Russia and China continue to oppose Syrian action. Yet their alliance may not be as indivisible as it seems
As the bombings of Homs, an opposition stronghold, enter their 20th day, many of the World's powers are gathered in Tunis to discuss the future of Syria. The meeting counts two notable absentees, however. Russia and China have declined the invitation.
After vetoing action against the regime earlier this month, the two nations continue to stand side by side in opposing any meaningful action against Bashar al-Assad. Both, in particular, are eager to pre-empt any military move after their seal of approval to a Libyan no-fly zone last year degenerated - so they say - in a full-blown, Western-led campaign. Yet behind a similar rhetoric lie important differences.
Whilst the Tunis initiative has received a frank rebuffal from Moscow, China's response has been more nuanced: it did not decline attendance straight away, and said it would consider the offer. Even if in the end no Chinese delegate is present among the 'Friends of Syria' gathered today, this hints at a significant difference between both countries' rationales for opposing action.
China's foreign policy, in the Syrian case as in many others, is primarily informed by a general doctrine of non-interference. Mainly this is in rejection of the Western notion of 'humanitarian intervention', whereby outside powers can act against a government when they deem it no longer assumes the role of protecting its citizens. China is well aware it has quite a few troubled provinces closer to home, where stability is often restored at the expense of human rights (Tibet and Xinjiang are two examples), and doesn't want to attract too much scrutiny on them. China's approach is also informed by pragmatic motives: maintaining good, but distant, relations with every government creates continuity, a good thing for business and ts nascent corps of diplomats.
Yet another trait of China's foreign policy is its concern to be seen as a rising, but benevolent power. Its wants to show that its economic and geopolitical clout are no basis for becoming an antagonizing hegemon. So sometimes it seeks a way to compromise with the West by abstaining on crucial UN votes, for example over North Korea or Iran. It is obviously not doing so today - China still remembers how passivity paid off in Libya. But China's position could potentially soften if it takes too big a toll on its reputation.
Russia's position, by contrast, is much more clear-cut. The reason lies in the very direct interest Moscow has in Syria - and ones that would suffer would the regime be ousted from power. Whilst China, has very little at stake in Syria, with barely more than a couple of million dollars invested and 100 workers, Russia has been a key ally of Damas since the Cold War, and is the country's largest arms supplier. It probably understands that the regime will fall sooner or later, and that its interests would also be in peril should a civil war break out. But it sees no gain in having Assad removed from power, and will continue to staunchly oppose Western resolutions as long as it can.
The international community should play on these differences. With little hope to overturn Russia's veto for the time being, it should accentuate pressure on the more emollient of both powers: China. It should show that Beijing's voice has been heard, yes, but also underline that too rigid a stance will harm its image in the region. And this really matters: even if China has little cash and people in the country, it has much more in other places feeling kinship with Syria's Sunni majority, and where the political situation remains highly volatile. Collateral damage from worsening troubles in Syria could also destabilize its sole ally in the region - Iran - from which China buys a lot of oil (and is set to do more, following Western sanctions).
China continues to see Syria has a place far away from home, in which it has no more at stake than pride and doctrinal consistency. But there is a fraction of hope that it could revise its stance. If this were to happen, Russia may finally realize, with so much trouble cooking up elsewhere in the region, that its position is hardly sustainable.
Credit photo: Marcus Lyon