Russia and China recently vetoed an attempt by the Arab League to secure United Nations Security Council backing of its action plan for a political transition in Syria. Meanwhile, on the ground in Syria, violence continues to rage and President Bashar al-Assad becomes increasingly more intransigent.

In a Q&A, Yezid Sayigh looks at China’s uncharacteristically assertive position on Syria. Though Beijing has typically remained cautiously neutral when it comes to the region, Sayigh argues that China’s current stance reflects its growing disquiet at what it sees as a U.S. policy intended to deny it access to Middle East energy sources. And staying neutral will become increasingly more difficult as the situation in Syria deteriorates over the coming weeks and months.

What international action has been taken in Syria over the past few months? How has the situation on the ground evolved?

Clearly the most important recent development has been the series of Arab League resolutions and initiatives that have been undertaken since November 2011 to try to push the Syrian government to end the violence, implement a cease-fire, and negotiate. At the same time, the League of Arab States has also shown that when faced with the failure of its diplomatic attempts, it is willing to increase the pressure on the Syrian government. For instance, the Arab League implemented a series of financial sanctions and imposed an economic boycott on senior officials and principal institutions.

Yezid Sayigh
Yezid Sayigh is a senior fellow at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, where he leads the program on Civil-Military Relations in Arab States (CMRAS). His work focuses on the comparative political and economic roles of Arab armed forces, the impact of war on states and societies, the politics of postconflict reconstruction and security sector transformation in Arab transitions, and authoritarian resurgence.
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The Arab League sent an observer mission to Syria to monitor events on the ground in December 2011, but the Syrian government refused to expand the scope of the mission when it came up for review the following month. The League of Arab States suspended the mission in late January 2012 and released its new action plan, calling for a political transition in Syria based on the transfer of power to an interim president and cabinet until presidential and parliamentary elections can be organized within six months.

Despite increasing reports in the second half of January of armed challenges to government authority around Syria, I don’t expect very major or dramatic events on the ground in the near future. Short of an external military intervention—which I don’t see happening at all—we’re now going to settle in for a waiting game.

Why was the Arab League so quick to intervene in Syria?

The League of Arab States has surprised everyone over the past ten months with decisive action, first on Libya and then on Syria, and that has a lot to do with Saudi Arabia and Qatar. From their perspective, there’s been considerable upheaval all around them, with uprisings in Yemen and Bahrain in their immediate vicinity, and in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and then Syria in the wider region. This coincides with their growing concern about the Iranian nuclear program and their unhappiness with the outcome of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, which in their view created a Shia-dominated government.

For all these reasons the Saudis and Qataris have engaged in what I think of as “forward defense.” They’re trying to preempt further instability or destabilization within the Gulf region, and in particular within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The failure of mediation and attempts to resolve the conflict in Syria have pushed Saudi Arabia and Qatar especially—which had a particular interest in Syria relating, in part, to its wish to stabilize neighboring Lebanon—to take more decisive action, having given up on the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Why did China veto the United Nations (UN) Security Council resolution? Does this put Beijing at odds with a more proactive Arab League?

China is in an interesting and rather awkward position. Chinese diplomacy and its approach to international affairs and to the Middle East have been primarily driven by the wish to secure its energy supplies and to increase its economic relationships in general, although so far the latter is not particularly important. The core of Chinese policy is to pursue cooperation in the management of global affairs. What they seek in the Middle East—whether in terms of economic or energy relations, dealing with conflicts such as the Palestine-Israel issue, or the situations in Libya and Syria—is cooperation, negotiation, and conflict resolution.

China has maintained its traditional opposition to military intervention and what it sees as Western policy in the region in part because of its own history. It suffered from Western intervention in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and then sanctions were imposed on China for many years during the Cold War, led by the United States. The Chinese clearly have their own reasons for being very sensitive about intervention and sanctions and are a bit reluctant to support their application, even when they are aimed at authoritarian regimes in the Middle East.

China has sought what the Turks call “zero problems” foreign relations. But it is becoming increasingly difficult for Beijing to maintain that sort of policy. China’s diplomatic position on events in the Middle East over the past year reveals this clearly.

The Chinese took a neutral position on the UN Security Council vote that approved the no-fly zone over Libya in March 2011, despite their misgivings and unhappiness with the general principle of NATO-led military intervention. They did not veto the resolution because it was initiated by the Arab League. Conversely, China was willing to veto the later UN Security Council draft resolution, proposed by four European members of the Security Council, calling for sanctions on Syria in late 2011.

