China: The Sleeping Tiger in Syria
As tensions between Russia and the United States rise with regard to the ongoing civil war in Syria, China’s role in the conflict remains focused on reconstruction. Throughout the war, China has remained set on supporting Bashar al-Assad despite controversy over Assad’s human rights records and regime, and has shown support for both Iran and Russia’s roles in the war. Many political analysts are quick to label this as unusual behavior for China, as China tends to withhold showing preference in conflicts and in some cases even balances between showing support for both sides. The most notable example of this is the Iran-Iraq war in which Beijing supplied weapons to both Iran and Iraq and managed to maintain diplomatic and economic ties with both countries following the war. This then puts in to question why China supports the Assad regime, and what its exact role is in the Syrian conflict especially when considering the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
When looking into why China supports the regime, three main interests stand out: strategic interests if Assad stays in power involving counterterrorism and China’s Uighur population, historical relationships with both Syria and Iran dating back to the original Silk Road, and general opposition to Western influence that is reinforced by BRI agendas. The first of these three is unsurprising when considering China’s tendency to only seek out economic relationships with other countries rather than military or defense ties, as well as its tendency to remain relatively pragmatic in its foreign policy and refrain from criticising other countries’ behaviours. This behavior is also exhibited in China’s controversial support for Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, as some analysts suggest that China’s more apparent support for Assad may be due to lessons learned from the case of Libya in which China refrained from speaking out against airstrikes that then led to the fall of Gaddafi. While this was seen as a victory from a Western perspective, Gaddafi’s fall meant damaged economic ties for China. Therefore, it would make sense for China to act more aggressively in the case of Syria, as the two cases share some similarities. However, another driving force may actually lie in China’s Uighur, Muslim minority population and the state’s efforts to curb terrorism.
China may be concerned that if the Assad regime were to fall, the country would lack a strong-handed government. The specific fear here is that the possibility of instability following the fall of Assad increases the risk of terrorist groups re-entering the region, thus turning Syria into a training ground for Uighur terrorist activity, a problem that Northern China has been facing throughout history. Though, it is important to note that some of this terrorist activity is inspired by China’s mistreatment of its Muslim ethnic minority groups, the Uighurs especially. According to the Syrian ambassador to China, Imad Moustapha, around 5,000 Uighurs travelled from Northern China to Syria last year in order to train with various militant groups throughout the country. The Chinese government is concerned that these trained individuals will then return to China and carry out terrorist attacks.
The second and third interests China has in supporting Assad’s regime are closely related, as China and Syria have shared diplomatic and trade relations since the original Silk Road. As with China’s relations with many other countries in the Middle East and North African region (MENA) and the GCC, these deep rooted relationships were fostered in general opposition of imperialism and colonialism historically imposed by Western powers. This anti-Western sentiment has since carried over into China’s current foreign policy and has increased significantly in the MENA and GCC regions following various American foreign policy mistakes. To maintain this relationship dynamic and to reinforce the “need” to “look East” for stability and economic growth, China has expressed strong interest in contributing to reconstruction efforts in Syria through BRI throughout the years.
Additionally, while tensions between the US and Russia boil due to their opposing stances in the conflict and disagreement over the regime’s use of chemical weapons, China remains a quiet yet mobile observer as it inches towards its own strategic interests. These economic interests, however, existed years before the start of the Syrian civil war in 2004 when Belt and Road was still in its early developmental stages. Around this time, China had expressed interest in linking “key strategic areas around Syria and Lebanon” in what was then called the One Belt One Road project. This strongly indicates that economic interests along with security interests are a key factor in looking into China’s strong, consistent support for Bashar al-Assad. Because of this, China has managed to quietly pave an economic and diplomatic pathway through which it has secured economic ties in Syria regardless of the outcome of the war. While China would like to see Assad stay in power due to security and counterrorism concerns, the economic foundation has already been laid via reconstruction talks and BRI.
By Emily Fowler
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