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Global Shield of Impunity (GSI): Chinese Conflict Mediation and "Coordination" in Syria
Discourse Power | September 22, 2023
Global Shield of Impunity (GSI): Chinese Conflict Mediation and "Coordination" in Syria
China's approach to Syria and Ukraine belies its lofty ambitions for the reform of the international system
by Tuvia Gering
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad arrived in Beijing yesterday, September 21st, 2023, on "an official invitation" from Chinese President Xi Jinping. The two leaders jointly declared the formation of a Strategic Partnership between China and Syria, similar to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's June visit to China, which also saw a symbolic upgrade to the bilateral relations.
This is the recluse leader's first visit to China since shaking hands with Xi's predecessor in 2004, and a rare excursion out of the country since the beginning of a civil war that has claimed more than half a million lives.
The day prior, a new peer-reviewed paper on China's Middle East conflict mediation that deals with Syria was shared online. The article, featured below, was written by veteran Professor Wang Bo of the Shanghai International Studies University's (SISU) Middle East Studies Institute (MESI) and Dr. Mu Chunhuan, a researcher with the Shanghai government.
Recognizing China's limited influence in the Middle East, Wang and Mu argue that China does not necessarily mediate. More accurately, it "coordinates" 协调 between major powers and warring factions, while “promoting peace talks and pushing for negotiations” 劝和促谈, thereby creating a "favorable environment" for a peaceful resolution.
With regard to Syria, they maintain that China plays a constructive role by supporting the centrality of the UN and relevant resolutions; it has been appointing special envoys to the region since 2002, including one for Syria in 2016; and it proposed five- and four-point plans in 2014 and 2021, respectively, for a political settlement of the conflict.
Responsible Major Power
However, while Wang and Mu paint a picture of successful Chinese "coordination" and international cooperation with Assad, Dr. Adedeji Ebo, Deputy to the High Representative of the UN Office of Disarmament Affairs, said in July 2023 that Syria refuses to cooperate.
Ebo added that "due to identified gaps, inconsistencies, and discrepancies that remain unresolved, the declaration submitted by Syria cannot be considered accurate and complete in accordance with the Chemical Weapons Convention."
The council reported a "near-unanimous in calling on Syria to cease undermining and obstructing the work of the Technical Secretariat, and to allow unhindered access to all sites investigated by the OPCW technical team."
Nonetheless, it pointed at opposition by some members, namely Chinese representative Sun Zhiqiang, who said that Beijing holds a “different interpretation” of the situation.
Sun urged the international community to "view Syria's efforts objectively" and to respond to Syria's concerns and demands in a more "professional and transparent manner," alluding to flaws in the work of the UN body for the Chemical Weapons Convention (the OPCW).
Beijing seems to believe that Assad has been unnecessarily stressed out by the council's inquiries and that the UN's limited resources have been squandered. In Sun's opinion, "the Council should reduce the frequency of its deliberations on the matter," adding that "this would enhance the Council's efficiency and reduce [the] use of its resource."
Indeed, China has a permanent seat on the Security Council and is increasingly willing to exercise the powers that come with it. Paradoxically, over the last decade, it has mirrored the behavior it criticizes the US for - politicization of international law - by siding with Russia as the main supporter of the Assad regime, effectively hamstringing the UN body.
The Arab Spring shocked Beijing, and Assad's plight in the face of ostensibly US-backed "color revolutions" prompted China to alter its long-held principle of non-intervention.
This is demonstrated by its use of veto power. China has joined Russia on ten occasions to block UN aid deliveries and resolutions related to Syria's use of chemical weapons since 2011.
Wang and Mu's article conveniently omits any reference to these crucial vetoes, let alone Assad's blatant breaches of international law.
Since they are dealing with "an old friend of China," they must tiptoe around the issue of Assad-backed forces' indiscriminate chemical attacks on civilians, referring to them euphemistically as "chemical incidents."
“Russia and China’s arbitrary veto use 16 Times Contributed to the killing of nearly a quarter of a million Syrians, the arrest of Nearly 150,000 others, and the spread of impunity,” according to a 2020 report by the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), a human rights group. “The timeline of the 16 vetoes shows the extent of the UNSC’s terrible failure to protect civilians and establish peace and security in Syria."
