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Monday, November 12, 2012
The Chinese Initiative on Syria: Beyond the Immediate Crisis

The Chinese Initiative on Syria: Beyond the Immediate Crisis
INSS Insight No. 383, November 12, 2012
Evron, Yoram
http://www.inss.org.il/publications.php?cat=21&incat=&read=10555

On October 31, 2012, China deviated from its traditional posture of shunning
involvement in Middle East politics, and announced a four-step program to
resolve the crisis in Syria. The initiative, however, does not include
concrete actions and seems powerless to change the situation. If so, is the
step meaningless, or does it have some significance not apparent at first
glance?

At face value, the Chinese plan seems empty of any real content. As a first
stage the parties are supposed to cease the violence, but the plan offers
little beyond saying that the end of violence will take place in ways
allowed by the circumstances. At the second stage, the parties are to
appoint representatives who will draft a roadmap for a process of political
transition, with the Assad regime staying in place until the discussions are
complete, to ensure political stability. At the third stage, the
international community will work closely with Lahdar Brahimi, the UN and
Arab League envoy to Syria, to implement international decisions already
taken under UN auspices and in the Security Council. At the fourth stage,
the international community will increase its efforts to resolve the
humanitarian problems created by the crisis, in part by increasing aid but
without politicization or militarization – a hint to what in China's view is
the cynical use by the West of humanitarian aid. According to the Chinese
plan, Brahimi is supposed to play a dominant role throughout the
implementation, overseeing the discussions and receiving support from the
region’s nations and the world powers. At the same time, the plan rejects
any unilateral international intervention, the use of pressure, and the
forcible ouster of the Assad regime.

China's program is not expected to result in the resolution of the crisis.
Not only does it fail to include concrete steps, but the life-and-death
struggle between the regime and the opposition groups, and the bitter fate
the losing side can anticipate, make it seemingly impossible to arrive at
voluntary agreements to end the conflict. In addition, the legitimacy the
plan gives Assad to continue ruling during the negotiations could motivate
him to refuse any settlement that denies him a position of strength.

Assuming that Beijing is aware that the plan cannot in fact lead to a
resolution of the crisis, the question arises as to its real purpose. The
answer lies in the role China would like to play in international politics
and its attempts to influence the regional agenda while minimizing criticism
directed at it. Since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis, China has
consistently opposed unilateral action by the international community (in
effect, the Western powers) against the Assad regime. In a fairly atypical
move, it vetoed a Security Council initiative against the Assad regime.
Similarly, it opposes giving aid to the rebels, ostensibly because this
represents external interference. The basic tenet of China’s stance is the
preservation of sovereignty: this is a fundamental value of China’s foreign
policy, which rejects the forcible intervention in other nations’ internal
affairs. Based on this principle, the citizens of Syria should shape their
own future. Another openly declared rationale for Beijing’s rejection of
foreign intervention in Syria is the lesson it learned from the Libyan
crisis when China (along with Russia) was persuaded to support limited
foreign intervention, which – to its surprise and chagrin – assumed much
greater intensity than anticipated. As China sees it, it was deceived by the
West.

At least four additional considerations presumably drive China's approach to
Syria. First, the stability of the Iranian regime: the collapse of Assad’s
regime is expected to hurt Iran significantly. The survival of the Iranian
regime serves both China’s economic and strategic interests by blocking
American dominance in the Persian Gulf. Second, the stability of the Middle
East: because Syria has no opposition strong enough to step into Assad’s
shoes and unify the country, Beijing worries that the collapse of Assad’s
regime will ignite a civil war that will further erode the region’s
stability and negatively affect the global energy market. Third, China is
demonstrating an independent stance in terms of the Western powers and
exposing their weakness in leading international moves. Fourth, and possibly
most important, in light of the hesitant steps taken by the Western powers
on Syrian, China apparently does not think that at least for now, any strong
international pressure – similar to the pressure exerted on it about Iran –
will be leveled against it to operate with greater harshness towards the
Assad regime.

From this perspective, even if the Chinese initiative is not expected to
change the reality in Syria, it cannot be dismissed out of hand: it serves
Beijing’s interests well and bears another layer of significance. While
China’s well-known negative attitude towards Western initiatives is rooted
in objections to unilateral interference in developing nations in general,
and the nations of the Middle East in particular, so far China has made do
with expressing its opposition and constructing international initiatives.
This made the implementation of the Western initiatives difficult but also
presented China as a passive, oppositional, and self-centered nation. This
not only damaged China's image in the West but also made it difficult for
China to position itself as a leader among the developing nations, a role it
very much wants to play. On the other hand, presenting an initiative of its
own, built around Chinese fundamental worldviews – the sanctity of
sovereignty, the importance of territorial integrity, rejection of forcible
intervention, and promotion of international and multi-national bodies in
resolving international crises – presents China as a world power that
commands legitimate attention in the global discourse. Not only does this
strengthen China’s position in presenting its views as equal to those of the
West, but it also shifts the burden of opposition and proof onto its rivals.

China’s initiative also helps it deal with the harsh criticism it has
received in the region and domestically about the way in which it is
allowing Assad’s dictatorship to butcher its own people. Because China
intends to be active in the Middle East in the future, uncompromising
support for Assad damages its image in the region (as well as at home) and
is liable to damage its relations with whatever regime will replace him. The
initiative addresses this challenge: it sets up clear limits to its support
for the current regime and justifies this support with rationales that
reflect both Middle East and Chinese positions – curbing the dominance of
the Western powers, preserving domestic stability, and enhancing local and
multi-national institutions (in which developing nations enjoy positions of
strength) in resolving the crisis.

Thus while the Chinese initiative is not expected to bring the Syrian crisis
any closer to a resolution, it is not to be dismissed, as its objectives go
far beyond the current state of affairs in Syria. From a broader
perspective, with relevance also for Israel, not only does the initiative
demonstrate China’s willingness to challenge, in a much deeper way than ever
before, the Western principles prevalent in international and regional
politics since the end of the Cold War, but it also expresses China’s desire
to play a more active role in Middle East politics. Considering the timing
of the initiative – the eve of the Communist party congress and leadership
transition – one cannot rule out the possibility that this initiative
signals a broader change in China’s greater approach to this region.

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Dr. Yoram Evron is a research associate at INSS and is a lecturer in the
Department of Asian Studies at the University of Haifa.

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