In Syria, a rare Chinese foray into foreign policy

November 20, 2012

This month, a curious thing happened in the annals of diplomacy. A country offered up a peace plan to put an end to a seemingly endless civil war in Syria. This country was not one of the usual foreign policy suspects — it was not the United States, it was not in Europe, and it wasn’t Syria’s neighbor. It was a country that has no real experience in playing the world’s policeman. But, seeing a world filled with retired officers, it decided to try on the uniform for itself. China has taken another step into the spotlight of the world stage.

This is what happens in a G-Zero world — a world without any specific country or bloc of countries in charge. China has long been content to watch world events play out and then react, trusting that another country would step in to put volatile situations to rest. But that’s not happening with the Syrian conflict and its spillover into the broader Middle East. Americans feel that the issue doesn’t affect them enough to intervene. Europeans, as a Union, don’t seem to be particularly interested, even if some smaller countries are. And with those powers on the sidelines, suddenly the Chinese have a much bigger problem — a civil war that could metastasize into regional instability. The Chinese have far too much at stake in Iraq and Iran for that to happen: 11 percent of China’s oil imports come from Iran, and it is on track to be the chief importer of Iraqi oil by 2030.

And so China stepped in, offering a peace plan. The details — cease-fire, a committee that negotiates a political solution to the war, etc. — are not as important as the plan’s mere existence. It’s symptomatic of China’s new approach, one that Hu Jintao hinted at in one of his final addresses as Chinese president. He said China would “get more actively involved in international affairs, (and) play its due role of a major responsible country.” In the wake of downturns in the West, there is a new diplomatic structure emerging. China is determined to be one of its architects.

This doesn’t mean China necessarily knows what it’s doing. Diplomacy is new for the Chinese, who have really only interjected themselves in regional politics and through economic investment abroad. Intervening in other countries’ affairs is a tricky thing for a Chinese government that so resolutely believes sovereignty is supreme, even if human rights are being trampled. Beijing tries not to infringe on other countries’ sovereignty because it would not allow others to infringe on its own. The one other time in recent years that the Chinese government has pushed for peace was in Sudan’s dispute with South Sudan. But even then, when Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir visited Beijing, Hu Jintao said: “The Chinese side has always respected the will and choice of the Sudanese people.” It’s difficult to affect change when you’re not sure if you even have the right to be affecting it.

The likelihood that China’s plan is actually going to accomplish anything in Syria is basically zero. But just making an overture, as China has done, carries little risk. It pushes back at some of the scorn China’s received, along with Russia, for vetoing U.N. Security Council sanctions on the Syrian government. If the Syrian situation doesn’t improve, China has done no better than the West. If it does, China can perhaps claim a part, and, more importantly, ensure that its investments in Iraqi and Iranian oil are safe.

That China is wading into diplomacy here does not mean it will replace the United States in negotiations. But it does mean that the world is in transition — what was once America’s domain is now no one’s. It may take years for a new leader to emerge. China, despite having little history of foreign policy beyond its region, sees an opportunity there. It’s likely to make mistakes, and its initial diplomatic attempts may not be entirely coherent. But it’s filling a void. The question: is it a black hole or a blank canvas?

This essay is based on a transcribed interview with Bremmer.

PHOTO: China’s Premier Wen Jiabao (R) sits alongside U.S. President Barack Obama (2nd R) and Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda during the East Asia Summit plenary session in Phnom Penh, November 20, 2012.   REUTERS/Jason Reed 


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“But it does mean that the world is in transition — what was once America’s domain is now no one’s. ”
What evidence is there to support such notion?
The US has emerged as the main winner in the Arab spring, and it’s about to score yet another achievement in Syria, by eliminating the only middle-eastern regime associated with Iran.
In order for China to make its debut as a player, it should first present some sort of worldview that others can understand and approve of. It should also be prepared to spend a lot of money to sit at this table of ‘world players’.
Talk is cheap, and ideas are a dime a dozen, especially in the Middle East.

Posted by reality-again | Report as abusive

“Diplomacy is new for the Chinese”… I believe it just a slip of the tongue. Even to imagine that a nation with the longest statehood ever existed (along with Persia/Iran) doesn’t have an ability to participate in today’s conflicts, appears to be nonsensical.

Posted by OUTPOST2012.NET | Report as abusive

“The US has emerged as the main winner in the Arab spring, and it’s about to score yet another achievement in Syria..”

Ah, the thinking process of an obama supporter. Militant islam taking control in every ‘Arab Spring’ country is a win for the usa?!? I’m sure it is to the lefties, I’m sure it is. /facepalm

Don’t you just love the idea that China needs to first ‘present some sort of worldview that others can understand and approve of.’?!? Wow. Just WOW! I’m sure 1.7 billion people care what someone like @reality-again thinks of their plans. harharhar!

Posted by stambo2001 | Report as abusive

I fail to see how the “US has emerged as the main winner in the Arab Spring”, but I agree with much of what @reality-again wrote in his post. I see no evidence to support the idea that America has left its role as the “world police” vacant, and even less evidence that China is in any position to fill it.

