Beijing would like to avoid Syrian conflict in the UN, leaving the role of “bad cop” to Russia. Meanwhile, it pushes for peace talks.
Behind an apparent veil of simplicity, China’s position on Syria displays an astute approach, measured with pragmatism. China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, failed to excited journalists’ notebooks at his press conference: China condemns the use of chemical weapons (obviously regardless of origin), favors an international commission to validate the truth, and is prepared to make a contribution to the investigations. A little more was expected from the number two superpower.
More incisive, albeit seemingly bland, was China’s insistence on a political solution to the civil war. Nominating Geneva as a location for possible negotiations, Beijing reinforced a multilateral approach and condemned decisions originating from both sides of the Atlantic. It is definitively opposed to bombings, but it doesn’t want to impede them with theatrical hard lining at the UN. Relegating the veto and antagonism to Russia, China’s opposition is firm but not ideological.
Interests motivate China’s foreign policy before ideals. It is certainly loyal to the principle of non-interference in foreign countries’ internal affairs, respecting boundaries and institutions. Beijing dialogues with nations and governments, but certainly not with rebels or minorities. Simultaneously, it aspires after stability, sources of oil, and the passing of time until its new power is sealed. Syria is creating tensions, increasing temptations for the trigger-happy, and sharpening the international crisis. It’s a hostile scene, but Beijing can avoid it directly, resorting to a capacity of dissuasion the country doesn’t yet possess.
China is hightailing it in line with its instincts, and in any case the administration doesn’t get mixed up in situations it can’t manage. China has no intention or experience involving itself in power struggles, but it doesn’t want other forces to rally against Syria, either. It knows the dangers of the Middle East, the mire of tensions and injustices that would only add problems the country is not looking for. China is leaving the eventual dirty work to the US, convinced that not even a surgical solution could extirpate the causes of the conflict. Therefore, if Beijing is unable to avoid external involvement, it prefers condemning it in name only: it’s better to appear naïve and inconclusive than let itself get caught up in traps too great to extricate itself from.