Why China Will Oppose Any Strike on Syria

It isn't because Beijing likes chemical weapons or Assad.

The United States once again seems poised to launch a military strike against a Middle Eastern country, and, once again, China is against it: In a stinging editorial, the China Daily warned that military action against Syria could be "another Iraq" and that it is high time the U.S. "learned from its past mistakes."

The main rationale for a U.S. strike against Syria is that, by using chemical weapons against Syrians living in an opposition-controlled village, President Bashar al-Assad has violated an international norm and must be punished. In theory, a strike would not only prevent Assad from using these weapons again but also deter embattled governments elsewhere from deploying them. As of this writing, President Obama said he still hasn't made up his mind about going forward with the attack, but no one will be surprised if he gives the order.

China, like 188 other countries, is a signatory to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and, unlike Russia, has no military relationship with Syria. Yet throughout the more than two-year-old crisis, China has consistently used its veto power to squelch punishment on Damascus, and has continued to offer financial support to the Assad regime. And should Obama go ahead and seek UN authorization for military action against Assad, China has hinted that it will veto that, too.

What's behind China's position on Syria? One possible explanation is the country's growing energy needs—China is expected to become the world's largest oil consumer within four years and imports nearly 55 percent of this oil from the Middle East. But Syria isn't a major exporter, and China can easily rely on other countries for its oil.

Instead, these are the actual reasons for China's opposition to an invasion of Syria:

China and Russia feel burned by what happened in Libya

On March 17, 2011, the UN Security Council voted 10 to 0 to establish a no-fly zone over Libya in order to protect Benghazi civilians from mass slaughter. Expected to veto the resolution, China and Russia instead abstained, and two days later a Western-led intervention began. When the skirmish eventually brought about the end of  Muammar Gaddafi's presidency, beyond the original mission of the resolution, China made its displeasure known.

"The Chinese felt that the UN Resolution was essentially used to overthrow Gaddafi, and that it was far more expansive than what they envisioned," said Bonnie Glaser, an East Asia Senior Advisor at Center for Strategic and International Studies. 

Ever since, it's safe to say that China no longer trusts American intentions in cases of foreign intervention.

China wants a seat at the table

Although China's diplomatic profile in the Middle East has grown over the years—the country has a dedicated Middle East envoy and has even floated its own four-point proposal for Israel/Palestine peace—its reach in the region remains limited. However, China has consistently objected to American interventionism overseas.

Matt Schiavenza is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is a former global-affairs writer for the International Business Times and Atlantic senior associate editor.

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