To be a world player you must, at the very least, begin to hold the values and play by the norms that other countries agree on. As long as the Chinese Communist Party continues to depend almost solely on economic growth to legitimate their hold on power, and neglect things such as intellectual property rights/ democracy/ freedom of speech/ freedom of religion, I just don’t see how they expect to become a top player in the world of foreign policy.

Posted by Lavonn | Report as abusive

Why is a G-zero world so much stranger than a G-zero country?

What is the leading state in a national version of the “global cop” in this country that is a stable state, for now?

It may be that a world without conspicuous front-of-the- class leadership is no stranger than what it has usually been throughout history.

The US achieved its post war dominance because the old European imperial powers exhausted themselves in two episodes of devastating warfare. The collapse of the USSR left it as the survivor of the arms race.

Now it seems to have something like phantom limb syndrome and needs a rival or rivals just to feel like the days when it had something to fight to get itself up in the morning, so to speak?

Maybe it ought to leave out the caffeine? The country would be less than happy with a version of the global cop at home, were the police as pushy and all consuming of local affairs as the global cop tends to be world-wide. They would also be outraged if that global cop was a crook and insisted that he manage his beat with all his cronies and special interest pals and everyone knew he was supporting his pals in their own illegal activities. That statement may not be quite fair in all respects but the global cop is never Andy Tailor and the town of Mayberry.

In the case of the US, Andy Tailor weights about two tons, has a larger economy (in funny and somewhat self inflating numbers that seem to derive largely from the way it organized its society and encouraged life on long credit and very sophisticated and somewhat suspicious ways of measuring “money”) and is armed perpetually to the teeth. He carries a mace and mountains of explosive devices. He lives in a very rough neighborhood and has interests that would like it all to be so much tougher especially if events aren’t working in his favor. Most cops don’t also double as private businessmen and rules do not permit them to mix job descriptions. He isn’t allowed to privatize his beat in his domestic setting.

It might be very interesting, in a world without a global headman, to see what the propaganda looks like that always tries to put the best face on rotten situations or to deny the obvious?

But if countries truly adhere to freedom of the press and human rights standards and the Internet is still up and running and very wide open to all comers, that may not be noticeable? Having a consistent and truthful story line may become a big problem. One doesn’t hear much complaint, usually, about the stuff in papers of record like the New York Times but can China, with it’s history of severe party dominated press control, ever succeed at creating a believable paper of record?

China is a bossy country with a lot of sub bosses who are still living with the robber barons. And now we are seeing their revival. Not all Chinese are as sophisticated as their government. As I understand it, it is actually a country with what could have been about 59 sub-countries based on language alone and their experience keeping their domestic act together is actually larger and more sophisticated that anything Andy Tailor or even the Police Commissioner of New York City could dream about.

Two ton Andy Tailor met up with Hop Sing who wasn’t the slightly comic and always deferential housekeeper who served the Bonanza boys. The boys might find it hard to adjust.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

I wonder how many yuan Syria owes China?

Posted by rikfre | Report as abusive

Calling ME an ‘Obama Supporter’ ?!? …
Ouch, that hurts… ! :)

Posted by reality-again | Report as abusive

Lavonn – The Chinese are not neglecting them but the freedoms you speak of also take time to adjust to. For the first time in their history they have nearly universal literacy rates. This country was founded with the presumption of literacy among the majority of the population. That makes a big difference in how well one can understand the modern world, especially democracy and the complexity of government. An illiterate person cannot become a naturalized citizen of this country. It isn’t all that easy, actually, to live with freedom. Most people value protection and security and a stable routine. Freedom and civil rights are actually a step up above the usual routine of daily life even in this country.

Ruthless pursuit of self-interest is what the international community and the law seems to be most interested in controlling. That is getting very hard to recognize and the definition of ruthlessness seems to depend on whether or not you think the world should justifiably be carpeted with the broken remains of “losers” as long as the winners get to enjoy their rewards.

But it is very difficult to live in a close packed environment and not notice the smell of decay when too many losers pile up. Even trapeze artists tend to use nets most of the time and the winners seem to manage to supply their lives with better nets than those with less means ever can.

It can become an extremely hard life at the bottom and an almost unimaginably lush life at the top and when herds of very hard up bottom dwellers want something badly enough they will take it and crush anything that stops them. They have a right to life and if the society and economy they live in doesn’t recognize that fact – they will take what is denied them.

BTW does it make the slightest sense for the anti government forces in Syria to attempt a violent overthrow
of the government and contribute to the destruction of billions of dollars of value in the country only to turn around and petition for loans and grants of 60 bln to rebuild it all? Dictators have been ousted before and it didn’t always involve the violent overthrow of the government. Iran managed rather quickly to topple the Shah with a surprising amount of coordination. But they followed it with a bloody purge of hated officials. The Marcos regime fell without a long tern violent uprising as I recall.

