The draft resolution discussed at the United Nations Security Council meeting on Syria was rejected after Russia and China vetoed the proposals on Feb. 4. China argued that forcing UN member states to adopt a resolution for an intervention in Syria would not contribute to a solution. In the aftermath of this resolution, China and Russia drew a critical reaction from Arab countries. China, which has visibly gained popularity among the Arab peoples owing to its policies towards the Arab states, is now condemned because of its attitude towards the Arab Spring and its veto of the draft resolution on Syria.
But why did China exercise its veto? And why does the Chinese administration insist on extending support to the Syrian regime while Syrian forces still kill protesters and dissidents? These questions have a number of answers.
It is a reality that China would not be able to maximize and promote its goals and interests in the countries experiencing the Arab Spring by relying on tried and tested methods. In addition to the Arab Spring, the Syrian issue forces China to act more prudently. Like many other countries, China was caught unprepared by the outset of the Arab Spring because, like everyone else, the Chinese government was not aware that a man who burned himself to death in Tunisia would have ignited such a huge process of transformation. For this reason, it failed to calculate its possible economic, political or commercial gains, as well as potential losses. It could be said that all actors have pursued conjectural policies. For this reason, Russia and China, both of which failed to steer the events of the Arab Spring, now want to act more carefully with respect to the Syrian and Iranian issues.
As might be recalled, both China and Russia, which allowed a military intervention in Libya by not exercising their veto power at the Security Council, appear to be decisive in their choice not to do the same with respect to Syria. Therefore the Syrian issue, in the context of the Arab Spring, would put China into a difficult position and for this reason the Chinese administration remains resolute in supporting Syria. But is this the only reason for the Chinese attitude? Of course not. The impact of the Arab Spring worries the Chinese administration. China previously had strong economic relations with Tunisia, Algeria, Libya and Egypt. And when the threat posed by the Arab Spring becomes visible in Syria, where China was politically influential, the losses will obviously be more significant. The volume of trade between China and Syria in 2011 was $2.45 billion, while the volume of Chinese exports was $2.42 billion. The remaining $26 million was exported by Syria.
On the other hand, recent developments show that China’s losses may have reached an irreparable point. Li Shaoxin, vice president of the Chinese Institute for International Affairs (CICIR), in comments in which he focused on the regional and international impact of the changes in the Arab world and praised Turkey’s economic and political performance in recent times, drew attention to the degraded image of China; in the same piece, he said the turmoil in the Middle East was detrimental to the interests of China. Li further underlined that unlike the US, which holds strategic importance in the Middle East, China has suffered from major economic losses in the region, adding that the greatest problem China was experiencing was its inability to protect its interests abroad and provide security for its citizens in the region. However, Li also added that the change in the Arab world offered great opportunities for China and that Chinese expertise in technology, finance and development presented a unique advantage and opportunity for the countries in the region.
In addition, China is also facing the dangers of alienation and isolation in Central and North Africa, where it has made extensive energy investments. China, which has now come to perceive this threat, is taking decisive steps towards protecting its interests.
Another reason for China’s support for Syria is the potential impact of the Arab Spring on China’s internal affairs. The appearance in the media of reports on priests who burned themselves in Sichuan and Tibet raised comments in the Western press that the influence of the Arab Spring was heading towards China. This was one of the issues discussed at the recent Munich Security Conference. Remarks by US Senator John McCain that the Arab Spring was marching towards China attracted a great deal of attention at the conference.