Age of Impunity
When hearing the term "chemical incidents," one is reminded of another euphemism popular in China: "special military operation." I write these words as Russia, led by Xi Jinping's "best and most intimate friend" Vladimir Putin, continues to commit the most egregious violations of the UN Charter in a war of aggression against Ukraine.
And yet, over the past 18 months, China has failed to condemn the invasion or even call it as such; Chinese officials have been echoing Kremlin talking points, blaming the US-led NATO for the war, whitewashing well-documented human rights violations, and spreading conspiracy theories on purported US-led biological warfare labs in Ukraine.
While Beijing stopped short of sending direct military aid to Russia, several reports have shown how China feeds Russia's war machine through other means.
China has become the Russian military's leading supplier of semiconductors needed for weapon systems, exporting more than $100 million in drones, as well as a variety of other dual-use exports, including jet-fighter parts, military vehicles, trench digging excavators, and navigation and jamming equipment.
China has also been supporting the Russian economy in the face of Western sanctions. According to Bank of Finland estimates, it now accounts for between 45% and 50% of Russia's imports, up from a quarter prior to the invasion in February 2022.
By the end of last year, China's trade with Russia had reached a new high of 1.28 trillion yuan ($190 billion), bolstered by a 50% spike in Russian natural gas imports and a 10% increase in oil imports.
Chinese and foreign analysts believe that Assad's main concern during the visit will be securing Chinese aid and rebuilding Syria. Devoid of Russia's abundant natural resources and ravaged by war and natural disasters makes it difficult to predict what Beijing will receive from Syria in return.
However, he should anticipate something given China's demonstrated interest in ensuring the endurance of "anti-hegemonic" member states. Furthermore, China is increasing its investment in Syria's neighbors, particularly oil-rich Iraq, which topped China's Belt and Road Initiative investment in 2021 with $10.5 billion in financing.
Syria's readmission to the Arab League in May was warmly welcomed by China. Many Chinese analysts credit it to the "wave of reconciliation" launched by Chinese mediation in March when Beijing brokered a détente between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
In February, when the world marked the first anniversary of the Ukraine war, China dropped a 12-point position paper on a political solution to the "Ukraine crisis."
As with its boilerplate four- and five-point proposals for Syria, the solution China actually offered was needed as much as it was effective in alleviating the pain of the victims of aggression and their families.
And, as expected, Xi's Global Security Initiative (GSI) was high on the agenda of Assad's visit. It was endorsed by Assad alongside the BRI, the Global Development Initiative (GDI), and the Global Civilization Initiative (GCI).
Beijing paints the initiatives as the four pillars undergirding Xi's vision of a Community of Shared Destiny for Mankind and realizing the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.
Together, they serve as the blueprint for China's recently released Proposal on the Reform and Development of Global Governance, as Michael Schuman, Jonathan Fulton, and I demonstrated in our recent paper for the Atlantic Council.
To be fair, Wang, Mu, and their colleagues genuinely hold the belief that China can embody a more constructive, fair, and just approach compared to certain "other countries."
China adeptly highlights legitimate grievances held by Global South nations toward the US and the West, stemming from decades of unsanctioned military interventions, inveterate meddling in internal affairs of other countries, and the hypocritical "democracies vs. autocracies" narrative, among other things.
At the same time, they are almost candid about China's transactional thinking in "coordinating" conflicts in the Middle East; they maintain that it has consistently revolved around advancing China's Middle East strategy, explaining that coordination diplomacy not only amplifies China's influence within the region but also shapes China's global image as a responsible major power.
In recent years, foreign media have reported on thousands of Uyghurs fighting alongside terrorists in Syria in order to train for their battle with China, which has been prosecuting Muslim minorities. Wang and Mu suggest that by addressing terrorism at its source, diplomacy with the Middle East indirectly strengthens China's domestic security.
Simultaneously, they say that Chinese mediation forges stronger connections with regional states, fostering economic and trade ties along the BRI, and bolsters China’s discourse Power in the Middle East.
Greetings from Jerusalem,
Before we begin, Prof. Jonathan Fulton of the Atlantic Council also released this week the second episode of the second season of the China-MENA Podcast, which also discusses China's role in conflict mediation in the Middle East.
He is joined by Dr. Sanam Vakil, Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme Chatham House, and Helena Legarda, Lead Analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERIC). Links here.