The legitimacy of the new regime could also be measured by how quickly it makes the transition and how much or little violence it took to change it. I tend to think the less violence involved the more legitimate and eagerly sought is the replacement. The Syrians didn’t try too many demonstrations of popular commitment before it became a blood bath. Now they have a broken country and many have been forced to flee. You think they might have spent a few years at work stoppages, truly non violent demonstrations and a variety of disruptive tactics that demonstrably involved popular courage and commitment. There was almost no history (not years or decades by any means) that appeared in these pages prior to the very quick explosion of violence.

The people who think that governments should fall the moment someone blows on them or endures a barrage of loud media complaints doesn’t really want a stable government at all. Whatever they get will be just as vulnerable to the winds as what they toppled.

The new bosses – if they have any sense – tend to become just like the old boss because the old boss had time to recognize and adapt to the cultural and religious political currents they were all riding on. If the government can be toppled with a big wave – the subsequent governments can all be washed away with the after waves until they eventually calm down or until another storm starts them again.

Optimism is many times for the suckers and the “losers”. An awful lot of losers get there by being too optimistic about their prospects. Even governments seem to do that too.

If Libya doesn;t get the money Gadaffi stole then I will be convinced that the Arab spring is really only a way of getting the ME enmeshed in the daisy chain of mutual assured destruction due to indebtedness.

BTW – Revolution didn’t happen in another European country before it took France because, contrary to popular legends of the time, the French were not the most put down or oppressed of Europeans, Alexis de Tocqueville explained this in far more detail and so does Thomas Carlisle. The aftermath of the revolution was ridiculed in English papers because the French had very nearly destroyed their domestic economy and only Napoleon was able to dictatorially force the country to function again with any power and range but it a way that neutralized many aspects of the social revolution. But the French achieved long term changes in the constitution of the laws at the cost of millions of men’s lives and the deaths of many other Europeans..

It is the preservation of power that is never mentioned and it isn’t spoken of because it is an ugly and exploitive business that doesn’t gell well with popular expectations of freedom and the pursuit of happiness.

We expect power to be generated almost on automatic by our political and economic system and it is being challenged by grass roots but almost fanatical commitment of people in their mere personhood. We applaud street revolts and even violence in the ME but would do quite the opposite if the same thing happened here and it would be the popular response. Don’t kid yourself otherwise. We are our houses, cars and bank accounts and if those go, more losers get added to the heap.

People may crow and even lecture on civil rights but when push comes to shove, the civil rights always take a back seat to being able to eat and find shelter. And as a civil libertarian of the lite sort – that’s what really scares me about tough times.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

@Paintcan – “The Chinese are not neglecting them but the freedoms you speak of also take time to adjust to.” I wholeheartedly agree with this statement. China is clearly changing at an amazingly rapid pace, and these issues continue to evolve. What I disagree with is the idea that China can become real players in the sphere of foreign policy before they truly address the aforementioned problems.

Posted by Lavonn | Report as abusive

Chinese foreign policy — especially in economic and trade policy — does what is best for China.

That is a lesson the US should have learned long ago, but never has and probably never will.

Posted by Gordon2352 | Report as abusive

@Gordon2352- the reason the US can’t just afford to look out for it’s own interests is that as a “global superpower”, it has to act like the emperor of the world and “the empire” won’t let it. It will be a struggling backwater if it looks to its own interests first. But even the ancient Romans came to see their emperors as disposable. One was even deposed and killed by his legions because, at two years on the job, they figured he had been commander too long and it was time for a change and he had actually been a fairly good emperor. They were so used to the massive bribes every new emperor gave them for their loyalty, they also wanted a payoff sooner. That isn’t so different than today and each administration’s need to satisfy the appetite of this country’s military industrial complex. It’s military has been regularly occupied since WWII.

And if the Chinese try to do what the US did for the past 60 years, it will have the same problems.

The one child policy is China’s modern “foot binding”. They can’t easily afford to spend four grandparents’ single grandchild on military adventures. When he or she goes – that’s the doom of their lines – you could say. That may not mean much here but that will mean a lot to them. I don’t think genes are impressed with propaganda. My father (European ancestry) dotes on his single granddaughter and her only baby daughter as his connection to the future. I’m sure the Chinese are no different. If that is too embarrassing to many modern attitudes, those modern attitudes may do wise to realize most of the world’s populations probably thinks like my father. All some people have is their chance to send off a bundle of their own physical self into the future and hope it fares better than they did.

If the Chinese try to play the “global cop” they will be doing it with drones and automation, any chance they get. The people’s army hasn’t had much to do for over 50 years and I’m sure the people of China are rather pleased it doesn’t. The government will face a huge drop in popularity when it tries.

The only chance any of the major countries have to stay alive with a semblance of real prosperity is to stop the proxy warfare and seriously start to craft a global government. But the big powers are afraid to let up on their dominance lest the smaller countries go at them more like equals. That’s the fate of corrupt bullies. They lived by inspiring fear and awe and they will die on the receiving end of what they taught for decades. The rest of the world won’t be that concerned for the reasons or even the patience of the defunct power and certainly not what it may have done right. They will only remember the mistakes and abuses.

Global dominance is somehow, always an abuse of power.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive