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.
China’s evolving position in Syria stems from not only an adherence to its twin principles of state sovereignty and the peaceful resolution of disputes, but also the geopolitical influence it stands to gain from ties to Syria in the future. Syria was once the Western terminus of China’s ancient Silk Road, and today its geographic position is again important for Beijing. Syria sits at a crucial point along one of the six corridors that make up Beijing’s sweeping Belt and Road Initiative, offering direct access to the Mediterranean Sea. China also has promising contracts with Syrian oil companies and telecommunications infrastructure.