China has launched an unexpected initiative for a political solution in Syria and lobbied a 22-nation Arab bloc for support on Tuesday. This is unusual for China, which usually remains non-committal on Middle East matters and lets the US and Europe take the lead. If it disagrees, it simply abstains in votes in the United Nations Security Council.
The current initiative is not just a ploy to deflect flak from the West and Arab countries for twice blocking UN moves to prevent President Bashar al Assad from continuing to kill his own citizens. Chinese sources in Beijing think the initiative expresses a new government decision to play a higher profile role in international diplomacy commensurate with China’s economic influence in the world.
Beijing sees the Syrian crisis in which Washington and Europeans seem powerless as an ideal place to start. Russia is conducting intense diplomacy to help Assad and prevent Turkey, the Kurdish region of Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates, or the West from arming rebels against the Damascus regime. Beijing is letting Moscow take the lead in standing up to anti-Assad pressure from the West because the Chinese are new to Middle East diplomacy. But there is growing confidence that Chinese diplomats can help to find a political solution to the crisis.
There is a large dollop of hypocrisy in this situation because neither Beijing for Moscow shows any signs of standing in Assad’s way as he mows down his own people. But it does offer Beijing an opportunity to make an indelible mark on the world diplomatic stage in one of the most intractable political and security crises.
Chinese envoy Zhang Ming was in Cairo on Tuesday to press officials from the Arab League to back its initiative to end the Syrian conflict immediately. Current estimates put at over 8,000 the number of protestors killed by the Syrian army. Beijing is also sending envoys to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and France to garner support for its initiative.
However, the moves do not alter China’s basic position. Its UN ambassador Li Baodon continues to reject UN sponsored military intervention to create humanitarian corridors and safe havens or any attempts to arm anti-government rebels. The new Chinese initiative gives support to UN humanitarian intervention but without the use of arms.
It also endorses a Russian demand that there should be no ceasefire in Syria without a simultaneous cessation of hostilities by the opposition and the government. Both fear that the rebels will use a ceasefire to obtain heavier and better arms from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates, turning the so far asymmetrical conflict into a civil war aimed at defeating Assad. They see the West’s repeated calls for withdrawal of the Syrian army as a ploy to win regime change in Damascus. The Chinese initiative expressly forbids external intervention to depose Assad.
Seen with a cold eye, the initiative looks empty of new or out-of-the-box thinking on getting Assad to be less brutal. But it is significant in terms of global diplomacy because Beijing’s first real foray (apart from helping to keep North Korea’s nuclear ambitions in check) plunges right into the Middle East cauldron.
It signals to Washington and Europe that they can no longer ignore Chinese views of its national interests in the Middle East. Thus far, the West has kept China out of Middle East diplomacy although Russia has always been a player. Beijing’s emerging ambitions will make it more difficult for Washington, London and Paris to push through their own Mideast initiatives.