Journalists, researchers, and editors, if you find Discourse Power useful, kindly spread the word in your circles. You are welcome to respond to this email or leave a comment below to share your thoughts and provide feedback.
Thank you for reading,
“China's primary goal in coordinating with the major powers in the Middle East has always meant to serve China's Middle East strategy”
Professor Wang Bo and Dr. Mu Chunhuan investigate China's motivation for becoming more involved in mediating or "coordinating" conflicts in the Middle East in the New Era of Xi Jinping.
The article was published in the biannual journal of the School of History at Beijing Normal University by China Social Sciences Press, titled Studies on the History of Sino-Foreign Relations 中外关系史研究 (Vol.1).
The Abstract, the section on Syria, and the Conclusion of Wang and Mu’s article are all fully translated below.
Not translated: The first half, from the 1970s to 2013, focuses on Chinese mediation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iran nuclear negotiations. The second half, from 2013 to the present day, details China’s “coordinated diplomacy” in Libya and Yemen (along with Syria), in addition to the former two.
“China's History of Great Power Coordination in the Middle East Hot Spot Issues”
by WANG Bo 汪波 and MU Chunhuan 穆春唤, September 2023
"Since heralding its reform and opening up in the late 1970s, China has gradually moved into a more pragmatic phase of its diplomacy. As a permanent member of the Security Council, China embarked on a full-fledged process of major power coordination 大国协调 of Middle Eastern hotspots, beginning with its good offices on the Palestinian issue and shuttle diplomacy in dealing with the Gulf crisis.
“Although China was initially unable to exert significant influence on Middle Eastern affairs due to its [limited] power 实力, its involvement created a favorable environment for peace talks.
“Middle East policy has grown to be a key component of China's peripheral strategy [国周边战略, sometimes translated as rim/neighborhood strategy]. In the 21st century, it has also become a major source of energy, and China's ability to coordinate hotspot issues in the Middle East has grown.
“China has not only continued to coordinate on the Palestinian issue but has also emerged as a key player in the Iranian nuclear talks. Following the 18th CPC National Congress [in November 2012, when Xi was appointed General Secretary], China has continued to break new ground in its major power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics.
“In mediating Middle Eastern hotspot issues, China has been a proponent of new principles of international relations, such as "dialogue instead of confrontation, partnerships instead of alliances" 对话而不对抗、结伴而不结盟.
“It has played a more extensive role in the comprehensive coordination of hotspots such as the Israeli-Palestinian [conflict], the Iranian nuclear file, the Syrian, Libyan, and Yemeni [civil wars], and other hotspot issues. It can be said that it has played an important, indispensable 不可或缺, and proactive role.”
“Part III: Coordinating 协调 the ongoing efforts in Syria
“Large-scale protests erupted in Damascus on March 15, 2011, escalating into an ongoing military conflict between the Bashar al-Assad regime and opposition forces. The major powers have taken opposite sides on whether Syrian President Assad should remain in power. The US government has openly called for his removal, while Russia has supported him.
“China's unchanged position is supporting a political solution to the Syrian issue and opposes military intervention or pushing for a so-called "regime change" 政权更迭; it demands respect for Syria's independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity, and supports the Syrian people in independently choosing their own path of development.
“China is committed to playing a constructive role in the political resolution of the Syrian issue based on the aforementioned principles. Specific actions include assisting the United Nations in fulfilling its role as the primary channel of good offices, coordinating the positions of the parties involved in the Syrian issue, and putting forward proposals and views on its political settlement.
“In June 2012, UN Special Envoy for Syria Kofi Annan convened the Geneva I Conference on Syria [aka "action group" conference], which was attended by China, the US, Russia, and the United Kingdom. The meeting resulted in the Geneva Communiqué, which called for the Syrian government and opposition to reject the use of force and form a joint cabinet.
“China supported the Communiqué and used it as the foundation for Syrian peace talks. During his meeting with UN-Arab League Joint Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi in October 2012, [then-] Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi advanced China's initiative to advance the process of political settlement in Syria, calling on all parties in Syria to make every effort to realize the cessation of violence and to consult on and formulate a roadmap for political transition as soon as possible.
“During the March 2013 Syrian chemical weapons crisis, the US threatened to use force against Syria [see box below]. Eventually, Russia proposed "chemical weapons for peace," and the Security Council adopted Resolution 2118 on the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons, effectively ending the crisis.
