A tear in China’s invisibility cloak

Last week, I asked a U.N. Security Council diplomat to give me a read out of China’s reaction to the Houla massacre of 108 civilians during a closed-door session of the 15-nation council. The diplomat paused for a moment, then confessed to being totally unable to recall what was said. It was probably something about ...

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ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images
ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images
ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images

Last week, I asked a U.N. Security Council diplomat to give me a read out of China's reaction to the Houla massacre of 108 civilians during a closed-door session of the 15-nation council.

The diplomat paused for a moment, then confessed to being totally unable to recall what was said.

It was probably something about the need to pursue a peaceful outcome to the conflict and the importance of respecting sovereignty and letting the Syrians work it out themselves, the diplomat surmised. The same thing, in other words, that China says about virtually every crisis that comes before the Security Council.

Last week, I asked a U.N. Security Council diplomat to give me a read out of China’s reaction to the Houla massacre of 108 civilians during a closed-door session of the 15-nation council.

The diplomat paused for a moment, then confessed to being totally unable to recall what was said.

It was probably something about the need to pursue a peaceful outcome to the conflict and the importance of respecting sovereignty and letting the Syrians work it out themselves, the diplomat surmised. The same thing, in other words, that China says about virtually every crisis that comes before the Security Council.

China has largely weathered the Syrian diplomatic crisis, which has brought it into direct conflict with the Arab world, by drawing as little attention to itself as possible and letting Russia take the heat for sheltering President Bashar al-Assad from Security Council pressure.

But the effort to remain under the radar will be tested this month as China begins its month-long stint as Security Council president, a role that began Monday with an obligatory council presidency press conference that focused mostly on Syria.

In the briefing, China’s U.N. envoy, Li Baodong, expressed concern about this "horrible thing" that happened in Houla, assured reporters that China has no "intention to protect anybody" in Damascus, and said the perpetrators, whomever they may be, need to be held accountable.

But when pressed about next steps in the council, Li quickly returned to script.

"We respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria and also we respect the choices made by Syrian people," he told reporters. "What we really want to see is that the sovereignty of that country can be safeguarded and the destiny of that country should be in the hands of the people of Syria."

Translation: The Security Council should keep its meddling in Syria to a minimum, resist U.S. and European calls for the imposition of U.N. sanctions, and set aside more time for special envoy Kofi Annan to convince the Syrian government and the opposition to start talks on the country’s future. "We have to line up behind Kofi Annan," Li said.

In February, China joined Russia for the second time in vetoing a resolution condemning Syria’s crackdown on demonstrators. The resolution, which was backed by the Arab League, also demanded that the Syrian government begin negotiations on a transitional government.

China faced intense criticism in the Arab world in the weeks after the veto, prompting Li to undertake a high-level visit to the region to explain China’s position in the council and try to sooth Arab leaders’ anger, according to council diplomats. Still, the anger has focused most sharply on Russia, and the launch of Annan’s mediation effort has provided Beijing with an opportunity to throw its weight behind a diplomatic initiative with solid backing from the Arab League.

But with the Annan plan on the ropes and China, alongside Russia, standing in the way of tougher Security Council action, it is going to be increasingly difficult for Beijing to continue to keep its head down and avoid damage to its diplomatic standing in the region.

"I think China’s reputational damage in the region, so far, has been limited,’ said Salman Shaikh, a former U.N. official who serves as director of the Brookings Doha Center. "In economic terms, its trading volumes continue to rise and will do so markedly over the next decade or so. Its relations with the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] are now strategic…. It is difficult to say how damage is being done with regard to Arab public opinion. While Chinese flags are being burned regularly in Syria, the rest of the Arab street, I believe, is focused on Russia. For now, at least, Moscow is deflecting serious Arab public wrath."

But Syria still poses a long-term challenge for Chinese policymakers, who desperately want the crisis to end peacefully but are at a loss about how to promote a workable alternative in the event that the Annan plan unravels. "There is also something deeper at play here," Shaikh added. "China has struggled to find a narrative that fits with the Arab Awakenings. The so-called ‘Chinese Model’ of economic reform but not political opening — which has been stressed by fallen Arab dictators in Tunisia and Egypt and now by President Assad in Syria — no longer fits with the desires of Arabs who also want political change and democratic political systems. For this reason, China will continue to tread wearily."

Indeed, the crisis has caused increasing concern in Beijing, which is worried about its long-term relations with Persian Gulf sheikdoms that have rallied against Assad as part of a broader push to counter the influence of their prime regional rival and Damascus’s chief ally, Iran.

American and European policymakers have tried to play on this very anxiety by pushing China to break ranks with Russia, which has deeper economic, military, and intelligence ties with Syria.

Back in April, "there was a glimmer of hope among Western diplomats that China could be persuaded to change positions," said Richard Gowan, an expert on the United Nations at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation. "The reality is that the Chinese gain far more in terms of diplomatic tactics by staying closer to the Russians," particularly on Iran, which has become more vital to Beijing than it is to Moscow because of China’s energy needs.

"If the Russians are worried about losing Chinese support on Syria, the Chinese are worried about losing Russian support on Iran," Gowan explained. "There is a sort of Chinese fear that if they were to make a shift on Syria the Russians would undercut them on Iran. The two powers are locked together in the face of Western criticism on both issues."

Indeed, Chinese President Hu Jintao and Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged to increase their cooperation at the United Nations during a summit meeting in Beijing on Tuesday. "Both sides oppose external intervention into the Syrian situation and oppose regime change by force," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told reporters earlier in the day.

For China and Russia, the best way to prevent those scenarios is to keep the Annan plan alive.

"What happened in Houla is definitely a setback for the effort to solve the crisis in Syria and it has caused colossal damage to Kofi Annan’s mediation effort," said China’s U.N. envoy, Li Baodong. "What should we do? Should we back off? Or should we surge ahead, march on?  We have no choice. We have to support him."

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

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