Beyond Non-Interference: China’s Motivations and Interests in Supporting Syria’s Assad Regime

China’s engagement with Syria may be the most important factor in the question of Syria’s post-war reconstruction efforts. China’s consistent support for the Assad regime at the United Nations and their mutual interests in defeating terrorism have strengthened their bilateral relationship. China hopes to play a major role in the reconstruction efforts in Syria as well leverage their existing economic relationship to incorporate Syria into the Belt and Road Initiative. 

The relationship between Syria and China dates back to 1956, though it remained largely superficial until the rise of Hashar al-Assad in 2000. Beijing maintains a strong diplomatic relationship with the regime and has consistently supported it in the United Nations since the beginning of the civil war in 2011. Although China supports the UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which calls for ceasefire and political settlement in Syria and outlines the legal basis for the resolution process, Beijing also firmly advocates for “non-interference” and respecting Syrian autonomy and sovereignty, which is consistent with its wider foreign policy. 

Beijing leverages their veto power to support Syrian sovereignty and maintain its policy of non-interference. At present, China has vetoed ten UN Security Council resolutions on Syrian issues from 2011 to 2020. Most recently in July 2020, Russia and China vetoed a bid to extend approval for humanitarian aid to be delivered across two border crossings into Syria from Turkey. China expressed its view that humanitarian aid actions need to respect Syrian sovereignty. Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang stated cross-border humanitarian relief is a special relief method adopted under specific circumstances, which should be based on full respect for Syria’s sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity as well as the Syrian government’s views.

China maintains its stance that external intervention designed to enforce peace is a threat to Syrian sovereignty. After China’s first veto on a UN Syrian resolution, former PRC Ambassador to the United Nations Li Baodong stated any action the Security Council took should contribute to peace and stability and comply with the United Nations Charter principles of non-interference member nations’ internal affairs. His country’s position on those principles had remained consistent and firm. After China’s most recent veto, Ambassador Zhang Zhun stressed that humanitarian relief efforts should be on the basis of respecting Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and called on the Council to address the unilateral sanctions on Syria and urged certain countries to immediately lift the sanctions on the country.

China and Russia have jointly vetoed ten UN resolutions, and Russia has vetoed a total of 16 UN resolutions on the Syrian conflict. They share similar interests in supporting the sovereignty of regimes in the Middle East. Prior to the start of the Syrian civil war, China had only vetoed six resolutions since taking a place as a vetoing member in 1971. 

Instead, China favors economic and diplomatic engagement as a tool for political settlement. China’s interest in supporting the Assad regime in Syria is driven by its security concerns and economic interests. After the outbreak of the Syrian conflict, China became concerned of extremist and terrorist organizations colluding with Uyghur fighters from China’s province of Xinjiang. China worries that the Uygurs have traveled to Syria and neighboring countries. Special Envoy of the Chinese Government on the Syrian Issue Xie Xiaoyan is part of Beijing’s efforts to collaborate against terrorism in the Middle East. In an interview with CGTN, he said that the radicalized fighters originating from China “is one of the reasons that China is actively participating in trying to find a solution to the Syrian crisis. Some of the terrorists are indeed from China.”But he also emphaized that “the fight against terrorism is everybody’s responsibilty. Terrorism is the common enemy of the world.”

China also hopes to gain from the economic potential in Syria after the end of the conflict by assisting in reconstruction and incorporating the country into the Belt and Road Initiative. A 2020 United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) report estimates Syria’s economic losses exceed $442 billion since 2011. Syria is in desperate need for financial assistance in the reconstruction efforts, and due to the steady decline of Western aid to Syria, Damascus has looked toward other allies for aid, including China. China has already pledged $2 billion in the Syrian industry, and an additional $23 billion in loans and aid to the region. In 2018, Syria received 800 electrical power transformers and electric cables to help reconstruct damaged infrastructure. China hopes to aid in reconstruction through other efforts, including a pledge by Huawei to rebuild telecom networks. 

In addition to reconstruction, China hopes to incorporate Syria into the Belt and Road Initiative. Syria is strategically located on the coast of the Mediterranean, and prior to the conflict, Syria pursued a “Five Seas Strategy” to connect Syria with the Black Sea, Caspian Sea, Persian Gulf, Red Sea, and Mediterranean Sea regions. Connecting Syria to the Belt and Road Initiative is a possibility of reviving this strategy. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has said he is in talks with China to rebuild the country. “We have proposed around six projects to the Chinese government in line with the Belt and Road methodology and we are waiting to hear which project, or projects, is in line with their thinking.” 

After a decade of unwavering support for Syria, China could prove to be a valuable partner to Syria. However, since the situation on the ground in Syria has been fragile, Sino-Syrian economic collaboration and Belt and Road projects have yet to materialize. In the meantime, China will likely continue its policy of non-interference. In May, Ambassador Zhang Jun once again emphasized China’s support for Syrian sovereignty. “I wish to emphasize once again that the future of Syria is in the hands of the Syrian people. China sincerely hopes that the Syrian people can dispel the clouds of war and restore peace and stability as soon as possible. To that end, we will continue to play a constructive role.”