Chinese Views of the Syrian Conflict

Source: Getty
Op-Ed China Leadership Monitor
Chinese leadership gives no sign of accepting any type of foreign military intervention in Syria, calling into question the significance of China’s apparent earlier move toward accepting some infringements on national sovereignty by outside forces.
Related Media and Tools

In recent years, many observers of China’s foreign policy have witnessed what appears to be a subtle change in Beijing’s traditional stance toward foreign intervention in the internal affairs of nation states.  Historically, the PRC regime has vigorously upheld what it regards as the sacred principle of state sovereignty against arbitrary or excessive outside (and especially military) interference.  

This position has been reinforced by its stated overall opposition to the use of force in international affairs, the highly limited utility, from Beijing’s perspective, of external coercive pressures (such as sanctions) on sovereign governments to make them alter their behavior, and a belief in the relatively superior results attained by private dialogue and positive incentives.   In addition, the Chinese leadership has no doubt resisted foreign interventions in the internal affairs of sovereign nations—especially when led by the United States and the West in general—out of a concern that such intervention is often motivated by a desire for regime change, and could establish a precedent that one day might be used against Beijing.  

All of these factors have led Beijing to resist or at the least abstain from efforts by other states, and even international bodies, to coercively pressure or intervene militarily in civil wars or cases of internal unrest occurring in other (particularly developing) states.

However, in the past few years, China’s supposedly principled and pragmatic stance on this issue has been under pressure due to growing international concern over a number of incidents wherein  authoritarian governments have applied violence against their own populations (best exemplified by the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and the subsequent mass killings of civilians in the Darfur region of Sudan in 2003-2004), as well as the emergence of a wide range of social, economic, and security issues that span and erode national boundaries.   For some analysts, such developments are contributing to the creation of so-called post-Westphalian norms, which emphasize “the right (and indeed the obligation) of the international community to infringe on the autonomy of the nation-state to protect or advance other considerations.”  

The most notable example of such an effort in the area of humanitarian intervention is reflected in the so-called “responsibility to protect” (R2P) norm adopted at the UN World Summit meeting in 2005, and addressed in various UN resolutions and statements since then.    

If such norms gain greater support, especially among major developing countries (and democracies) such as India, Brazil, and Indonesia, Beijing could encounter increasing pressure to support more interventionist policies.  In fact, Beijing now recognizes that humanitarian crises or other local problems occurring in so-called areas of instability (from the Chinese perspective) or failed states (from a Western perspective) can pose serious political, diplomatic, and economic threats to other nations, including China. Additionally, the Chinese leadership agrees with many other nations that although it is important to diagnose the underlying, long-term problems that cause such local instability, this overall objective should not prevent short-term actions necessary to deal with emerging and immediate humanitarian and other threats. 

As a result, Beijing has recently shown signs of accepting, or at least acquiescing in, internationally endorsed interventions in other countries, in some cases for reasons associated with the prevention of state-inflicted mass violence. A recent example of such changing attitudes was provided by Beijing’s willingness to permit UN-backed, NATO-led military intervention in Libya to prevent the killing of innocent civilians by the Qaddafi dictatorship.   

That said, the subsequent evolution of the Libyan intervention into a NATO-backed effort to oust the Qaddafi regime, and more recent Western-led efforts to sanction and condemn the Syrian government for its attacks on protesting Syrian civilians, have led Beijing to more pointedly resist even widely backed foreign intervention efforts, for a variety of reasons.  In contrast to the Libyan case, the Chinese leadership has repeatedly exercised its veto against UN resolutions on Syria, and gives no sign of accepting any type of foreign military intervention, even in support of humanitarian ends.  This development has called into question the significance of China’s apparent earlier move toward accepting, if not endorsing, some infringements on national sovereignty by outside forces.

This issue of the CLM takes a closer look at Chinese views toward the ongoing Syrian turmoil and the larger context created by the earlier Libyan experience, to identify the elements of Beijing’s current stance on foreign intervention in human rights-related political conflict occurring within sovereign states, as well as possible differences in viewpoint and approach among Chinese observers. 

As with my essay in CLM 38, three categories of sources are examined: authoritative, quasi-authoritative, and non-authoritative. 

End of document

About the Asia Program

The Carnegie Asia Program in Beijing and Washington provides clear and precise analysis to policy makers on the complex economic, security, and political developments in the Asia-Pacific region.


Comments (1)

  • BoyWonder
    Thanks for the help, I needed this fo my project!
    Reply to this post

    Close Panel

Syria in Crisis

Publication Resources

In Fact



of the Chinese general public

believe their country should share a global leadership role.


of Indian parliamentarians

have criminal cases pending against them.


charter schools in the United States

are linked to Turkey’s Gülen movement.


thousand tons of chemical weapons

are in North Korea’s possession.


of import tariffs

among Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru have been eliminated.


trillion a year

is unaccounted for in official Chinese income statistics.


of GDP in oil-exporting Arab countries

comes from the mining sector.


of Europeans and Turks

are opposed to intervention in Syria.


of Russian exports to China

are hydrocarbons; machinery accounts for less than 1%.


of undiscovered oil

is in the Arctic.


U.S. government shutdowns

occurred between 1976 and 1996.


of Ukrainians

want an “international economic union” with the EU.


million electric bicycles

are used in Chinese cities.


of the world’s energy supply

is consumed by cities.


of today’s oils

require unconventional extraction techniques.


of the world's population

will reside in cities by 2050.


of Syria’s population

is expected to be displaced by the end of 2013.


of the U.S. economy

is consumed by healthcare.


of Brazilian protesters

learned about a massive rally via Facebook or Twitter.


million cases pending

in India’s judicial system.

1 in 3


now needs urgent assistance.


political parties

contested India’s last national elections.


of Egypt's labor force

works in the private sector.


of oil consumed in the United States

is for the transportation sector.


of Chechnya’s pre-1994 population

has fled to different parts of the world.


of oil consumed in China

was from foreign sources in 2012.


billion in goods and services

traded between the United States and China in 2012.


billion in foreign investment and oil revenue

have been lost by Iran because of its nuclear program.


increase in China’s GDP per capita

between 1972 and today.


billion have been spent

to complete the Bushehr nuclear reactor in Iran.


of Iran’s electricity needs

is all the Bushehr nuclear reactor provides.



were imprisoned in Turkey as of August 2012 according to the OSCE.

Stay in the Know

Enter your email address to receive the latest Carnegie analysis in your inbox!

Personal Information
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
1779 Massachusetts Avenue NW Washington, DC 20036-2103 Phone: 202 483 7600 Fax: 202 483 1840
Please note...

You are leaving the website for the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy and entering a website for another of Carnegie's global centers.