crisis a diplomatic challenge for China”

Categories: Politics & Law

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4 replies

  1. So, as a member of the security council. As a major power in the world, China does nothing. Same old platitudes about internal affairs. Except of course, when the internal affairs might reflect on China itself. Like, for example, the Dali Lama visiting a foreign head of state in their own country……

    At some point, China will have to stand on it’s hind legs and make some statement of its intentions.

    This is not the actions of a superpower (as it certainly wishes to be), but of a nation with no foreign policy (like the USA), but only foreign interests.


    • There is no altruism in foreign policy. Countries don’t do things because it is the right thing to do but because it serves some sort of self interest. China’s neutrality comes from its belief that countries should not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries especially in terms of civil unrest. Therefore if civil unrest comes to China, outside powers will not interferer ie try to influence the opposition. This is a cornerstone of Chinese foreign policy in cases of civil war and civil unrest which it has consistently followed. Think of it as I don’t come to your house and interfere with how you run things and you don’t come to my house and tell me how to run things. However china still meddles in the affairs of other nations in other ways.

      Well what can China do in this conflict? Military action? Thats out of the question. China is doing what everybody else is doing which is a lot of talk and not much action. Economic sanctions? Only if it applies to both sides and not just the government. The Syrian conflict is very complicated. Its not the good guys vs the bad guys, civilian vs government. Its two armed groups fighting on opposite sides of each other. The only reason why the other “world powers” care so much about Syria is because it serves their national interests. Syria is not the only place with mass killing in this world. Look at conflicts in Africa. Are the “world powers” paying much attention to them? China exhibits all the aspects of a big superpower; meddling in countries that serves its own interest and staying out of others that doesn’t.



  1. Syria is a diplomatic challenge for China | True World Intelligence News (TWIN)
  2. China is getting ready to surge troops into Africa to protect its economic interests | China Daily Mail

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