The United States once again seems poised to launch a military strike against a Middle Eastern country, and, once again, China is against it: In a stinging editorial, the China Daily warned that military action against Syria could be “another Iraq” and that it is high time the US “learned from its past mistakes.”
The main rationale for a US strike against Syria is that, by using chemical weapons against Syrians living in an opposition-controlled village, President Bashar al-Assad has violated an international norm and must be punished. In theory, a strike would not only prevent Assad from using these weapons again but also deter embattled governments elsewhere from deploying them. As of this writing, President Obama said he still hasn’t made up his mind about going forward with the attack, but no one will be surprised if he gives the order.
China, like 188 other countries, is a signatory to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and, unlike Russia, has no military relationship with Syria. Yet throughout the more than two-year-old crisis, China has consistently used its veto power to squelch punishment on Damascus, and has continued to offer financial support to the Assad regime. And should Obama go ahead and seek UN authorization for military action against Assad, China has hinted that it will veto that, too.
What’s behind China’s position on Syria? One possible explanation is the country’s growing energy needs—China is expected to become the world’s largest oil consumer within four years and imports nearly 55% of this oil from the Middle East. But Syria isn’t a major exporter, and China can easily rely on other countries for its oil.
Instead, these are the actual reasons for China’s opposition to an invasion of Syria:
China and Russia feel burned by what happened in Libya
On March 17, 2011, the UN Security Council voted 10 to 0 to establish a no-fly zone over Libya in order to protect Benghazi civilians from mass slaughter. Expected to veto the resolution, China and Russia instead abstained, and two days later a Western-led intervention began. When the skirmish eventually brought about the end of Muammar Gaddafi’s presidency, beyond the original mission of the resolution, China made its displeasure known.
“The Chinese felt that the UN Resolution was essentially used to overthrow Gaddafi, and that it was far more expansive than what they envisioned,” said Bonnie Glaser, an East Asia Senior Advisor at Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Ever since, it’s safe to say that China no longer trusts American intentions in cases of foreign intervention.
China wants a seat at the table
Although China’s diplomatic profile in the Middle East has grown over the years—the country has a dedicated Middle East envoy and has even floated its own four-point proposal for Israel/Palestine peace—its reach in the region remains limited. However, China has consistently objected to American interventionism overseas.
“China wants international crises to be resolved in bodies that they have a voice in,” says Joel Wuthnow, an Asia analyst in the China Security Affairs Group at CNA. “They prefer forums where they have a veto.”
China’s reticence when it comes to entanglement in the Middle East isn’t a universal principle: The country aggressively pursues territorial claims in the South China Sea, an area which China regards as a core national interest. But in respect to crises beyond its periphery, Beijing’s strategy is to prevent another Iraq War. Washington’s decision, in collusion with London and a few other members of the “coalition of the willing,” to attack Iraq in 2003 without the support of the UN Security Council drew sharp condemnation from Beijing.
China is obsessed with stability—and fears a post-Assad future
There’s really no evidence that China has any special affection for Bashar al-Assad or views him as essential to Syria’s future, but Assad is a known element, and China believes that his departure will be chaotic. Syria lacks a unified opposition, a shadow government, or any other institution that could step in should Assad’s regime collapse, so a military endeavor that decapitates the government might just make everything a whole lot worse. Plus, Beijing fears that an Islamist movement in Syria may radicalize China’s Uighur population, a Sunni Muslim group which occasionally clashes with the Communist Party government.
What will China do if the U.S. strikes Syria—and how much would an attack damage Sino-American relations? Wuthnow says this depends on how Washington goes about it. If President Obama orders a ground invasion of Syria, China would have serious objections—but a brief round of airstrikes would cause a more muted reaction: ”We’d see some rhetorical flourishes from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or in the People’s Daily condemning it, but China wouldn’t let an airstrike damage their relations with the US,” says Wuthnow. Not least because, given its still-modest military strength, China lacks the capacity to intervene even if it wanted to.
Regardless of what happens, it’s safe to say that China, by opposing any military strike, is on the side of the American public. Within the United States, support for invading Syria is infinitesimal, with many hawkish Republicans (even Donald Rumsfeld!) expressing misgivings. And over the years, Chinese warnings about the risks of American intervention have proven remarkably prescient: neither Iraq nor Libya have exactly turned into oases of stability since the overthrow of their strongmen. Whatever China’s motivations for opposing an invasion of Syria, its non-interventionist instinct seems to have proven merit.
Matt Schiavenza is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees The China Channel.