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.