China continues non-interference diplomacy in Syria amidst of Corona Pandemic

Earlier on May this year, the UNSC’s Security Council briefings on Syria, the US ambassador to UN Kelly Craft asked China “to validate its claims of global leadership in combating the global pandemic” in a meeting where the US has proposed a resolution to re-authorize delivering cross-border aid in Syria.

Cross border aid allows delivering humanitarian assistance to Syria, a country undergoing from ninth yearlong internationalized civil war. The war in Syria has to lead to nearly half a million civilian displacement, which has been noted by the UN as a humanitarian catastrophe. Cross border aid was in effect from 2014 to December 2019, allowing delivering humanitarian aid to Syria, especially the northwestern part of Syria through four gates from nearby countries of Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan. The reauthorization of the cross border aid was due in December 2019. But the UN has failed to adopt the draft resolution extending the authorization of cross border aid as it was vetoed by China along with Russia.

However, UNSC has renewed the cross-border aid resolution with the abstention from China, Russia, the US, and the UK but dropped two gates out of four gates and only authorized it for sixth months. It is expected to reauthorize again in July 2020.

COVID 19 has brought the issue forefront among the international community as it is preventing the delivery of humanitarian medical aid to North Western Syria. The US ambassador in the recent UNSC briefings on Syria earlier in May this year has proposed to reauthorize the remaining two gates.

However, China following its claim to adhere to the norm of non-interference discards the idea. Zhang, Chinese ambassador to the UNSC said, “Concerning the issue of cross-border humanitarian assistance, full respect must be given to sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria.” He further noted asked the international community to engage in a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political process in line with Security Council resolutions.

The cross-border aid does not require permission from Damascus. China supports intervention only with the consent of host countries, a policy much different from the United States. The narrative of non-interference policy has been an integral part of China’s policy-making towards Syria and other Middle Eastern Countries. The policy is vital as it echoes the Chinese approach towards humanitarian intervention, which Beijing considers to be against the principle of state sovereignty. Based on the above principles, China along with Russia has vetoed on eight occasions at the UN Security Council. 

While continuing its non-interference policy in Syria, amidst the pandemic China’s acting deputy permanent representative to the United Nations Yao Shaojun has voiced for the possibility of a political solution for the crisis. He urged UNSC to “promote inclusive dialogue and create favorable conditions for a political solution”.  

China has been calling for a political solution in Syria since 2013. In 2016, China has appointed Xie Xiaoyan as a first special envoy to Syria. In 2018, China also held an international symposium on the Syrian issue, where China advocates political settlement is the only practical way out for the Syrian issue. 

To show its commitment towards its non-intervention policy, as recently as in October 2019, Chinese foreign ministry has called Turkey to halt military incursion in Syria and ‘return to right track’, after a military intervention in northern Syria. 

Chinese non-interference policy does not only provide China the opportunity to have economic engagement with Syria, but it could be also seen as a policy to create states that are comfortable with China-led global order. In an interview in December 2019, Syria’s President Assad acknowledged China as a superpower and stated that the Silk Road project would not only provide stability to China, Syria, and countries involved but also marks a departure from a history of “Western attempts at domination”.  Syria has already shown vast interest in joining the Belt and Road project and has submitted six projects to the Chinese government in line with the BRI project. China has also earned support from Syria regarding China’s domestic issues, which otherwise has gained larger criticism among the international community. In a recent interview on 4th June 2020, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad voiced Syria’s support for China’s national security legislation for its Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR). Syria has been one of the few countries supporting China for this law, which is urged to abandon by several Human rights groups including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Freedom House. Other countries that are supporting the law based on non-interference principles are Cambodia, Myanmar, Burundi, Yemen, Venezuela, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Syria also has defended China against the US condemnation of China’s re-education camps in the Xinjiang region as it claims it’s a matter of China’s internal sovereignty. Syria was also one of the 37 member countries of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) that has a joint letter to the President of the UN Human Rights Council and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights voicing their support for China’s Xingjian policies. 

Thus, it is unlikely that China would change its non-interference base of Syria policy as China gains much political leverage from it. Especially when China is facing blatant criticism from a growing number of big powers such as the US and Australia over certain issues in last few months, including the handling of Coronavirus and passing of national security law for Hong Kong, China would need countries that support China’s policies on the International front. 

Scholars like Hirono, Jiang, and Lanteigne argued that one of the significant reasons behind China’s adherence to the non-interference Principle is, it can distinguish China from the “international community” primarily from the West. 

With the recent US announcement of unilateral sanctions against Syria, Syria would likely get closer to China. Zhang Jun, China’s permanent representative to the UN has asked to lift the ban, that has been termed as “economic terrorism’’ by the Syrian government. By emphasizing on Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, Zhang further noted that foreign interference and economic sanctions would further deteriorate the already broken economy of Syria. 

Even though China’s refusal to reauthorize cross border aid in Syria, it seems to have not impacted Syria’s view about China. As the Syrian government has voiced gratitude as China sent the second batch of medical aid to Syria earlier this month. Earlier this year, Syrian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem have applauded China’s effort in preventing the spread of the coronavirus to the rest of the world. 

China has sent the first batch of COVID aid to Syria on April 15, which was followed by a videoconference held between Chinese and Syrian medical experts for sharing the experiences in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jayshree Borah
Jayshree Borah
Jayshree Borah is a PhD candidate at Shanghai International Studies University.