Which way will China jump on Syria?

Eleanor Hall reported this story on Monday, February 13, 2012 12:38:00
ELEANOR HALL: As Syrian forces continue their bombardment of the city of Homs Arab countries are now calling for UN peacekeepers to be sent into the country.

At today's meeting of the Arab League, senior delegates said they'll now put the option to the United Nations.

Significantly, they've also called for negotiations and co-ordination with Russia and China to avoid any future opposition from the veto-wielding powers.

James Dorsey is a senior fellow at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and has been following the Syrian situation closely.

He says there has been disquiet within China since last week's veto and that the Chinese government may not necessarily exercise its veto this time around.

James Dorsey spoke to me earlier from Singapore.

JAMES DORSEY: China in many ways has a very different stake in all of this than Russia does. While Russia has interests that are direct in terms of Syria and its relationship with Syria and the position Syria gives it within the Middle East for China it really is a question of its overall foreign policy and that has been a policy that has been challenged ever since the Arab revolt started more than a year ago.

ELEANOR HALL: Well, the Arab League is now talking about a joint peacekeeping mission with the UN in Syria. What is the likelihood that China will also veto this?

JAMES DORSEY: I don't think that anybody knows how China will vote on this. It is going to be very tough for China to vote against such a UN peacekeeping force. On top of that in the recent days there has already been a degree of change or at least an indication of change in Chinese foreign policy in terms of the fact that the Chinese have soft contact with Syrian opposition forces, very much along the lines of what they did in Libya last year when they tried to maintain a balance by having a good relationship both with the government of Moamar Gaddafi as well as with the opposition.

ELEANOR HALL: So do you think that the Chinese government may be seeing that it miscalculated its vote on Syria?

JAMES DORSEY: I think that the Chinese are increasingly realising that they have a policy dilemma. They are becoming a global power. They have global interests in terms of their economy as well in terms of their security and that means that they no longer can simply stay aside and aloof from conflicts in countries that are crucial to them.

In Libya they ran the risk of being excluded with regard to oil contracts. As the revolt spreads, that is going to become increasingly difficult.

ELEANOR HALL: Yes, given the situation in Libya, are you surprised that the Chinese used their UN veto on Syria given that with post-Gaddafi Libya they'd merely abstain from supporting the UN no-fly zone and there was an economic backlash there?

JAMES DORSEY: Well, I was surprised on the one hand in the Arab world, it has put it at odds basically with the Arab League but it has also thrown a moral question on China in terms of its allowing this sort of slaughter to take place.

ELEANOR HALL: Is China's foreign policy here though really at odds with its economic interest. I mean the Arab League may be backing this Syrian resolution but many of the oil supplying countries are hardly paragons of democracy themselves. They'd applaud China's argument that the UN shouldn't meddle in the internal affairs of other countries, wouldn't they?

JAMES DORSEY: Well, it does put them at odds, certainly the Gulf countries and they are obviously not proponents of democracy but none the less, the gulf countries are crucial to China's energy supply and therefore China by opposing the Arab League is opposing some of its most important suppliers.

ELEANOR HALL: So why do you think the Chinese Communist Party made this decision, not just to abstain but to veto? I mean is it simply backing its ally, Russia?

JAMES DORSEY: I think it has less to do with Russia and more to do with1) the way they view the experience of the resolutions that was interpreted by Western forces as a licence to overthrow. The Chinese, much like the Russians, maybe even more so, are really concerned about the fallout of the Arab revolts and what that could mean for China domestically.

And that is where the clash is, that fear of similar things happening in China or in parts of China and on the other hand their global interests as a global power where they have a global responsibility and as a global economic power where they are dependent on ensuring the supply of raw materials, of resources. That contradiction is not coming much more to the fore.

ELEANOR HALL: How extensive are China's direct interests in Syria? As extensive as Libya?

JAMES DORSEY: They are less extensive. For one, China had 35,000 workers in Libya which it had to evacuate very much at the beginning of the conflict in Libya. It does have some investment in the Syrian oil sector. The problem with Syria is that Syria, unlike the other revolts, could very well affect the region.

So the stakes are much higher. I don't think that the regime of Bashar al-Assad will last. I also think that the revolts that we've been seeing over the last year in the Arab world will leave no Arab country untouched, so in that sense the Chinese are getting on the wrong side of history.

ELEANOR HALL: And what is China risking with the contradictions in its policy?

JAMES DORSEY: I think the risk, one is very, very tangible and that is as the Libyan attitude immediately after the success of the revolt was that they were, when they were looking at contracts, they were looking in the first place at those that had helped them and the Chinese had not helped them.

They have $18 billion in contracts. They were the largest contractor in Gaddafi's Libya and those contracts are still in limbo. They haven't been able to secure those. There was a Chinese delegation in Libya last week so there is an immediate economic and tangible impact.

And the second impact is a moral impact and a projection of their image. China is a rising super power. As such, it takes on responsibilities that it may not have had before it was becoming so economically and politically and diplomatically strong and those responsibilities are things it has to live up and it hasn't done it so by opposing a resolution that Bashar al-Assad clearly has interpreted as a licence to try and suppress the revolt against him no matter how many lives that costs.

ELEANOR HALL: Dr Dorsey, thanks very much for joining us.

JAMES DORSEY: It was my pleasure.

ELEANOR HALL: James Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. You can listen to a longer version of that interview where Dr Dorsey speculates on whether the tumult in the Middle East will force China to completely shift its foreign policy.


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