In Syria, a Rare Chinese Foray into Foreign Policy

After vetoing a resolution that would have imposed sanctions on the administration of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, China has offered a four-point plan to try to end an ongoing civil conflict there. Presented on October 31, the plan has four main points, as summarized by U.S. News and World Report:

The Syrian government and rebel fighters should make every effort to maintain a ceasefire and work with Brahimi’s mediation efforts;
Both sides should appoint interlocutors who can negotiate a political transition and maintain governmental stability;
The international community should increase support for Brahimi’s efforts and other mediation initiatives, such as “relevant Security Council resolutions”;
The international community should increase humanitarian assistance to conflict regions in Syria.

The Washington Post reports on the international response to the proposal:

The U.N. has welcomed the effort, but there hasn’t been much international discussion of it. Observers have found it vague, and likely aimed at bolstering China’s reputation following criticism of its moves to join Russia in blocking U.N. resolutions aimed at ending Syria’s bloodshed, including calls for Syrian leader Bashar Assad to step down.

China’s proposal leaves open the possibility of Assad staying on in a power-sharing agreement, and does not significantly add to past peace plans that have failed.

“But then this statement isn’t so much about setting forward a concrete proposal for action as about the messaging that underpins it,” said Sarah Raine, a consulting fellow for Chinese foreign and security policy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “It has become increasingly clear that Beijing is worried about the reputational damage its relative intransigence on Syria has been doing to other important relationships, in particular in the Middle East.”

The Council on Foreign Relations blog explains further why the impact of the proposal is likely to be limited:

The new plan seems to reflect China’s acceptance of the deteriorating situation in Syria and of the possibility of Assad’s downfall. By calling for a political transition, the new plan jettisons the traditional Chinese foreign policy terminology in favor of language more in line with current international opinion. It is a noticeable departure from China’s six-point peace plan released in March, which demanded the international community “respect the independence, sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of Syria” and expressed its disapproval of Western attempts at regime change.

Despite these apparent changes in strategy, however, the plan simply reiterates old points and fails to provide a comprehensive path to peace. China continues to leave off the table the possibility of sanctions or other punitive measures as a way to convince the regime to stop the violence. Without them, the Syrian government has no reason to end the bloodshed: it has the upper hand both militarily and politically, and it has more sophisticated equipment and control of government institutions.

While the proposal is unlikely to change the global dynamics surrounding the situation in Syria, Ian Bremmer argues that the existence of the proposal itself is significant because it signifies a new attitude from China toward its role in conflicts outside its borders. From Reuters:

This is what happens in a G-Zero world — a world without any specific country or bloc of countries in charge. China has long been content to watch world events play out and then react, trusting that another country would step in to put volatile situations to rest. But that’s not happening with the Syrian conflict and its spillover into the broader Middle East. Americans feel that the issue doesn’t affect them enough to intervene. Europeans, as a Union, don’t seem to be particularly interested, even if some smaller countries are. And with those powers on the sidelines, suddenly the Chinese have a much bigger problem — a civil war that could metastasize into regional instability. The Chinese have far too much at stake in Iraq and Iran for that to happen: 11 percent of China’s oil imports come from Iran, and it is on track to be the chief importer of Iraqi oil by 2030.

And so China stepped in, offering a peace plan. The details — cease-fire, a committee that negotiates a political solution to the war, etc. — are not as important as the plan’s mere existence. It’s symptomatic of China’s new approach, one that Hu Jintao hinted at in one of his final addresses as Chinese president. He said China would “get more actively involved in international affairs, (and) play its due role of a major responsible country.” In the wake of downturns in the West, there is a new diplomatic structure emerging. China is determined to be one of its architects.

This doesn’t mean China necessarily knows what it’s doing. Diplomacy is new for the Chinese, who have really only interjected themselves in regional politics and through economic investment abroad. Intervening in other countries’ affairs is a tricky thing for a Chinese government that so resolutely believes sovereignty is supreme, even if human rights are being trampled. Beijing tries not to infringe on other countries’ sovereignty because it would not allow others to infringe on its own.

Read more about China and Syria via CDT. For another perspective on China’s relationship to the al-Assad regime, see Hexie Farm’s latest contribution to his CDT series.

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