Chinese state media are warning against military intervention in Syria, arguing the United States and its allies are using chemical weapons as an excuse to pursue regime change. But some analysts say military involvement would play well into China’s larger strategic interests.
China has long opposed any intervention in Syria. Beijing has already joined Russia in vetoing two United Nations resolutions aimed at pressuring Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Analysts said foreign intervention against a non-democratic government was a threat to Beijing and some of its allies, such as North Korea. But Beijing’s stance opposing outside action on Syria was also an opportunity to stand together with Russia, said Xie Tao, a political scientist at the Beijing Foreign Studies University.
“It’s possible and even likely that China has been very consistent on Syria because China really cares more about the appearance of a strategic alliance with Russia than caring really about the situation on the ground in Syria,” said Xie.
China has small oil interests in Syria and very few Chinese nationals live there, but its efforts, with Russia, to fend off intervention, could be a hedge against western influence in the region.
According to a 2011 report from the U.S. Congressional Research Service, Russia and China have been Syria’s key supplier of conventional weapons, with Russia accounting for the lion’s share of $2.9 billion in arms. The report said China supplied Assad’s military with $300 million worth of arms between 2003 to 2010.
Despite China’s stance blocking outside intervention in Syria, Beijing has been urging the government to talk with the opposition and meet demands for political change.
Shen Dingli, a political scientist at Shanghai’s Fudan University, said China would continue to call for patience and urge the United States and others to wait for the results of a U.N probe into last week’s attack. If intervention was what the United States and its allies chose, Beijing would not be upset, he said.
“China openly opposes any intervention, but in reality it would welcome and even hopes for intervention. Why is that? Because by intervening, the United States would be attacking itself. The United States hurt itself when it intervened in Afghanistan in 2002 and again in Iraq in 2003,” he said.
Shen said U.S. intervention in Syria could also affect Washington’s diplomatic and military outreach toward Asia, a policy that Beijing saw was aimed at containing or countering China. U.S. officials dismissed that view, saying the policy was more about shoring up relationships in a region seen as key to American economic and diplomatic interests in the coming years.
Much like the rest of the world, news of a possible impending military intervention in Syria has topped Chinese state broadcasts for days now. Largely absent, however, has been any commentary from the country’s top leaders on the crisis.
Chinese media reports have played up the possibility that last week’s suspected chemical weapons attack was carried out by opposition forces. Western powers and the Arab League have condemned the chemical weapons attack, which they say was carried out by Syrian forces.
An editorial in the People’s Daily Wednesday, the newspaper of Communist Party, warned that any intervention would only add oil to the flames of Syria’s civil war and frustrate any U.N. effort to seek a resolution to the conflict.
The newspaper argued that talk of possible intervention in Syria was much like the overthrow of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein a decade ago, which it adds, was launched on the pretext of weapons of mass destruction.