The recent massacres of hundreds of Syrian citizens in the towns of Houla and al-Qubair, many of them children, has focused the world’s attention on Russia, which has been charged with shielding the Bashar al-Assad regime from international pressure. Yet China also plays a crucial role and may be receptive to arguments that it should use its influence to persuade Assad’s forces to exercise restraint.
Russia has been singled out by Western critics for its intransigence on regime change and its continued arms sales to the Assad regime. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has chastised “very strong opposition” from Moscow that “makes it harder to put together an international coalition.” Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has called for pressure on Russia, which he labeled America’s “number one geopolitical foe.”
The criticism is reasonable but overlooks the role of another great power with significant interests in Syria—China. In 2011, China ranked as Syria’s top trading partner, ahead of Russia. Exports totaling more than $2.4 billion included communications and electronic equipment, heavy machinery and other important goods. This growing trade was spurred by Assad’s inaugural visit to Beijing in 2004 and the subsequent creation of an influential Syrian-Chinese Business Council.
Perhaps more importantly, China has large stakes in Syria’s oil industry. The state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation holds shares in two of Syria’s largest oil firms and has signed multibillion-dollar deals to assist in exploration and development activities. Another PRC firm, Sinochem, owns a 50 percent stake in one of Syria’s largest oil fields. China has also stepped in as an buyer of Syrian crude in the aftermath of a European Union embargo in 2011.
To date, China has adopted a standoffish position, urging dialogue and "patience" even as the situation on the ground continues to worsen. This is regrettable but understandable. China opposes meddling in other states’ internal affairs on principle, arguing that sovereignty should be respected. It is also wary about upstaging Russia, with which Beijing is hoping to forge a closer strategic partnership.
China’s Interests in Intervention
But despite its current hands-off approach, there are reasons to believe that China may reconsider and use the influence it has at its disposal to facilitate stability in Syria.
First, China has interfered in other states’ domestic issues in the past. Its 2007 appeal to Sudan to admit United Nations peacekeepers to Darfur is one example. Another is its nudging of the Burmese junta toward reform. Indeed, China has already reached out to the Syrian opposition, hedging its risk that the current regime may collapse, and may intercede with Assad if it believes that doing so will help secure its trade and investments.
Second, China’s relations with Russia are not likely to be negatively impacted. The goal of an intervention would not be forceful regime change—which Moscow opposes—but rather better governance. China might, for instance, press Assad to carry out the terms of an agreement reached in Geneva recently, supported by Russia, that calls for an immediate ceasefire and an eventual political transition. Doing so would be in China's own interests and, provided it's done tactfully, would not offend Russia.
Third, taking an affirmative approach would benefit China’s standing in the Arab world. Arab states were dissatisfied with China’s veto of a strongly worded resolution related to Syria in the UN Security Council in February, and an intervention, however subtle, would help produce goodwill in the region. Needless to say, China would also improve its image as a “responsible stakeholder” in the West.
The United States should encourage China to see the benefits of doing more to solve the crisis in Syria. But Washington must tread carefully. With China’s leadership transition set to occur later this year, Beijing will be cautious about making decisions that appear to be the result of pressure from abroad. Washington should also distinguish between China’s government and its citizens, many of whom have gone online to speak out against their government's Syria policy.
How China uses its influence in Syria is an important indicator of the type of great power that the PRC aspires to be. It may will realize the normative, economic and political advantages of a strong, proactive approach. But if Beijing sits on the sidelines, doing nothing at all, the status quo will remain: China as a power that is not quite ready for prime time.
Joel Wuthnow is a China analyst at CNA, an Alexandria, Virginia-based think tank, and author of the forthcoming book Chinese Diplomacy and the U.N. Security Council (Routledge). He is on Twitter @jwuthnow.
Image: Freedom House