Thursday 5 July 2012

China’s perception of the Syria crisis

Homes pounded by Syrian government forces are biting the dust in Homs

This think piece by Dr. Raghid el-Solh appears in Arabic today in the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat. The writer is a published author and consultant on Arab and regional affairs. He holds a D.Phil. in Politics and International Relations from St. Antony’s College at the University of Oxford.
The longer the Syria crisis and the greater the violence and bloodshed, the broader will its international ramifications be and the deeper the big powers’ involvement in it.
Internationalization of the Syria crisis exposes the whole region to international conflict.
Lately, the tug-of-war over Syria seems to involve two players: the U.S.-led NATO alliance, which backs the Syrian opposition, and Russia, which supports the Syrian regime.
The Russian stand is pivotal. Moscow has ample cards to play in Syria. Short of direct military intervention, such as deploying warships to Latakia and supplying attack helicopters to Damascus, Moscow could exert indirect pressure on Washington.
For instance, it could shut lines of communications and supply routes being used by Washington to support American forces in Afghanistan. This could put them under pressure from the Taliban.
But the state of play between Moscow and Washington is not at the stage where Russia would consider using such assets, let alone the fact that China shares the Russian stand on Syria.
Russia and China are aware the tug-of-war over Syria is in reality a tussle for positions in the world order.
Unlike China, Russia is close to the Syrian theater and can intervene directly in the region. Distant China asserts its role in Syria and the Middle East differently. For instance:
§ Having opposed Western military intervention and backed the Syria mission of UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, it has been openly critical of Washington’s Syria policy. When U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described as “despicable” the double veto by Russia and China at the UN Security Council, China’s Xinhua News Agency retorted by accusing the West of seeking to extend its hegemony over the region. At the same time its state-run daily The People accused the U.S. of narcissism and arrogance.
§ By consolidating ties with Moscow. The Syria issue was key to the rapprochement between China and Russia in the context of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), particularly during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s June 5-7 visit to Beijing. Since the visit, speculation has been rife about turning SCO into a Eurasian NATO. Commenting on the visit, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the two countries remain in lockstep over Syria, opposing foreign intervention and forced regime change. He said, "Russia and China have common core interests. They hold similar stances on the ongoing profound changes in the world and similar approaches to new challenges… Russia and China support building a multi-polar world, establishing a more just and democratic global political and economic order, and enhancing the UN’s central role in coordinating and resolving hot international issues.”
§ By enhancing Chinese capabilities. Though Beijing did not involve itself fully in the Syria crisis, it went a step further by forcing the U.S. to shift the place of conflict to East Asia. Economic growth in the world’s second-largest economy has allowed Beijing to embark on a top-to-bottom modernization of its overall military power. According to SIPRI (acronym for Stockholm International Peace Research Institute), China’s defense budget quintupled between the years 2000 and 2012 to $160 billion. Although U.S. military spending is four times as much, SIPRI and other think tanks estimate China will overtake the U.S. in military spending by the year 2035.
How do these facts and figures relate to the Syria issue?
American watchers of Chinese-American relations say Beijing aspires to become Southeast Asia’s regional hegemon, thus threatening vital U.S. security interests. This explains the Obama Administration’s recent “Strategic Guidelines” rebalancing force structure and investments toward the Asia Pacific region. The Obama guidelines recall the general principles outlined in the 1992 document authored by Paul Wolfowitz, then U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy. The Wolfowitz document featured a pledge that the U.S. would act, by military means if necessary, against any regional bloc threatening American interests.
James E. "Hoss" Cartwright, the retired U.S. Marine Corps general who served as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff until last August, said in May the new Asia battle concept is covertly directed at China. “Air Sea Battle is demonizing China,” he said, “and that is not in anybody’s best interest. And we’re pivoting to the Pacific. It’s really a poor choice of words.”
The tensions in Asia are now real. The U.S. is bent on beefing up its military presence in the Asia Pacific region and on building an alliance to contain China that would include India, Japan, Indonesia, South Korea and Vietnam. China is bound to challenge this sooner or later.
As the strategic rivalry between Washington and Beijing builds up and China’s economic footprint widens across the globe, Chinese leaders could come to consider the strategic and oil-rich Arab region vital to Chinese national interests.