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 on Wednesday — the first such killing — showed the country isn’t 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 airstrikes to support the Syrian government has left China increasingly alone in opposing military intervention in a civil war that has fueled Islamic State’s rise.
“It appears that events are dragging China further into the Syrian crisis,” said Michael Clarke, an associate professor 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. The killing of a Chinese national will certainly inject a new variable into Beijing’s calculations about its position on the conflict.”
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 on the world stage 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, a goal demonstrated by its creation of international programs and initiatives.
Since Syria’s internal strife spilled into the streets of Paris on Nov. 13, French President Francois Hollande has pressed Russia and the U.S. to merge their parallel bombing campaigns into an international effort to wipe out Islamic State. The U.K., which has bombed the group 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’s an uncomfortable position considering the country has only twice cast a veto without Russia. The pair have vetoed four resolutions on Syria, most recently blocking a U.S.-backed proposal to refer war-crime allegations against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime to the International Criminal Court.
Officials in Beijing have signaled no big shifts since Islamic State announced the execution of the Chinese national. At a regular briefing Thursday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei reaffirmed China’s desire to let the “UN fulfill its coordinating role” in fighting terrorism. China has said that negotiations including all parties under a UN framework would provide the only acceptable venue for solving the Syrian crisis.
China on Friday backed a Security Council resolution that condemned Islamic State as “a global and unprecedented threat to international peace and security” and called for efforts to “eradicate” its safe havens in Iraq and Syria.
But while the country might provide some logistical support, it wouldn’t commit forces or back a proposal that undermined Assad’s government, said 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.
As its global business interests grow, China is cautiously revising the non-interventionist policy espoused in 1955 by then-Premier Zhou Enlai. Its growing exposure to the global terrorism threat was underscored Friday when three executives of state-owned China Railway Construction Corp. were among 22 people killed after al-Qaeda-linked militants attacked the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako, Mali.
Any cost-benefit analysis on Syrian action would probably lead Communist Party leaders in Beijing to keep a limited, low-key role. China, unlike Russia, has little invested in the country or its government. If China does nothing, it might lose credibility as a rising player on the world stage. Or perhaps party leaders risk looking incompetent at home if Islamic State carries out a major attack on Chinese interests.
The cost of direct action, however, could be far higher. While Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi last year named China among 20 countries that had “forcibly seized” Muslim rights and included China’s northwestern Xinjiang region on a caliphate map, the group has subjected the country to a fraction of the ire directed at the West.
Taking a larger role risks provoking retaliatory attacks, and could exacerbate unrest in Xinjiang, where human rights advocates argue China’s efforts to clamp down on perceived separatism has helped radicalize the Muslim ethnic Uighur minority.
At least 300 Uighurs had joined the Islamic State cause in Iraq and Syria as of December, the official Global Times newspaper reported. A Xinjiang news portal confirmed Friday that police had killed 28 people allegedly responsible for the deaths of five police officers and 11 residents in Aksu prefecture, blaming them for being under the influence of an unnamed “foreign extremist organization.’”
Chinese Public Security Minister Guo Shengkun oversaw a meeting of top law enforcement officials in Beijing on Saturday, during which he proposed evaluating provincial authorities on their anti-terrorism efforts, the ministry said on its website Monday. The same day, Beijing’s municipal police raised their security preparedness level throughout the capital, the Beijing Youth Daily reported.
China doesn’t want to follow the U.S. down the path of military intervention in the Middle East, said Li Guofu, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the China Institute of International Studies. It has chosen to emphasize greater global cooperation to fight terrorism.
“It’s quite clear to Beijing that the U.S. approach to Syria and the Middle East at large is not working,” Li said. “You see this phenomenon, ‘the harder the strike, the greater terrorism.’”
Xi will probably chart a middle course, said Clarke from ANU, insisting any international intervention gets UN approval and solely targets Islamic State.
“The problem with that is that too many other actors in this conflict have already chosen sides,” Clarke said. “Xi is in a very difficult position here.”