China being 'dragged deeper into Syria crisis'

BEIJING • The violence swirling out from Syria in recent weeks is pressuring China to step off the sidelines and take a more active role in international efforts to stem the conflict.

The execution of a Chinese captive announced by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) last Wednesday - the first killing of a Chinese national - showed the Asian giant is not beyond the reach of a group that has claimed responsibility for recent attacks in Beirut, Paris and Egypt's Sinai Peninsula.

Moreover, Russia's decision to launch air strikes to support the Syrian government has left China increasingly alone in opposing military intervention in a civil war that has fuelled ISIS' rise.

"It appears that events are dragging China further into the Syrian crisis," said Professor Michael Clarke, at the Australian National University's National Security College. "On one level, Russian intervention and the Paris attacks have raised the stakes and made Beijing's preferred option of a political resolution much less likely."

While China's projection of power abroad typically focuses on safeguarding its growing business interests - and it has pledged not to interfere in the affairs of other nations - doing nothing about Syria carries its own risks. It could hurt the country's credibility as a rising power or even make its leaders look weak at home. President Xi Jinping has often spoken of his desire to convert China's economic clout into geopolitical power.

Since Syria's strife spilt into the streets of Paris on Nov 13, French President Francois Hollande has pressed Russia and the United States to merge their parallel bombing campaigns in Syria. Britain, which has bombed ISIS in Iraq, is thinking about joining the fray in Syria.

That has left China as the sole veto-wielding member of the United Nations Security Council still advocating for a political solution.

That is an uncomfortable position considering the country has only twice cast a veto without Russia. The pair have vetoed four resolutions on Syria, most recently a US-backed proposal to refer war-crime allegations against President Bashar al-Assad's regime to the International Criminal Court.

At a briefing last Thursday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei reaffirmed China's desire to let the "UN fulfil its coordinating role" in fighting terrorism.

Last Friday, China backed a Security Council resolution condemning ISIS as "a global and unprecedented threat to international peace and security" and called for efforts to "eradicate" its safe havens.

But while it might provide logistical support, it would not commit forces or back a proposal that undermined Mr Assad's government, said Mr Raffaello Pantucci, director of international security studies at the London-based Royal United Services Institute.

"I don't really see this being much of an actual game-changer," he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 24, 2015, with the headline 'China being 'dragged deeper into Syria crisis''. Print Edition | Subscribe