“On January 20, 2014, [Foreign Minister] Wang Yi Put Forward the Five Proposals on the Political Settlement of the Syrian Issue:
“The issue of Syria must be resolved through political means;
“The future of Syria must be decided by its own people;
“An inclusive political transition process must be promoted;
“National reconciliation and unity must be achieved in Syria;
“Humanitarian assistance must be delivered in Syria and its neighboring countries.
“Following that, Minister Wang met with Syrian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, as well as Ahmad Asi al-Jarba, President of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces [aka Syrian National Revolutionary Coalition (SNRC)].
“Minister Wang reiterated the Five Principles and stated that the Geneva peace talks are a continuous process and that a follow-up mechanism should be established to keep the talks going and produce results.
“The deterioration of the situation in Syria, however, has taken on a new dimension, with the threat posed by the Islamic State (IS) terrorist organization in Syria intensifying in 2014. The anti-terrorist coalition led by the United States began to launch airstrikes in Syria against IS as well as some Syrian government and pro-government targets.
“In September 2015, Russian forces launched a direct military intervention in Syria to help Assad out of his precarious position in the civil war. Additionally, airstrikes against IS and some Syrian government and pro-government targets have started in Syria by Iran and Turkey.
“As the Syrian crisis worsened, the international community has come to realize that a political solution to the Syrian problem is the only way forward. Given the threat of terrorism spreading, China has increased its focus on the situation in Syria in the hope of forming a collaborative effort with the international community to promote an early resolution of the Syrian issue.
“On December 18, 2015, China supported the Security Council's adoption of resolution 2254, which agreed to place the Syrian issue within the framework of the United Nations to achieve a political solution.
“The resolution proposed to work towards a “credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance” within six months and set a schedule and process for the drafting of a new constitution. The Council further expressed support for free and fair elections, pursuant to the new constitution, to be held within 18 months and administered under United Nations supervision.
“Minister Wang fully affirmed the resolution's significance in his statement following its adoption, saying that it "injects new impetus into the political settlement of the Syrian issue."
“Soon after the resolution was passed, [then-] State Councillor Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang met with Mr. Muallem during his visit to China, demonstrating China's proactive role in promoting negotiations and pushing for peace talks 劝谈促和 [sic. It’s usually written as 劝和促谈].
“Eventually, during his visit, Muallem, speaking on behalf of the Syrian Government, made the first public statements endorsing resolution 2254 and declaring his readiness to engage in dialogue with the opposition under UN auspices.
“In March 2016, China appointed Ambassador Xie Xiaoyan, a seasoned diplomat, as its Special Envoy on the Syrian issue. His position is aimed at better understanding the crucial elements of resolving the Syrian issue and advancing the implementation of Security Council Resolution 2554.
“Since taking his role, Ambassador Xie has made numerous trips to the Middle East, visiting Syria, Russia, the United Kingdom, the European Union, Turkey, Jordan, Qatar, Iraq, and other countries. Through participation in the Geneva Conferences and the Brussels Conference on Supporting Syria's and the Region's Future, he has also held discussions with all parties concerned about the political solution to the Syrian issue.
“Xie emphasized [at the time] that there is a unique opportunity for the political resolution of the Syrian issue. He urged all parties involved to engage in inclusive political dialogues in order to find a solution that addresses the realities of Syria while also taking into account the concerns of all parties. It is regrettable 令人遗憾 that the Syrian political reconciliation program has not been implemented due to significant differences between the parties.
“In 2017, the issue of chemical weapons 化武问题 in Syria resurfaced, prompting the United States to launch attacks on Syrian air bases. China has taken the initiative to coordinate actions in order to prevent the Syrian conflict from escalating.
“In an interview with the media on April 13, Foreign Minister Wang Yi urged all parties involved in the Syrian conflict, particularly the US and Russia, to strengthen communication and consultation and avoid conflict and confrontation.
“With Russian and Iranian assistance, the Assad regime has gradually retaken control of roughly two-thirds of central and southern Syria. However, Turkey and the Syrian National Army (SNA) it supports continue to occupy northern and northern-eastern Syria, while the Kurds control northern and northern-eastern Syria. Furthermore, remnants of extremist organizations continue to operate in Syria, and there is still a long way to go before order is fully restored.
