Security and Foreign Policy

Sovereignty and Territorial Integrity Inform China’s Strategic Policy on Syria

The situation in Syria continues to deteriorate as Russia and the United States continue to enforce their agenda both on the ground and diplomatically. While Russia and the US are clashing, China is calculating its own interests and setting its own agenda on this matter. Ruoyin Zheng analyzes the strategic thinking behind China’s geopolitical strategies arguing that China may not necessarily be supporting Russia through its support of Syria.


On April 13 2018 at 9:00pm New York time, the United States, the United Kingdom, and France, without prior consent of the UN Security Council (UNSC), launched three missile attacks on Syria. The next day, Russia called a UNSC emergency session to discuss the military attacks from the West on Syria. Bashar Jaafari, the permanent representative of Syria to the United Nations, asked the Secretariat to distribute copies of the Charter to the representatives of the United States, United Kingdom and France, as those aggressors were not interested in a transparent and independent investigation, but rather in undermining the fact-finding mission.

The Security Council rejected a proposal by the Russian Federation to condemn aggression by the United States and its allies over suspected chemical weapons use in the country. The draft resolution — which was defeated by a recorded vote of 8 against (Côte d’Ivoire, France, Kuwait, Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, United Kingdom, United States) to 3 in favour (Bolivia, China, Russian Federation), with 4 abstentions (Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, Peru) — would have demanded the United States and its allies immediately cease such actions and refrain from any further use of force in violation of international law.

On April 17, 2018, Russia rejected France’s proposal that called for the launch of an independent investigation over an alleged chemical attack that struck the former rebel-held town of Douma in Syria’s Eastern Ghouta. While the rest of the world seems to be embroiled in the conflict gripping the Middle East, China seems much far removed.

Syria is the most heated focus now in international politics. Yet China is seemingly most distant from the political maneuvering in the Middle East. What is China’s role in this crisis, what is its position? The voting on Russia’s draft resolution indicates that China stands with Russia, but it is worth debating whether China will support Russia entirely on this matter or not.

China’s attitude towards Syria has been clear and determined all the time: against the use of force and insisting on political solutions. China’s representative to the UN has reiterated that all sides must refrain from any move to escalate the situation and resolve the issue through dialogue within the framework of international law. Aside from that, China keeps advocating for the respect of the sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of all nations.

The Middle East is the embattled sphere of influence where the US and Russia continue to compete, however, China continues to stay an arm’s length away. China has no strategic interest in this area. China and Syria have no direct contact, either political or economic. Yet, China has used its veto power four times on issues regarding Syria to alluding to China’s tacit support of the Syrian regime, which is very uncharacteristic of the Chinese. People might argue that China is showing its support for Russia since they are allies.

But China has its own agenda and concern regarding this matter. First, China’s advocacy on sovereignty is not simply limited to high-sounding words for a UN speech, but rather paving the way for its own territorial problem: Taiwan. Under no circumstance will China support the disruption of a nation. China will keep insisting on the unity of a nation and sovereignty of a nation’s legal government until the resolution of the Taiwan issue. Taiwan is rumored to have the implicit support of the US, especially since the direct phone call from President Donald Trump. By emphasizing the sovereignty principle, China is also implying that the United States should not further intervene in Taiwan’s problem. Thus, China chooses to side with Russia, who is supporting the legal government of Syria and confronting the US.

Nevertheless, China is very unlikely to intervene militarily in Syria alongside Russia, as China is not ready to enter a violent conflict with the US and its allies. China might continue to curb the US by using its UN veto power, perhaps to push President Trump to surrender in the trade war against China, but far from a military confrontation with the US and its allies. As for China’s strategy in the Middle East, it is still too early to say China will have a chance to spread any significant influence in this geopolitical battleground.

Ruoyin Zheng holds a bachelor of Political Science and a master degree of Russian Studies from Yale University. She has specialized in Russian-China relations and has conducted in-depth research on this matter.

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.


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