China betting on wrong side in Syrian conflict

by Frank Ching

On the weekend before last, the United Nations General Assembly voted, 133 to 12, for a resolution that condemned the violence in Syria and called for a “political transition that meets the aspirations of the Syrian people.”

The vote showed just how isolated the Assad government is not only in the international community but among fellow Arab countries. Yet, China joined Syria in opposing the resolution, along with a handful of countries that included Russia, Cuba, Iran and North Korea.

The resolution also criticized the “failure of the Security Council to agree on measures to ensure the compliance of Syrian authorities with its decisions.”

China, along with Russia, has barred action by the Security Council by vetoing three Western-sponsored resolutions on Syria over the last year.

Wang Min, China’s deputy U.N. representative, explained the Chinese position by saying that Syria’s destiny should be decided by the Syrian people themselves. “China is opposed to any action forcing a ‘regime change’ in Syria,” he said.

In Beijing, the Foreign Ministry arranged a hastily called press briefing where an official, Wang Kejian, reiterated China’s opposition to military intervention in Syria.

Wang said China respected “the legitimate demands and aspirations of the Syrian people for change.” However, China appears hypocritical to say on one hand that it respects the desire of the Syrian people for change while at the same time blocking the United Nations from taking any action to help bring that about.

Beijing publicly supported the efforts of Kofi Annan, the U.N. special envoy on Syria. Annan, who announced his resignation on Aug. 2, asserted in an op-ed in the Financial Times that “It is clear that President Bashar Assad must leave office.”

That is to say, regime change is part of the solution. It is true, of course, that Annan also said that, besides Assad’s departure, there needs to be “measures and structures to secure a peaceful long-term transition to avoid a chaotic collapse.”

To say that all others should stay out and let the Syrians sort things out themselves is a recipe for disaster. Already, since China and Russia barred Security Council action, thousands of civilians in Syria have been massacred. But there is a small sign of possible change in China’s position on noninterference.

An op-ed piece, headlined “Detachment no longer serves Chinese interests in the Middle East,” has appeared in the online edition of the People’s Daily as well as its affiliated paper, the Global Times. “Recently,” the article said, “within Chinese and Israeli intellectual circles, there has been a somewhat concealed debate as to whether China should be more involved diplomatically and even strategically in the Middle East conflict.”

The author, Aron Shai, rector of Tel Aviv University, said it was not enough for China to concentrate on the economic sphere. “International trade and global interests relating to energy security,” he wrote, “cannot dwell separately from active diplomacy and at times even from interference of a kind in crucial regions.”

The academic disclosed that Chinese envoys who have visited Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian National Authority, Lebanon, Syria and Israel have signaled that “a moderate change is taking place in Beijing’s approach to the Middle East.”

Now that China has replaced the United States as the primary trading partner of many countries, including American allies, and is poised to become the world’s largest trading nation within five years, it has a stake in what goes on in virtually every corner of the world.

Indeed, China learned an expensive lesson in Libya, where its losses as a result of the crisis there have been estimated in the billions of dollars.

That being the case, it no longer has the luxury of adopting the position that it will not be involved in conflicts far from its shores. Initially, China talked about a so-called “third path” for Syria but, in the months since the Security Council vetoes, there has been not only a diplomatic stalemate but escalating violence in Syria.

It is fine for China to talk about a diplomatic solution involving all the parties in Syria, but unless it can use its influence to bring this about, it should seek to work with the west and bring about the Annan solution: a peaceful transfer of power and the avoidance of a collapse in Syria. Anything less than this makes China part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist. Frank.ching@gmail.com Twitter: @FrankChing1