The United States and Western European nations have roundly condemned Russia and China for vetoing a resolution in the United National Security Council that sought to condemn the regime of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, amidst a brutal crackdown that has claimed more than 6,000 lives over the past 11 months.
While Russia has long had friendly relations with Syria (not to mention a lucrative arms trade business), China’s support of Assad is just as strong. Indeed, Damascus and Beijing have had diplomatic relations since 1956.
According to the European Union, China was Syria’s third-largest importer in 2010, but the bilateral trade is virtually one way (that is, the bulk of the business between the two nations consists of Chinese exports flowing to Syria).
Chinese energy firms are deeply involved in Syria – China National Petroleum Corp. and Sinochem have heavy investments in the country.
Citing a 2010 report from The Jamestown Foundation, CNN noted that: Beijing's renewed interest in Damascus -- the traditional terminus node of the ancient Silk Road ... indicates that China sees Syria as an important trading hub.”
China has also provided Syria with arms -- as long ago as the late 1980s, Beijing sent Damascus intermediate-range ballistic missile systems and related technology as Soviet influence in the Middle East was waning.
Relations have continued to be strong and cordial.
Last summer, deep into the revolt in Syria that has spawned mass killings, the Chinese Foreign Ministry released statement hailing Beijing’s relationship with Damascus.
China and Syria gave each other understanding and support on issues concerning each other's core and major interests, Beijing said.
China showed consistent understanding and firm support for Syria's position on the Golan Heights while Syria remained committed to the one-China position and rendered China staunch support on matters related to Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang and human rights.
Now, while China has called for the killings in Syria to stop, it also opposed any foreign military intervention in Syria or the removal of Assad.
Chinese Ambassador to the U.N. Li Baodong recently told the government's Xinhua news agency: China is of the view that the Syrian people's request for reform and safeguard of their interests should be respected. It is imperative to put an immediate end to all violence in Syria and oppose and stop the killing of innocent civilians. At the same time, an inclusive political process with a wide participation of all Syrian parties must be started without delay to speed up reform and resolve differences and disputes peacefully through dialogue and consultations.”
Dilshod Achilov, a professor of political science at East Tennessee State University, and an expert on the Middle East, said that “China and Russia are ideologically well-aligned in terms of foreign policy and regional security with respect to [the Middle East]. Both China and Russia view Syria as a regional strategic ally and a counterweight against rapidly expanding Western influence in the region.”
Achilov also noted that Syria and Iran are the only anti-Western states that remain in the Middle East.
In 2008, an article in Asia Times noted: “As the world's fastest-growing consumer of oil and third-largest net importer of oil, energy will continue to be the most important motivating factor shaping China's foreign policy toward the Middle East in the foreseeable future.”
China’s friendly relations with Assad (or whoever succeeds him in the absence of a coup) will likely continue.
The report added: “China is keen on projecting its influence in the Middle East, a region where it was largely relegated to the sidelines amid the Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. Throughout much of the Cold War, China viewed the Middle East as an opportunity to showcase its revolutionary credentials by criticizing its more powerful Soviet rival, albeit from afar, for not doing enough to empower countries such as Syria and the peoples of the region (or, in some cases, for acting as an imperial power, in its view, on par with the United States and the West).”
Regarding Saturday's veto that has outraged Europe and the U.S., Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told reporters in Beijing: On the issue of Syria, China is not playing favorites and nor is it deliberately opposing anyone, but rather is upholding an objective and fair stance and a responsible position.
Liu added: Our goal is for the Syrian people to escape violence, conflict and flames of war, and not to make the problem even more complicated. Unfortunately, the countries that proposed the resolution forced a vote despite the serious differences among various sides, and this approach was not conducive to the unity and authority of Security Council and is not conducive to the appropriate resolution of the problem. Therefore, China voted against the draft resolution.”
However, in the event that Syria sinks into a civil war and Assad is deposed -- or murdered -- China would have to seriously backtrack and will probably seek to make amends for its past support of the bloody Baathist regime in order to placate a new government in Damascus.