Written by Don Keyser.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Clinton, addressing media following a February 24, 2012 “Friends of Syria” gathering in Tunis, emotionally blasted as “distressing” and “despicable” the February 5 Russian and Chinese vetoes in the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) blocking an Arab League-backed resolution calling upon President Assad to step down.[i] Beijing angrily riposted by terming Clinton’s words “totally unacceptable”[ii] and sarcastically demanding to know “what moral basis does [the U.S. government] have for this patronizing and egotistical super-arrogance and self-confidence?”[iii] China (joining Russia) laid down a firm non-interventionist policy line on Syria, casting a third UNSC veto in July 2012 against a U.S.-British-French-backed resolution that would have imposed non-military sanctions if Assad failed to cease use of heavy weapons against his opponents.

Both Moscow and Beijing repeatedly made clear through summer 2013 their unwavering determination to block UN-sanctioned intervention in Syria’s civil war and their principled opposition to unilateral action by the U.S. or its partners. Meanwhile, China broadened its Middle East involvement in what some observers construed to be a calculated counterpoint to Secretary Kerry’s negotiating effort. China hosted Israeli PM Netanyahu and Palestinian President Abbas on successive days in May, its striking overture to arrange a Beijing summit[iv] having been politely deflected; President Xi Jinping offered a “4-point peace plan”; and Special Envoy for the Middle East Wu Sike told the Chinese media that “Middle East problems are too complex to be solved single-handedly, including by a superpower like America taking the leading role. It’s not that the U.S. doesn’t want to solve it, it’s that they can’t solve it.”[v] An authoritative Xinhua commentary extolled China’s activism: “There is no doubt that the U.S. is still a main contributor to the peace process, but the Middle East is in urgent need of a new force. While other parties may be talking the talk, Beijing is walking the walk.”[vi] China also worked at cross-purposes from U.S./European policy on Iran, insisting that Tehran had moved no closer to a nuclear weapons capability and signing in 2012 a major new oil import deal that undercut western sanctions and relieved the pressure on Iran’s economy.

All this occurred against the backdrop of Chinese calls — notably by President Xi during his June 7-8, 2013 Sunnylands Summit with President Obama — to forge “a new type of great power relationship” with the U.S. in which each pays respectful attention to the other’s “core interests.”

The sharp disparity between the Xi government’s positive public rhetoric and Beijing’s evident disposition to challenge frontally U.S. interests in the Middle East — China and Russia have hewed to a nearly lockstep negotiating and voting posture within the UNSC — poses questions for U.S. analysts and policy makers. Do Beijing’s recent rhetoric and policy actions mask its ambition to take on the U.S. in areas of its traditional predominance? Does China seek to assert more forcefully its resource and other interests in the Middle East commensurate with its rising international clout? Do Chinese strategic planners aim to counter the Obama administration’s “pivot” or “rebalancing” to Asia with its own pivot to the Middle East?  Or is recent Chinese activism on Syria and the Middle East merely the latest chapter in a pattern unaltered in its fundamentals since the end of the Cold War?

China has — quite apart from its UNSC performance — visibly expanded the scope and pace of its Middle Eastern diplomatic and military engagement. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in early 2006 sent 182 military engineers under United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) auspices to assist in reconstruction of Lebanese infrastructure destroyed during the civil war; over the next two years it upped its UNIFIL contribution to 353 field engineers and 60 medical staff. The PLA Navy in 2008 dispatched three ships on an anti-piracy escort mission in the Gulf of Aden — its first deployment outside the Asian region. In 2009, Beijing appointed its first Middle East Special Envoy, who visits the region regularly to explore possibilities for enhanced Chinese diplomatic leadership. During 2011-12, the PLA Navy paid “friendly” visits to seven nations in the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Aden region. In 2012, China sold approximately $1 billion worth of weapons to six nations in the region, while the PLA Navy and Air Force carried out joint exercises and military-to-military exchanges with Iran, Iraq, Turkey and several other countries.[vii]

Such initiatives serve an array of important Chinese policy interests. One of China’s most flamboyantly hawkish strategists, Major General Luo Yuan, offered an atypically dispassionate capsule summation at a November 2009 conference held in Dubai.[viii] Luo pointed to China’s interests in (1) securing the sea lines of communication from the Strait of Hormuz to the South China Sea, given that China purchases 55% of its oil from the Persian Gulf; (2) preventing linkages between Middle Eastern Islamic extremists and pan-Turkic proselytizers with restive fellow Muslims in western China (i.e., Xinjiang); (3) developing trade and economic ties with a region whose economies are “complementary” (i.e., huge markets for Chinese consumer goods and other products, China’s export of labor to certain Gulf and Arab countries where there is a relative insufficiency, luring investment in China by wealthy Arab countries); and (4) fostering solidarity in opposing international (i.e., American) “power politics.”