“On July 17, 2021, State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang held talks with Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad in Damascus. Wang emphasized that the key to a comprehensive solution to the Syrian issue is the implementation of the UN Security Council's "Syrian-led and Syrian-owned" principle, as well as the formation of joint efforts by all parties to effectively promote a comprehensive solution to the Syrian issue.
“Wang also proposed a four-point solution, which included adhering to the principle of respecting the Syrian state's sovereignty and territorial integrity, prioritizing people's livelihoods and speeding up reconstruction, effectively combating terrorism, and adhering to the direction of an inclusive and reconciliatory political solution.”
“Looking back at the history of China's coordination of hotspot issues in the Middle East since reform and opening up, China has cautiously 谨慎 engaged in only a few hotspot issues in the Middle East, such as the Palestinian issue.
“China took some proactive measures in the first decade or so of the 21st century, but it was only in the new era [since Xi took office] that it played a broad and fruitful role in the diplomatic coordination process.
“First, China's participation in the coordination of major powers on Middle East affairs is based on adherence to multilateralism. Since the post-Cold War era, the world has begun to shift toward multipolarity; multilateralism has thus become a fundamental guarantee for the international community to maintain international order by forging consensus, addressing each other's concerns, and resolving crises through equal footing consultations. China has consistently emphasized the importance of multilateralism in Middle East affairs.
“To this end, China has steadfastly adhered to discussing the Middle East's security issues within the framework of the United Nations, particularly the Security Council, and has played an active role through collaboration with regional organizations such as the Arab League, the African Union, and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
“In practice, the UN Security Council and multilateral talks on Middle East hotspots have been the main platforms for China to participate in the coordination process [to tackle them]. Through multilateralism, China has actively collaborated with other major countries and various international and regional organizations to facilitate the conclusion of relevant agreements, thereby creating conditions for a political settlement of hotspot issues and fostering a favorable environment for negotiations.
“Second, the special envoy mechanism is an important feature of China's participation in the Middle East's major powers' coordination efforts. In 2002, against the backdrop of major setbacks in the Middle East peace process, China formalized the position of the Chinese Government Special Envoy on the Middle East Issue [sic].
“The move set a precedent for the establishment of a mechanism for the coordination of hotspots in the Middle East; it is a manifestation of China's diplomatic innovation. So far, China has appointed to this position five senior diplomats with extensive experience in Middle Eastern diplomacy, including the special envoy for the Syrian issue in 2016.
“In many ways, the special envoys mechanism plays an important role in China's participation in the Middle East issue coordination process:
“It enables the Chinese government to concentrate on and effectively play a constructive role in promoting peace talks and pressing for negotiations [this time, they wrote 劝和促谈] in relevant focal points.
“It assists China in liaising with the United Nations and other relevant countries and international organizations regarding special mechanisms for special envoys, facilitating mutual communication and cooperation, and strengthening China's discourse power/right to speak 话语权 on Middle East affairs.
“It helps to publicize China's Middle East policy.
“It is representative of China's independent and peaceful foreign policy.
“Finally, China's primary goal in coordinating with the major powers in the Middle East has always meant to serve China's Middle East strategy 服务于中国中东战略始终是中国参与中东问题大国协调的主 要目标. China's coordinated diplomacy on Middle East hotspot issues has had multiple effects in the political, economic, and security realms over the years.
“Politically, China's Middle East diplomacy increases its influence in the region and shapes its international image as a responsible major power. It further strengthens its ties with Middle Eastern countries and encourages friendly exchanges with them.
“On the economic front, China's coordinated diplomacy in the Middle East boosts economic and trade ties, allowing China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in the Middle East to move forward smoothly. Furthermore, it provides China with additional guarantees for its energy security in the region.
“In terms of security, the security of the Middle East is inextricably linked to the security of China's western border regions, and participation in Middle East security governance indirectly improves China's domestic security.” (Studies on the History of Sino-Foreign Relations)
Playing in the Background
Don't let the uncanny similarity fool you. This is cover artist David Radcliffe, not artificial intelligence:
Discourse Power is written by Tuvia Gering, a researcher at the Diane and Guilford Glazer Foundation Israel-China Policy Center at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub, and a Tikvah Fund’s Krauthammer Fellow. Any views expressed in this newsletter, as well as any errors, are solely those of the author. Follow Tuvia on Twitter @GeringTuvia