Previously, it seemed that when the League of Arab States took the diplomatic initiative and imposed sanctions or other measures, then China felt that supporting whatever the Arabs decided for themselves had more legitimacy. However, by casting its veto at the UN Security Council a second time when the Arab League sought endorsement of its new action plan in early February 2012, China placed itself in direct opposition to the Arab consensus.

China defended its veto as a means of preventing yet another armed Western intervention, which it regards as having caused “calamities” in Afghanistan and Iraq. China also feels that NATO “abused” the UN resolution establishing a no-fly zone over Libya, using its firepower to assist one side in the civil war there and to overthrow Qaddafi’s regime, not only to protect civilians.

But the veto should also be seen in the wider context of China’s growing disquiet at what it sees as a U.S. policy intended to deny it access to Middle East energy sources. The perception of an anti-Chinese policy was deepened by U.S. President Barack Obama’s announcement in early January of a defense review switching the focus of the U.S. military to the Asia-Pacific. The result is China’s open opposition to the imposition of a ban on importing Iranian oil, as pushed by the United States.

Looking ahead, I think that China would like to resume a more neutral position and find ways of finding common ground with the Arab League if possible. This is perhaps why its official media now argue that the joint Russian-Chinese veto at the UN will in fact open "a window of opportunity" to solve the Syrian crisis. But I suspect that the Chinese position will become increasingly difficult as the situation inside Syria deteriorates over coming months. Russia may press the Syrian leadership to offer reforms and power sharing in order to avoid greater international intervention, in which case China may need to revise its own stand.

How have Beijing’s positions affected public opinion of China throughout the Middle East?

China generally has a low profile in much of the Middle East, though in some countries, like Iran or Sudan, it has developed major economic, military, and energy relationships. It provided weapons, supplies, and training for countries that have been under Western embargo or have had bad relations with the West.

Elsewhere in the region, China only comes to people’s attention at moments like the UN vote on Syria sanctions. It’s too early to assess the impact on public opinion of China’s latest veto against the UN Security Council draft resolution endorsing the Arab League’s action plan.

On the one hand, there’s a lot of sympathy with the Syrian people against the Syrian government. Such people argue that the joint Chinese-Russian veto prolongs the life of the regime. But on the other hand, there are many Arabs who are equally opposed to any form of Western intervention, and who are encouraged by Russian and Chinese support. Their concern is that the West is using the human rights issue in Syria to pursue its own agenda and to weaken an Arab government that is committed to so-called resistance against Israel. Since there’s a lot of ambivalence and division within the Arab public, we shouldn’t expect one united Arab perception of China.

Furthermore, Middle East and Arab relations with China also extend beyond high-profile political issues. More than half of energy exports from the Gulf, including from the GCC group, go to East Asia. Saudi Arabia has signed major energy deals with China as well as other East Asian customers. China-Middle East relations are becoming more diverse and are quite strategic in the energy sector. I think they are unlikely to be affected by the events in Syria.

How will China balance its increasing economic interests in the region with its desire to remain neutral and impartial?

I think the dilemma for China is how to exercise influence in the Middle East. China is geographically distant from the Middle East, unlike India which is developing a blue-water navy with the explicit aim of maintaining peace and stability in the region, stretching from the Malacca Straits to the Gulf. At the moment, China doesn’t deploy that sort of naval presence in the Indian Ocean or the Arabian Sea, and is unlikely to start projecting its military power in the region anytime soon. So, for China the only real option is to employ soft diplomacy or soft power, offering economic and political relations based on mutual respect and recognition of sovereignty.

In practical terms, if China is to play a bigger part then it needs a cooperative framework involving the United States and Europe. Some Arab intellectuals and political leaders tend to assume that the rise of China necessarily has to be in direct competition or confrontation with the West. I think that’s a very fundamental misreading of Chinese foreign policy and of what China seeks.

It is more likely that China will aim to be an active partner in multilateral initiatives. We may for instance see the Chinese navy taking part in international patrols in the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea to prevent piracy around Somalia. In late 2011, Seychelles invited China, along with many other nations, to base ships on its territory so that China could take part in antipiracy activities.

This form of multilateralism also emphasizes that China will cooperate with and seek a role that complements the United States, the European Union, and others, not compete with and confront other powers. But this depends on wider, global trends, such as the possibility of U.S.-China tension over the Asia-Pacific or energy supplies.