A controversial decision now pending the approval of Congress has met with media backlash in China. The Obama Administration has made plans for a military strike against Syria after allegations of chemical weapons use by the Assad government. These accusations came after videos surfaced of what appears to be a chemical attack in opposition held suburbs of Damascus on August 21, bringing the ongoing Syrian civil war back to the front of global awareness. Evidence held by the U.S. government implicating the Assad regime as the perpetrator of this attack has the U.S. poised to intervene, in spite of the fact that samples retrieved by a UN investigative team are (at the time of this writing) still being analyzed. This intervention may proceed despite protests from Russia and China, which have already vetoed several United Nations Security Council resolutions aimed at sanctioning the Syrian government for their role in the civil war.
The Chinese media interpretation of this development should be contextualized by several factors. One is China’s relationship with Russia, a key regional ally with an economic interest in Syria. China’s official positions have been very noncommittal, implying support for the Russian position without outwardly siding with the Syrian government. The NATO intervention in Libya in March 2011 is another aspect of the Chinese position. This intervention was made possible in part by the abstention of China and Russia from a Security Council vote establishing a no-fly zone in order to protect Libyan civilians, and the subsequent Western involvement in that conflict resulted in the fall of the Gaddafi regime. This was an outcome that China did not anticipate when deciding not to block the resolution, and the incident caused China to treat future intervention initiatives in the region with growing mistrust.
The final factor affecting how China views the issue of intervention in Syria is a traditional sensitivity to interference in the domestic affairs of sovereign nations. China has categorically opposed such interventions, perhaps out of concern that too many precedents will create a model for intrusion into its own cases of minority unrest. In addition, for an authoritarian government maintaining a careful balance between political reforms (such as attempts to curb corruption) and preserving its own place in power, a series of interventions leading to government upheavals is not a positive trend. This concern about the spread of democracy has been demonstrated in instances such as the Chinese media responses to the crisis in Egypt, and in “Document No. 9,” a memo circulated within the Chinese Communist Party that classified Western Constitutional democracy as a threat that should be eradicated from Chinese society.
On the official level, statements about intervention have been rather muted. The Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, has urged “restraint and calm,” while in a recent press release by Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei, China reiterated a desire for the UN investigation to conclude before any action is taken (but does not voice what China’s position will be if the investigation finds that Assad’s government is responsible for the attack). When asked about potential U.S. intervention Lei simply restated that China is “gravely concerned that some country may take unilateral military actions,” and that any action taken should “comply with the purposes of the UN charter.”
State controlled media, on the other hand, has been able to make more direct assertions. One article by the state newspaper, The People’s Daily, drew parallels between the initiative to intervene in Syria after the chemical attack and the weapons charges that lead to the Iraq War, saying that the U.S. is using the same “tricks” to get involved in Syria. The article implied that the use of chemical weapons as a pretense for a military strike on Syria was just another instance of fabricated evidence. Another piece by the Global Times entitled “US ignoring logic as it beats war drums” asserted that the United States “[does] not really care about international law.” The article goes on to say that the United States is acting on its own political agenda in the region, without fear of repercussions regardless of whether or not chemical weapons were in fact used by the Syrian government.
Based on these statements, it is clear that the Chinese media is skeptical of U.S. intentions in a Syrian intervention. The United States is viewed as pressuring other countries to conform to international law and the decisions of the United Nations, while simultaneously ignoring both as having no authority over the U.S. This view is not completely unfounded, but it fails to take into account the lack of public support for military action in the case of Syria. The specter of the lengthy and expensive Iraq war is fresh in the memories of U.S. citizens, who are just as skeptical as China concerning the ability of their government to engage Syria without creating another costly war during an economically difficult time. The unpopularity of this prospect severely limits the choices available to the Obama Administration with regards to Syria. Potential allies are also limited by scarce domestic support; the backing of the United Kingdom was withdrawn after public pressure resulted in the defeat of a motion in parliament to join in a U.S.-lead strike. Obama’s decision to place the matter before Congress reflects a similar concern for the will of the people.
Need for congressional approval, public opinion, and economic conditions are all factors that will virtually ensure any U.S. action against the Syrian government (if it transpires) will be as brief as possible. It remains to be seen if limited action will reassure the Chinese media, or if they will remain suspicious of U.S. intentions in the Middle East.
Written by Jessica Bolin
Jessica is an intern with the China Program at The Carter Center. She is a recent graduate in International Affairs at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
Feature photo by Getty Images.