Analysis: China wrestles with role in Syria and beyond

Reuters News
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Posted: Feb 10, 2012 4:08 AM
Analysis: China wrestles with role in Syria and beyond

By Sui-Lee Wee and Chris Buckley

BEIJING (Reuters) - After bowing to Western pressure over Libya a year ago, China blocked a move pressing Syria's leader to step down, exposing the difficulties Beijing faces in deciding when to go along with and when to rebuff demands piling up at its door.

China will come under renewed pressure to give ground next week, when its leader-in-waiting, Vice President Xi Jinping, visits Washington, facing calls to accommodate Western powers who want Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to abandon power.

Going forward, Beijing's policy makers will keep struggling to find a balance between asserting their own views on the world stage and going along with others, especially the United States, which China generally wants to avoid riling, analysts said.

"For the last decade they've been wrestling with this issue of what's China's role in the world and they've been trying to find articulations of it, peaceful rise and the rest of it. But I think the demands are coming thick and fast now," said Kerry Brown, a former British diplomat who now runs the Asia Programme at Chatham House, a London foreign policy institute.

"They're suddenly global players in a pretty short space of time and probably without a particularly sophisticated political structure," said Brown, an expert on Chinese politics.

"You have a huge growing pains scenario. I don't think they're really prepared for it," Brown said. "Suddenly, they are a global power and they have to have a global mindset."

The contradictory needs that trouble Beijing's foreign policy were shown this week in the wake of the Chinese and Russian veto of the proposed U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria.

China is one of U.N. Security Council's five permanent members, each of which has the power to veto resolutions.

On the one hand, Chinese state-run media cast the veto as a rebuff to the West -- a popular theme among nationalist members of the public. On the other hand, a senior Chinese diplomat said his government was open to compromise.

"It's secret to none that the Assad-led Syrian government is viewed as a thorn in the flesh by the West," said a commentary issued on Friday by Xinhua, the national news agency, on China's decision to veto the proposed resolution.

"If the West could succeed in its endeavor of a 'regime change' in Syria, it could further isolate Iran and Hezbollah, which is arguably the strongest Western motive on the Syria issue," it said.

China draws much of its imported oil from Iran, which faces tightening international sanctions aimed at curbing Tehran's nuclear ambitions, which Western powers say are aimed at developing the means to make atomic weapons.

Iran denies any such weapons plans, and China has repeatedly urged dialogue and also voiced alarm that Western powers or Israel could contemplate military strikes against Iran. Hezbollah is the Lebanese armed movement linked to Iran.

CONCILIATORY

But Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai struck a conciliatory note about Syrian diplomacy, and the ministry met with representatives of a Syrian opposition group.

"China is very cautious in exercising its power to veto, and that's a responsible position," Cui told reporters on Thursday.

"I believe that room for cooperation on this issue continues to exist between China and the United States and between the members of the Security Council," he said in answer to a question about Syria and Vice President Xi's trip.

By blocking the Syria resolution, China showed that it still believed in not intervening in troubled countries, despite Western governments warning that the Security Council split would lead to worse bloodletting by Assad.

Yet in March, China, along with Russia, abstained from a vote on a Security Council resolution authorizing a NATO air campaign over Libya, where Muammar Gaddafi was battling insurgents who eventually toppled him.

China however has deep concerns about Western military intervention. Beijing regrets backing the U.N. Security Council resolution on Gaddafi's government, which led to NATO expanding intervention that eventually helped topple him, said analysts.

The ruling Communist Party's newspaper, the People's Daily, said in a commentary on Syria this week that China "needs to get used to newly being in the limelight," and that the world "also needs to adjust to China's new role." [ID:nL4E8D70O9]

Indeed, Beijing has exercised its veto sparingly at the United Nations, using it eight times since 1971, said Yun Sun, a Chinese foreign policy expert in Washington. Its vetoes were matched by Russia's, which often sees eye to eye with China on countering Western demands for intervention, she said.

China, however, faces pressure from nationalist public opinion at home to stand up firmly against Western demands for cooperation and concessions, said analysts.

A vote in favor of the Syria resolution would have given the impression "that China is no different from any other of the big countries," said Shi Yinhong, an international relations professor at Renmin University.

"When necessary, China will of course use its veto; when China has to show its hand, China will certainly show its hand," said Vice Foreign Minister Cui.

"Nobody should have any illusions about that."

(Additional reporting by Benjamin Kang Lim, Ben Blanchard and Beijing Newsroom, editing by Brian Rhoads and Raju Gopalakrishnan)