Chinese Divided Over Middle East

Leadership Split on Continuing Anti-Western Policy

China Change? China has blocked tough sanctions on Iran and Syria, often voting with Russia. There is debate within the Chinese leadership about whether to continue with an anti-Western tack.
getty images
China Change? China has blocked tough sanctions on Iran and Syria, often voting with Russia. There is debate within the Chinese leadership about whether to continue with an anti-Western tack.

By Robert O. Freedman

Published April 06, 2012, issue of April 13, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share

In recent years, China’s foreign policy has turned more assertive than it has been in decades. When it comes to the Middle East, it has expressed this aggressiveness mostly through the veto power it wields in the United Nations Security Council, protecting Iran, for example, from tough sanctions over its nuclear program. With regard to the Syrian uprising, the Chinese, along with the Russians, have prevented the international body from sanctioning the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for its bloody repression of its own population.

But change may be coming to this foreign policy approach — and the Middle East could feel the impact.

Chinese foreign policy thinkers appear to be divided into two schools of thought. On one side are those who argue that China should continue to ally with Russia and such anti-American Middle Eastern countries as Syria and Iran to confront American “hegemony.” On the other side are those who argue that the country should be less confrontational in order to create a benign foreign atmosphere that would enable China to concentrate on its growing internal problems, including widespread income inequality and environmental troubles. The projected drop in China’s growth rate this year to 7.5% from 10% has added weight to this argument.

It is not yet clear which side of the debate will win, but if the moderates prevail — a very big if — it could affect Chinese policy toward both Syria and Iran, with important consequences for the United States and Israel. Thus, for example, instead of regularly vetoing U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning Syria, even as the U.N. estimate of the death count resulting from the crackdown passes 9,000, China could join in drafting a resolution condemning the actions of the Syrian government. It could then also endorse the Arab League peace plan calling for Assad to turn over power to a national unity government that would arrange the holding of free elections.

China has already taken some small steps in this direction. On March 14, at a press conference, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao stated: “We don’t side with any party [in the conflict], including the government of Syria…. China respects the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people for change.” Then, on March 22, China agreed to a nonbinding U.N Security Council Presidential Statement on Syria, which called for a cease-fire, the Syrian army’s withdrawal from populated areas, freedom of movement for journalists and the facilitation of a Syrian-led political transition to a democratic political system. It also warned that it could take “further steps as appropriate”; however, the fact that the Presidential Statement was nonbinding might indicate that it was more of an effort by China (and Russia) to save face with the Sunni Arab states that bitterly oppose the Assad regime and its ally Iran than an effort to meaningfully solve the Syrian crisis.

Should China decide to join the Americans in strongly condemning the Syrian government’s crackdown, it would go a long way toward improving ties with the United States during an election year when the policy of engagement with China (versus containment) is being openly questioned and debated. It would also put China on the winning side should the Assad regime fall — unlike what happened in Libya, where China lost billions of dollars by backing Moammar Qaddafi.

Syria is not as vital a Middle Eastern ally for Beijing as Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Arab states, which are major providers of energy. Indeed, Syria’s only real utility to China is as an anti-American force, but even that is a waning asset, given the increasing isolation of the Assad regime. Some analysts might worry about hurting longterm ties with Iran, but that country is also growing more isolated as a result of American and European sanctions, and Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Arab states are likely to make up for any cut in Iranian oil shipments to China.

Opposing the Assad regime would enhance China’s position in the Arab world and reinforce relations with the United States, freeing up resources for those domestic challenges.

As far as Israel is concerned, any move by China against both Syria and Iran could only be beneficial, as it would leave two of Israel’s worst enemies feeling that much more isolated.

Robert O. Freedman is the Peggy Meyerhoff Pearlstone Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Baltimore Hebrew University and is currently Visiting Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. He recently returned to the United States from a research trip in China.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • The real heroines of Passover prep aren't even Jewish. But the holiday couldn't happen without them.
  • Is Handel’s ‘Messiah’ an anti-Semitic screed?
  • Meet the Master of the Matzo Ball.
  • Pierre Dulaine wants to do in his hometown of Jaffa what he did for kids in Manhattan: teach them to dance.
  • "The first time I met Mick Jagger, I said, 'Those are the tackiest shoes I’ve ever seen.'” Jewish music journalist Lisa Robinson remembers the glory days of rock in her new book, "There Goes Gravity."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.