What Are Chinese Attitudes Toward a U.S. Strike in Syria?

A ChinaFile Conversation

Chen Weihua:

Chinese truly believe that there is no military solution to the Syrian crisis. On the contrary, a U.S. air strike would only worsen the situation there. Chinese have seen many failures of U.S. intervention in the Middle East in the past decade.

The U.S. clearly is adopting a double standard in dealing with countries in the Middle East, protecting the friendly dictators while trying to undermine the unfriendly ones.

China felt duped and used by the U.S. and its N.A.T.O. allies when a U.N. Security Council resolution in 2011 authorizing for no-fly zone over Libya was abused to pursue regime change. That kind of abuse will be very costly for the U.S. when seeking future Chinese cooperation in the U.N. Security Council.

Most Chinese are not convinced by the scant evidence provided by the Obama administration that it was Assad’s military, instead of the rebel forces, which used chemical weapons. It reminds them of the moment when Colin Powell went to the U.N. to make a case for Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction.

The arguments made by President Obama and other senior U.S. officials show that waging an air strike is mostly about keeping the interests and credibility of the U.S. and keeping the U.S. hegemonic status in the world, rather than ensuring peace and stability in Syria and the Middle East as well as lessening the suffering of Syrian civilians.

From the beginning, the declaration by Obama that “Assad must go” reflects strong hegemony and arrogance. Most Chinese don’t identify with such rhetoric.

I believe the Russian proposal to put Syrian chemical weapons under international supervision, which is likely to avert a crisis from the U.S. air strike, is a win-win for all sides, but probably not so much for the rebels.

The Syrian government will not be weakened. Fewer Syrian civilians will die as collateral casualties. It will give a better chance to the political negotiation that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry worked hard for in previous months.

At the same time, it’s also a face-saving way for Obama to avoid launching an air strike in front of the strong opposition from the American people, the Congress and the international community. That is why Obama has talked positively about the Russian proposal despite expressing some doubts. Of course, he insisted that it was the U.S. military threat that resulted in the Russian proposal.


The news that Syria has accepted Russia’s proposal to put its chemical weapons under international control might be a game changer, but the Syrian crisis is far from over. If the world leaders are truly determined to resolve this contining tragedy through a non-violent means, the United Nations should play a bigger role. But until the crisis is over, China and Russia, two of the five permanent members in the Security Council, will remain under the spotlight.

For many years China’s position on regime change has been loud and clear: external forces should not intervene in the domestic affairs of a sovereign nation. In other words, China’s position is one of non-intervention. Yesterday, Xinhua commentators called for U.S. law-makers to “keep their heads cool in the heat of Obama's lobbying blitz and Syria's ongoing crisis.”

China’s non-intervention policy has won it some respect in recent years, particularly after a notorious U.S.-led war in Iraq in the last decade. However, the way it handled the recent crisis in Libya in 2011 has highlighted the paradox inherent in its policy stance: If non-intervention is about respecting any state’s right to remain independent, why should China support a merciless tyrant who doesn’t even respect his own people?

In the Syrian case, China might soon ask itself the same question. If the recent accusation that the Assad regime used chemical weapons to kill its own people turns out to be true, why shouldn’t China join the international community in holding the dictator to account?

Although it is unlikely that we will see China’s any swift change in its policy on Syria, we should still expect China to play a constructive role in this crisis. The fact that the Assad regime has compromised on its chemical weapons is a step towards a (hopefully) peaceful resolution. But policy makers in Beijing should ask themselves a more serious question: what kind of role should China play when it is already a significant part of multi-polar world?

Like China—the Arab League opposes the U.S.’s proposed military action in Syria, and both favor a political solution to the conflict, arbitrated by the United Nations.

China, of course has a lot of business at stake. Middle Eastern oil accounts for about 60 percent of China’s oil imports. Syria itself is one of China’s more “modest” regional suppliers, and although China is one of Syria’s foremost trading partners, Syrian trade is a marginal component of Chinese GDP. It’s the conflict’s potential spillover into countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia—which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appeared to warn against in his recent interview with French newspaper Le Figaro—that has made the U.S.’s proposed military offensive prescient for Beijing.

One might expect Arabs to support China’s opposition to armed intervention, but the prominent Arab voices I’ve spoken with and read in the news—including Arab American Institute’s James Zogby, who conducts research on popular attitudes in the Arab world—have said Beijing’s repeated veto of U.N. resolutions on Syria have soured public opinion of the People's Republic in the MENA region.

Recent polling data was not readily available, but Zogby’s surveys of Arab attitudes from 2011 and prior, show that before the start of the Syria’s civil war, Beijing had been gaining in popularity, amid burgeoning investments in the region’s natural energies and infrastructure.

Some of the voices featured on ChinaFile today may discuss Arab popular opinion regarding China's stance on Syria, as Chinese state media often aims to use Syrian public opinion to back its policy in the conflict.

It's important to note, however, that China's growing business partnership with the Middle East has never been put to a referendum. Regardless of how Arabs feel about China—and we know Chinese enterprise has seen some blowback from local Arab communities in the past—Arab states will continue to do business with Beijing.

If Riyadh and Tehran stop exporting fuels to China, market analysts say, that may mean an international oil crisis.But since the start of this latest spate of Arab Revolutions in 2011, China has started taking its oil futures into its own hands.

Beijing lost a great deal of business in countries like Libya, as a result of conflagrations that continue to spin out of control. Since these losses, we've seen China look to more global resources for natural energies to fuel its economy. Chinese inroads in Central Asian and even North American energies are burgeoning, for instance.