What's China's stake in Syria?


With the eyes of the world focused once again on Syria due to allegations that Assad has used chemical weapons, Assad's allies will soon reenter the international conversation on intervention and R2P. A new axis has emerged in regards to supporting Assad's regime, or at least blocking efforts for international pressure. Iran is naturally part of the equation, being a longtime support of  Assad's government. But what about Russia and China? Former U.S. ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey writes in "Intervention Escalation" at Foreign Policy:

China and Russia, too, have ideological and strategic interests in preserving Assad's rule. Russian President Vladimir Putin has hung much of his foreign policy on rejecting American-sponsored regime change, as his consistent rhetoric from Kosovo to Libya has made clear. Bejijng, while less vocal, takes care to limit pressure on its own puppet states, as we have seen in North Korea. In addition, China tends to follow the Russian lead on many global issues, in part because it shares Russia's "you win we lose" attitude toward the United States. Furthermore, China and Russia appear to fear the United States and its partners eventually using successful interventions to set a precedent for more widespread meddling in their domestic affairs, be it in the north Caucasus, Tibet, or Xinjiang.

Jeffrey cites four reasons for China's interests in maintaining Assad's regime:

  1. Beijing limits pressure on its own puppet states
  2. China follows Russia's beat
  3. Zero-sum attitude toward United States (tied to #2)
  4. Promoting the norm of non-intervention

#1 - I wish Jeffrey would flesh out what he means by #1. What is the connection here?

#2 - True, but I wonder if Beijing follows Moscow or whether their interests simply tend to align? Clearly there is growing competition between the two countries, primarily in Central Asia through the CSTO and SCO. Nonetheless, Xi Jinping's visit to Russia recently portends of more alignment to come.

#3 - True, but questionable how important this is to Beijing's political calculus when it pairs off with Russia on international issues.

#4 - This, I think, is the key reason for Beijing's interest in the Syria problem. Non-intervention is one of the foundation stones of China's foreign policy and the norms it wants to set internationally. Unfortunately, it will become increasingly difficult for Beijing to stay true to its own rhetoric as it shoulders more and more responsibility beyond its borders.


Jeffrey goes on to expound the many ways Russia and China can undermine the United States in international forums and specifically on the Syria issue. But it seems to me that pairing Russia and China on Syria might be stretching it a little. Beijing's interests are much smaller and shouldn't be perceived as on par with Moscow. They both have the ideological motivation to reject regime-change, but Russia has been playing this game for a lot longer and Cold War habits die hard.

Expect to hear a lot more about maneuvering by Moscow and Beijing in the United Nations as the chemical weapons charge garners more press.