As the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad becomes more isolated on the global stage following 11 months of a brutal crackdown against anti-government protesters, speculation is spiraling that Assad will soon be toppled, killed or forced out.
However, the Damascus strongman still has at least two powerful allies apparently on his side – Russia and China. These two giants sparked condemnation around the globe by vetoing a United Nations Security Council resolution that condemned Assad’s regime. Subsequently, the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov flew to Syria for talks with Assad to find a peaceful solution to the impasse.
But what about China? What is Beijing’s interest in this Arab country, thousands of miles away?
International Business Times spoke to an expert on China to discuss this ongoing topic.
Duncan Innes-Ker is senior economist at the Economist Intelligence Unit in London.
IB TIMES: Why is China so committed to Syria and keeping Assad in power? Syria has little oil, so what is the attraction for China? Even if the Chinese have some investments in Syria, they have much greater investments all over the world, don’t they?
INNES-KER: China has no particular interest in keeping Assad in power. Its position on the UN vote was instead based more on a desire not to set precedents. For example, China felt that the UN vote authorizing limited air strikes on Libya was abused by NATO to sanction a campaign that China did not approve of – thus, Beijing is now making it known that it will not tolerate this sort of behavior again. China has traditionally taken a negative view toward Western military interference in the affairs of other nations. In general, the Chinese fear that such behavior could be used to sanction interference in its own sphere of influence. Specifically in the current circumstances, China is worried that intervention in Syria could serve as a template for action against Iran -- which is a big oil exporter to China.
IB TIMES: How big is China’s trade business with Syria? Is it mostly one-sided? That is, China selling exports to Syria?
INNES-KER: China exported $2.4 billion to Syria last year and imported $26 million of goods from Damascus; so no, Syria is not a major trade partner and not a significant energy supplier either.
IB TIMES: Russia is also a big supporter of Syria -- is China seeking to “compete” with the Russians over influence in Syria?
INNES-KER: No, I don't think this is likely.
IB TIMES: Do you expect the Chinese to take an active role in seeking a compromise solution in Syria? Or are they better off not getting directly involved politically?
INNES-KER: No, China will not get directly involved. Now that they have made their point, I imagine they will make Russia take over monitoring the ongoing conflict between Syria and the West. However, China will not want to stand alone if Russia decides to back another potential UN vote against Syria -- unless the U.S. does something elsewhere that requires a special negative response, in which case a Syria vote could be used to punish the U.S. for sins committed elsewhere.
IB TIMES: Do you think the Chinese now realize that vetoing the UN resolution against Assad was a grave error and that they now stand to lose more in global opinion than they would gain economically by remaining loyal to Assad?
INNES-KER: Not really. I don't think they're very fussed about it. The only problem for China is that they will lose some possible oil project service contracts in other Middle East nations. However, I don't think they will view this as a particularly damaging loss -- and several of their biggest clients such as Iraq and energy suppliers like Iran and Saudi Arabia are unlikely to retaliate economically.
IB TIMES: Do you think the Chinese are expecting Assad to be toppled any day now, and that they are secretly negotiating with Syrian opposition groups, or the people who are likely to take over Syria?
INNES-KER: It is possible that they have begun to reach out, as they did in Libya when Moammar Gaddafi's regime started to teeter; but given China’s limited economic interests in Syria, it is possible that they may not be sufficiently motivated to do so this time.
IB TIMES: Assuming Assad is exiled - if he’s not killed beforehand - would China help him find a new home?
INNES-KER: This is unlikely on China's part.
IB TIMES: China has good relations with both Syria and Iran, which are two of the most isolated nations in the Middle East. Does this hurt Beijing’s relations with other major Mideast countries, like Saudi Arabia and Turkey?
INNES-KER: No, economic ties dominate China's bilateral relationships, and seem to be largely unaffected -- except possibly in one or two places, like Libya.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.