China's Syria Connection

The PRC continues to back Assad.

The Assad regime has been engaged in fierce fighting against its own people for well over two years. Syria’s embattled leader was quoted recently as saying “no solution can be reached with terror except by striking it with an iron fist,” illustrating his belief in a military solution to the current crisis.

Whilst Russia and Iran (backed by their Shia allies Hezbollah) have rightly received the majority of international criticism, China has escaped proper scrutiny for its role in supporting the embattled Assad regime militarily, politically and economically.

A 2011 report by the U.S. Congressional Research Service highlighted the role China has played in arming Assad’s military, providing $300 million worth of arms from 2007 to 2010.

For proof of continuing support, February 2013 saw the United States impose sanctions on China Precision Machinery Import and Export Corporation, a state-owned company, for allegedly conducting military transfers to Syria in violation of nonproliferation legislation.

China seems happy to let Russia and Iran take on the role as Assad’s main supporters. Even though China is less obvious than the other two nations, it is nonetheless far from neutral.

Despite Chinese rhetoric of supporting a political solution, its actions suggest otherwise.

China’s selective use of its “noninterference” policy has seen them (alongside Russia) veto three Western-backed Security Council resolutions seeking to bring Assad to the negotiating table. As a permanent member of the Security Council, any international solution would require Chinese acquiescence.

Furthermore, in an interview given to the Financial Times in June, Kadri Jamil, Syrian deputy prime minister for the economy, boasted that China has joined Iran and Russia in delivering $500 million a month in oil and credit to Syria. The majority of Syria’s oil is in the largely rebel-held north and northeast of the country, and the network of pipelines connecting the wells to the population centres are vulnerable to rebel attack. As a result, Syrian oil production has fallen by as much as 95 percent during the ongoing conflict, and the importance of Chinese aid should not be underestimated. Chinese financial and material support supplements Russian and Iranian aid and has allowed the Assad war machine to remain militarily effective.

China has many interests in Syria, which are guiding its actions.

Aside from strong economic and military ties to Assad’s government, which predate the current crisis, China fears radicalization of its own Sunni-majority Muslim population, some of whom it accuses of travelling to Syria for combat training with the rebels.

Assad’s survival is also tied up in a Chinese geostrategic consideration of the energy-rich Middle East, whereby supporting Assad is seen as an effective block on Western power in the region. Moreover, the Chinese government is nervous of creating a precedent for intervention on human-rights grounds due to its own insecurities at home.

With the news that the rebels have opened up a new front near the port city of Latakia, a gateway for foreign supplies, it appears they at least understand the importance of foreign aid to Assad. The United Nations estimates that over one hundred thousand people have been killed and 1.7 million people displaced in the Syrian crisis so far, and a diplomatic solution looks less likely than ever.

Whilst Russia and Iran have been instrumental in allowing Assad to survive, the international community should not overlook China’s crucial role.

Hugo Brennan is a researcher at the Henry Jackson Society in London.

Image: Adapted from Flickr/Fotografiando Segundos. CC BY 2.0.