China has stuck by the Syrian regime through nearly 15 months of bloody revolt, a position analysts say stems largely from its principle of not getting involved in other countries’ affairs.
Rights groups say more than 13,500 people have died in the Syrian uprising since March last year, and Western powers are pushing for increased pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to stop the regime’s assault against the population.
Despite having few interests in Syria, Beijing has steadfastly maintained that its ally al-Assad must not be forced from power, resisting Western pressure.
Its stance is faithful to its long-held principle that no country should interfere in other states’ domestic affairs — a tenet that allows it to reject any foreign criticism of its policies on issues such as Tibet and Taiwan.
Analysts say China’s intransigence may stem from its discomfort with Western military action after last year’s uprising in Libya, which eventually led to the fall of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.
China consistently opposed military action in Libya within the 15-member UN Security Council, but did not use its veto to block the resolution in March last year authorizing the operation, instead abstaining in the vote.
However, it believes that the West misinterpreted the resolution and went too far.
China “has always insisted on the fact that Syria’s internal affairs must be decided by its population,” said He Wenping (賀文萍), a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
“Non-interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state is one of the principles that safeguards world peace,” he said.
Beijing has also repeatedly said it “opposes military intervention in Syria and opposes regime change by force” — a claim reiterated after the Houla massacre at the end of last month that saw 108 people die and shocked the world.
It keeps calling for “all parties” to observe a ceasefire in Syria, and is “unwilling to identify one side as more responsible for the violence than another,” said Brad Glosserman, executive director of the Pacific Forum CSIS.
Francois Godement, head of strategy at the Paris-based Asia Centre, dubbed China’s stance on Syria “dogmatic stubbornness” and said it was a “sanction against the West for going beyond [the remit of] UN resolutions on Libya.”
However, he pointed out that China “does not risk much from the downfall of the [al-Assad] regime, which is different from Libya and Sudan.”
China had huge interests in Libya — and not only in the oil sector — and more than 30,000 of its nationals lived and worked there. In Sudan, the energy-hungry Asian country buys large amounts of gasoline.
However, Syria’s small amounts of oil go to Europe and Chinese commercial interests there are minimal. In 2010, China’s exports to the country came to just US$2.4 billion.
“Intransigence clearly rules,” said Jonathan Holslag of the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies, adding that Beijing has a “fixation with Western intervention.”
Beijing has done what it usually does in times of crisis. It sent an envoy and has called for restraint, but “it has neither tried to mediate, nor has it thrown its weight behind the action plan of the Arab League,” he said.
China has walked in lockstep with Russia, with Russian President Vladimir Putin currently in Beijing to bolster the two giant neighbors’ alliance, particularly on the diplomatic front.
Russia said on Tuesday that al-Assad could leave power as part of a settlement to end bloodshed in Syria, as US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called on Moscow and Beijing to be “part of the solution” to the crisis.
Beijing and Moscow, both permanent members of the UN Security Council, used their veto power earlier this year to block action against Damascus, and the two leaders vowed on Tuesday to bolster their partnership in the UN.
Their united stance has angered Arab and Western countries. However, Godement believes China’s support for Russia, Syria’s staunchest ally, may bring a “reciprocal commitment from Russia on the North Korea issue,” as China is under pressure to act more decisively to stop the isolated state’s nuclear ambitions.
As violence continues in Syria, China has warned of “chaos” in the country if a six-point peace plan brokered by UN-Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan — which has been all but ineffective — is abandoned.
Glosserman said China is worried “that escalation via Western involvement could cause a deterioration in the situation in the region, and this would not be in China’s interest.”
At the same time though, he believes “China is content with a festering situation in the Middle East that focuses US attention and somewhat prevents Washington from ‘refocusing’ on Asia.”
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