China is barely visible in the Syria conflict but Beijing’s plans are becoming increasingly important – for Germany too, says DW’s columnist Frank Sieren.
China’s policy of non-intervention sounds good, but the country also has interests in Syria. It provides the most reliable access to the Mediterranean, which is important in political, military and economic terms for an emerging world power. It is important politically and militarily because the navy can park in the port of Tartus, where Russia has had a naval facility since the 1970s. Moreover, Syria is a country in which nothing moves politically without close collaboration with Iran.
In economic terms, Syria is important for China because Beijing has been supporting Syria to explore its oilfields. China could become an important partner for the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM). This would give Beijing not only trade access to the Mediterranean but also to the EU via the Mediterranean EU countries , if there happened to be more problems with Brussels.
Therefore, the position of the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson that China is not seeking to pursue its own interests in Syria should not be taken at face value.
It is not as if Beijing just discovered its interests a few years ago. Even at the height of the Cultural Revolution, China used Syria to position itself in the global political sphere with regard to Russia and to put it on the chess board. Just as Russian President Vladimir Putin receives his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad today, Mao Zedong received Syrian chief of staff Mustafa Tlass (who later became his country’s defense minister) in 1969 when the Russian government wanted to replace him with more loyal vassals. This happened just two months after the Sino-Soviet clash along the Ussuri River that separates China and Russia. Moscow came around and since then Beijing has been one of Syria’s most important arms suppliers, after Russia.
Times have changed. Russia and China both have important common interests in Syria. Both are interested in having an access to the Mediterranean. Both want stability. Both know Assad so well that they want to hang on to him, come what may, in view of the fact that the externally-triggered regime changes in Egypt or Libya have not been so successful.
That said, Moscow and China have different ideas on how to restore stability. Putin has placed his bets on fighter planes to bomb IS terrorists and, it appears, the opposition in Syria, too.
For its part, Beijing is in favor of political negotiations, so as not to put the sovereignty of Assad’s rule in doubt. At the Geneva II conference in January 2014, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi made it very clear that there should be a political solution, not a military one. Now, however, there are Chinese military vessels off the coast of Syria and China has reportedly sent military training staff to the last areas controlled by the dictator Assad.
But Beijing knows that China cannot play an active military role at the moment and is therefore in favor of negotiations. The country’s chances of boosting its influence in global political terms are good. Its basic argument is that the Syrians should decide about Syria and the country has to maintain its unity and integrity. This position is surprisingly close to that of Germany. The US, on the other hand, wants regime change at all costs, even if this is achieved through military means. Russia wants to maintain the regime at all costs, even if this is achieved through military means.
Since Putin started letting weapons speak, the two sides have had to be extremely careful that an American does not end up shooting a Russian and vice versa.
With Beijing’s entrance in the game, the chances of a negotiated solution have been improved.
Merkel and Beijing
The Germans in particular are hoping that Beijing will play a constructive role, as it did in the nuclear negotiations with Iran. China ended up being an important mediator between Tehran and Washington, for which it has received repeated praise in German government circles, albeit quietly so as not to upset the US.
Angela Merkel would be glad if China took over the reins as soon as possible. She is under extreme pressure because of the refugees. Stability and peace in Syria are now far more important to her than regime change or punishing Assad. Berlin’s interests are therefore more in line with those of Russia and China than those of the US. However, Merkel does not want to position herself openly against Washington and does not want to be seen whispering with Putin.
However, she can definitely make it clear that peace is not possible without the UN veto powers Russia and China, without upsetting Washington. That’s what she meant last week in Beijing when she said it was “high time” a “political and diplomatic solution” were found.
The problem for her now is that as long as Assad is sitting more safely in his seat Beijing is under less pressure and will therefore wait patiently for a more opportune constellation and a simpler solution. Beijing wants to avoid playing a different role for as long as possible. Putin has also got time. He wants his seat at the negotiating table to be as big as possible. If the price for this is that he will have to continue bombing for a few months, so be it.
Even US President Barack Obama is somewhat trapped. Is a fast peace, albeit with Assad, good for the Democrats’ election campaign? It would be peace but one where the Republicans would say that once again China and Russia got one over Obama, like they did in the case of Iran. Can he really want this?
Conditions are therefore not really in place for a fast peace.
Correspondent and bestselling author, Frank Sieren, (“Geldmacht China”) is considered one of the leading German China experts. He has lived in Beijing for 20 years.