Syria’s relationship with China
Our intention in this report is to convey the attitude of the Syrian establishment. The following report does not reflect the opinions of the Next Century Foundation:
China, Russia and Iran are three of Syria’s most prominent and committed allies. This report examines the relationship between Syria and China.
The following report is in two sections:
1. Statements by HE Dr Bouthaina Shaaban, close confident of President Bashar al-Assad, delivered on a visit to China this week – and China’s response.
2. A background report prepared by the NCF team on Syria’s relationship with China
Bouthaina Shaaban in China:
This week President Bashar al-Assad sent President Hu Jintao of China a letter on the ongoing situation in Syria and developments in the region. This letter was delivered to Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi by Assad’s long time political aide Bouthaina Shaaban. Shaaban briefed foreign minister Jiechi on efforts by the Syrian government to resolve the country’s crisis through national dialogue and “without any foreign interference”. She also stressed Syria’s commitment to “friendly countries” and to the Annan Six Point Plan. Dr. Shaaban thanked the Chinese for their “balanced and principled style in support of Syria’s sovereignty”.
The Chinese foreign minister expressed his country’s “unswerving rejection of imposing solutions on the Syrian people and foreign interference” and said "China urges the Syrian government and all concerned parties... to quickly implement a ceasefire to end the violence and start political dialogue." Yang added that China "hopes the Syrian government and the opposition can cooperate with international mediation efforts."
Bouthaina replied that "The Syrian government will cooperate with international mediation efforts to seek a way to end violence and with the opposition launch inclusive dialogue with broad participation of all parties". She later told reporters at her hotel that the meeting was “really great” and that both sides had agreed on “many things.”
Interviewed by the China Daily, Bouthaina said she appreciated the stance of China and Russia on Syria which is “consistent with the United Nations Charter, international law and ethical values and is helpful to the peaceful resolution of the crisis in Syria”.
Dr. Shaaban also added that “We're happy to see countries like China and Russia who are not colonizers or deal with people as colonizers… This is a very different stance from the West. The most dangerous, rigid and harmful sanctions issued by the West have affected the health sector and the lives of ordinary Syrian civilians. The West is worsening the situation by supporting with arms and money people who are inciting civil war in Syria”. She reiterated Syria’s commitment to the Annan Plan “which should be translated into actions not just talk”.
Dr. Shaaban said that “the armed terrorist groups continue their attacks against the Syrians not to mention the rejection of the opposition to dialogue. These groups are financed by certain powers and are not allowed to talk to the government”, which would “put not only Syria but the entire region in danger. What happened in Libya cannot be repeated in Syria, and China’s principles are helping to avoid civil war, which would cause more casualties”, Dr. Shaaban claimed.
Dr. Shaaban added that “Opposition groups have the support of regional forces, and officials in those forces are putting their personal careers at stake,” pointing out that she does not agree with using the word "opposition" to define people "who are carrying arms and emboldened by external powers to kidnap, kill and destroy public institutions."
Dr. Shaaban claimed that “opposition groups in Syria have no backing among the Syrian people when being financed by different sources,” pointing out that some members of the “so-called opposition parties” have joined the government and parliament over the past year.
Dr. Shaaban described her visit to China as to give "the Chinese leadership a real picture of what’s going on in Syria" and “coordinate with China to solve the current crisis that has taken thousands of people’s lives”.
In a separate interview with the popular Chinese-language tabloid the Global Times, Shaaban said she hoped Syria's friends in Russia, Iran and China could "help find a solution" to the crisis.
She also dismissed comments by former Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Hijab, who has fled to Jordan, that Assad only controls 30 percent of the country and his power is crumbling.
"What Hijab said was lies. He knows that very well," Shaaban said. "Anyone who does not have faith in the Syrian authorities or system can leave. But the number of defectors has been obviously exaggerated."
And finally: Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang said that China had always "actively balanced its work between the Syrian government and the opposition". Interestingly, he added that "China is also considering inviting Syrian opposition groups in the near term to China."
The Syrian relationship with China
China and Russia have vetoed recent UN Security Resolutions on Syria three times, claiming that they are blocking measures aimed at the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from office. But China is less motivated by strategic interests and more inclined to allow shifts in its position than Russia.
For the past two decades, Chinese leaders have always tended to oppose any foreign military intervention aimed at “regime change”. The Chinese government believes that too many recent UN resolutions violate the United Nations charter and that member-states were using these resolutions in their own interests. Chinese officials stress that they have learned from what happened last year following a resolution on Libya, and that now they can’t allow UN Security Council resolutions contain any language that can be used to justify military intervention. Consequently, with respect to Syria, the Chinese authorities have tried to ensure that the proposed resolution rules out any interpretation suggesting that the Security Council has authorized military action.
In addition, China firmly supports a traditional interpretation of the concept of national sovereignty, which severely restricts the right of foreign governments or international organizations to intervene in the internal affairs of any country. Chinese officials realize that Assad will not resign voluntarily, and therefore believe that there is no point in suggesting it. Moreover, Chinese analysts do not believe that Assad's resignation would end armed clashes in Syria. If the current government falls, Beijing believes that the outcome probably would not be a smooth transition to liberal democracy, but a struggle between the various rebel groups, in which the most ruthless of them, most likely Islamic extremists, will have the greatest chance of winning.
China supports the provision of humanitarian assistance to Syria and is willing to contribute to such assistance. China emphasizes the UN’s leading role in coordinating humanitarian relief efforts, insisting that the UN should make an objective and comprehensive assessment of the humanitarian situation in Syria in order to ensure the delivery and distribution of humanitarian aid.
The Chinese government does not want to be isolated on the issue of Syria. China has traditionally sought to avoid alienating its allies in the Middle East, which provide important trade and economic relations for China.
At the same time China seems to be more open to reviewing its policy on Syria. For Chinese policymakers Syria doesn’t seem to be a vital interest. Trade with Syria represents a very small share of China’s exports. Moreover, China has invested significantly less than Russia and Iran in the development of strategic and economic ties with Syria, so it would be easier for China than Russia or Iran, to tolerate a change in government in Damascus.
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi stated in a meeting of the action group on Syria on 30 June 2012 that China has a four point proposal.
1. The six point plan of Kofi Annan must be implemented, and the action group on Syria must push the government and opposition into implementing the plan.
2. Mediation by the UN special envoy mustn't have a time-limit and all within the international community must support the mediation.
3. China believes that the Syrian people should decide their own future and no foreign intervention should occur.
4. The international community must treat the Syrian crisis as urgent but remain patient with both parties who need to negotiate.
More recently, China expressed regret over former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's resignation as international peace envoy for Syria and stressed its support for the United Nations role in resolving the Syrian crisis.
U.N. member states on 3 August 2012 overwhelmingly voted to condemn the Syrian government at a special session of the General Assembly. That seemed to highlight the isolation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's supporters Russia and China. "This vote shines the spotlight on Russia and China and humiliates them in a way that they don't like," a U.N. diplomat said.
Speaking at a news conference in Beijing, Wang Kejian, deputy head of the Chinese Foreign Ministry's West Asian and North African Affairs Department, said China continued to support efforts at a peaceful, political solution for Syria. Wang stressed the importance of a political solution, rather than military intervention.
"Those countries which have made unfounded criticism about China's position on Syria ... have, in pursuit of their own geopolitical interests in Syria, tried to hinder or undermine the political settlement process and are trying to shift responsibility for the difficulties onto other countries," he added.