Peking University School of International Studies Dean Wang Jisi, a renowned public intellectual and strategist reputedly influential with previous Presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, developed in an October 2012 newspaper essay the geopolitical case for increased Chinese attention to the Middle East.[ix] Wang argued that “While the U.S. pivots east, and Europe, India and Russia also eye the East, China should have a strategic plan of ‘Marching West.’” Wang appealed for China to deepen its involvement in the Middle East, including “creative intervention,” in recognition that it will remain heavily dependent on fossil fuels and other resources for decades to come while facing continuing competition from the U.S. and other western powers. Unlike MG Luo, however, Wang placed emphasis on the desirability of cooperation with the West on congruent interests.

Most mainstream Chinese strategists concede the formidable constraints weighing against a bolder, more proactive posture in the Middle East. China lacks the deep regional knowledge, historical experience, thick network of governmental and business associations, financial leverage, political influence and force projection capabilities enjoyed by the U.S. and leading European nations. It has no military/strategic assets in the region: no alliances, no bases, no boots on the ground apart from token contributions to UN operations, and minimal substantive military contacts. It cannot aspire to match the huge U.S. financial, political and technical assistance to both Israel and Palestine. Nor can it supplant the U.S. as security guarantor for Saudi Arabia, Gulf emirates and other nations in the region. China remains wary of entanglement in the complex national, ethnic and regional rivalries of the Middle East: no “win-win” strategies present themselves. Still dependent on the U.S. to safeguard the flow of Gulf oil to China, and thus unwilling to arouse U.S. suspicions, Beijing characteristically sticks to assertions of “principled positions” (as on non-intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign nations).

The “Arab Spring” highlighted China’s dilemma. Beijing — like others — was caught by surprise when popular unrest engulfed Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Hamstrung by its classical regional diplomacy of offering political — chiefly rhetorical — support to established governments against the threat of external intervention, Beijing’s leaders misread the import of the local uprisings, lacked substantive links with rebel groups, worried about a spillover of “Jasmine Revolution” fervor into Xinjiang and China generally, and came across to emerging democratic Arab leaderships as apologists for the dying, discredited autocratic regimes.  Moreover, China’s brutal suppression of restive Xinjiang Uighurs has damaged its image and credibility with Muslim opinion across much of the Middle East, ranging from al-Qaeda linked groups to the governments of Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Weighing all this, Chinese experts seem to recoil from a more muscular diplomacy in the Middle East. Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) Professor of Middle Eastern Studies Yin Gang told foreign journalists this past May that “China is a long way from the Middle East, and it can’t even reach a good solution to its own regional problems: North Korea, the Diaoyu Islands, the Philippines, Vietnam. Even if China becomes a superpower with an economy on a par with the United States, it still won’t play a major role in the Middle East.”[x] In similar vein, retired Major General Xu Guangyu, now with the government-affiliated China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, recently said flatly that China’s armed forces are unprepared to act in the Middle East and so China must “adopt a neutral position … China has no way of knowing what’s really going on in these countries.”[xi]

How to understand China’s position on Syria?

In most respects, the underlying geopolitical logic and specific tactics recall Beijing’s performance during the prelude to the 1991 Persian Gulf War; the run-up to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq; UNSC approval since 2006 of multiple rounds of sanctions against Iran; and the 2011 UNSC authorization of force in Libya.

The policy calculus is no mystery. China lacks the will and the wherewithal to affect measurably the situation on the ground. Hostilities can only jeopardize the flow of vital energy supplies and disrupt the ties Beijing has forged with governing authorities. U.S.-led military action promises expansion of its “hegemonic” span of control to the detriment of China’s long-term ambitions. U.N. approval of action against sovereign nations raises for China the spectre that the same logic of “humanitarian intervention” and “responsibility to protect” could be applied to Taiwan, Tibet or Xinjiang. China aims to project “soft power” through public alignment with those nations facing or opposing “western-led” threats and outright intervention.

