As debate concerning the US’s seemingly inevitable military involvement in Syria rumbles around the globe, the message coming out of Beijing couldn’t be clearer. There is simply “no excuse for strikes”, proclaimed an opinion piece in yesterday’s state-run China Daily. Referencing military action by the “US-led West” in Iraq, Libya and Kosovo, the author stated that “any military intervention into Syria would have dire consequences.”
Of course, such a response can’t have shocked anyone. Having only used their power of veto in the United Nations Security Council eight times since joining the UN in 1971, the People’s Republic of China used three of those vetoes on the Syria crisis alone. Teaming up with Russia each time, the two countries have done well to make the actions of the council’s five permanent members seem more like a solemn game of Risk than an attempt to ease a civil war that has lasted two years and claimed over 100,000 lives.
Indeed, for China, much of the reasoning behind this opposition to military strikes is geopolitical. Beijing doesn’t like the idea of the liberal West getting involved in their politics, so maintaining a clear anti-intervention message is important. With state-run broadcaster CCTV reminding viewers yesterday of the failure of the US to instill democracy in Egypt or Libya, it’s hard to ignore the argument. China has a desire to preserve the Assad regime in order to remove the threat of a more pro-Western government in close proximity to Tehran.
But China’s actions both in the UN and through their own media have to be assessed within the changing tide brought by President Xi Jinping. Now in office for almost six months, Xi has not made a secret of his belief that China should be a global power with as much influence as the US. Having ignored western nations in his first few trips abroad, Xi’s government has emphasised that Russia is the country’s most important strategic partner.
In voicing a commitment to UN principles concerning the case of military intervention in Syria, China can both protect authoritarian regimes and exert their own foreign policy in a legitimate way. And it could be seen that arguing for a political solution to the crisis grants them the moral superiority they accuse the Obama administration of lacking.
However, as one Shenzhen-based political blogger wrote, Beijing will do their best to ensure the survival of the Assad regime because the democratic elections seen in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya threaten the very stability of the Chinese Communist Party.
Aisha Speirs is Hong Kong bureau chief for Monocle.