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China’s ambassador to the United Nations, Ma Zhaoxu, speaks during a Security Council meeting at United Nations headquarters, New York, April 13, 2018 (AP photo by Julie Jacobson).

As the U.S. and Russia Spar Over Syria, China Sits Strategically on the Sidelines

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

The 105 cruise missiles that the United States, France and the United Kingdom fired at Syria late last week, in response to another suspected chemical weapons attack by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, deepened the divide between Western powers and Russia over how to approach the next stage of Syria’s war. But amid divisions playing out both at the United Nations and on the ground in Syria, China sits in a precarious and uniquely advantageous position. As an actor that strictly denounces the use of chemical weapons and upholds the principle of nonintervention, Beijing condemned both the chemical attack outside Damascus and the U.S.-led punitive airstrikes that followed.

The recent escalation in Syria demonstrates how China has crafted its Syria policy since the civil war began and why it may be at a crucial turning point. As Washington and Moscow, which is Assad’s main backer along with Iran, infringe on international norms over the use of military force, ignoring the U.N. Charter, Beijing has taken advantage of this discord by staying strategically on the sidelines. It still calls for a political settlement in Syria, while solidifying its own economic ties, including nascent reconstruction plans. Russia and the U.S. continue to spar over Assad, but China is crafting an image of itself as a disinterested party and, it hopes, the most responsible international stakeholder among the three powers. ...

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