Yet China also recognizes its surpassing national interest in maintaining “cooperative and constructive” ties with Washington. So while opposing unilateral U.S. actions, China also ostentatiously consults with Washington. Deputy Secretary of State Burns visited Beijing in October 2012 and proposed inscription of the Middle East Peace Process on the agenda for discussion at the next U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue. Secretary Kerry reiterated Washington’s interest in “enhanced cooperation” on the Middle East during his April 2013 talks in Beijing. Special ME Envoy Wu Sike told a Hong Kong journal that the U.S. had been “quietly lobbying” China to play a larger role in the Middle East peace process.[xii] Under Secretary of State Sherman and Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun met in Washington June 20, 2013 for the first “U.S.-China Middle East Dialogue” and “discussed developments in the Middle East, with particular attention to Syria, Iran, and Middle East Peace.”[xiii] Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Wang Yi met recently both in Washington and New York to discuss, inter alia, the Syrian situation. In his September 19 discussions with Kerry, Wang “welcomed” the U.S.-Russian framework agreement; pledged China’s readiness to “play a positive and constructive role”; and called again for a political solution.[xiv] Addressing the UN General Assembly on September 28, Wang expressed China’s opposition to any use of chemical weapons, took credit for having played a “constructive” role in “tough” negotiations, called for “an immediate end to hostilities and violence … to create necessary conditions for verification and destruction of chemical weapons,” and stated China’s readiness to send experts to participate in “relevant” work and to provide financial support.[xv]

For China, the resulting policy blend is predictably imperfect, often self-contradictory, and lacking in creativity. Hence, in each case since 1991 including the present one: Beijing steadfastly advocated a political resolution; backed UN and Arab-led negotiating efforts; extended moral and some material support to the “threatened” party; opposed imposition of sanctions and resort to military force; sought to slow-roll any UNSC action; threatened (or in the Syrian case, actually cast) a veto; and aligned closely with Russia in blocking or watering down U.S. proposals. In all this, China has deftly ceded the “leadership” role to Russia or others (e.g., France during the 2002-03 UNSC debates over Iraq), presumably aiming to posture itself as the more “reasonable” party and to deflect the brunt of U.S./western anger toward Moscow. Where China’s tactics on Syria — especially its vetoes — differed from its previous UN behavior, the explanation is probably to be found less in rising Chinese “assertiveness” than in (1) Russia’s assertiveness, which affords diplomatic cover for China, and (2) the Moscow-Beijing shared conclusion that they had been duped into opening the door to direct UN-sanctioned military action in Libya through abstaining on the key 2011 UNSC resolution that they held never implied such authorization.

Don Keyser is a retired U.S. State Department senior Foreign Service officer, and non-resident senior fellow at the University of Nottingham China Policy Institute.


[i] China and Russia had earlier vetoed [October 4, 2011] a U.S.-Europe drafted resolution authorizing “targeted measures” if Assad continued his forceful suppression of protests against his regime.

[ii] Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei, regular press briefing, February 27, 2012.

[iii] People’s Daily commentary, Feb. 27, 2012, signed by the authoritative pseudonym “Zhong Sheng.”

[iv] Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying, responding to a journalist query in advance of the Netanyahu and Abbas visits, said that “If the leaders of Palestine and Israel have the will to meet in China, China is willing to offer necessary assistance.”

[v] Xinhua News, June 18, 2013.

[vi] Xinhua “Commentary,” June 19, 2013.

[vii] See Amir Taheri, “Opinion: China’s Baby Steps in the Middle East,” Asharq al-Awsat, June 28, 2013.

[viii] See Luo Yuan, “China’s Strategic Interests in the Gulf and Trilateral Relations among China, the U.S. and Arab Countries,” in China’s Growing Role in the Middle East: Implications for the Region and Beyond (Washington, D.C. and Dubai, UAE: The Nixon Center and Gulf Research Council, 2010), pp. 23-31.

[ix] See Wang Jisi, “March West: China’s Geopolitical Strategy of Rebalancing,” Global Times, October 17, 2012.

[x] See Edward Wong and Christopher Buckley, “China Dips a Toe into Middle East Peace,” New York Times, May 8, 2013, and “China and the Middle East: Playing the Peacemaker?”, Economist, May 11, 2013.

[xi] Ben Blanchard, “Analysis: China Has Much At Risk But No Reach in the Middle East,” Reuters, August 28, 2013.

[xii] See Zachary Keck, “U.S. Lobbied China for Greater Middle East Cooperation,” The Diplomat, June 11, 2013.

[xiii] “U.S.-China Middle East Dialogue,” Department of State Media Note, June 20, 2013.

[xiv] “Remarks with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi Before Their Meeting,” Department of State Media Note, September 19, 2013.

[xv] Zhang Yuwei, “UN’s Syria Resolution on Point, FM Says,” China Daily, September 29, 2013.

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