As the crisis in Syria grew increasingly bleak and complex this summer, a prevailing attitude in China was that the use of force by the United States was inevitable. The Chinese state media outlet Xinhua reported as much in an article at the end of August, concluding, “Washington and its allies . . . have put the arrow on the bowstring and would shoot even without a UN mandate.”

Convinced that intervention was looming, Beijing did not engage with Washington or attempt to shape the international community’s response to the use of chemical weapons and the worsening humanitarian crisis in Syria. Instead, it blocked U.S. initiatives at international bodies and settled on making hollow calls for a political resolution.

Paul Haenle
Paul Haenle holds the Maurice R. Greenberg Director’s Chair at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and is a visiting senior research fellow at the East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore. He served as the White House China director on the National Security Council staffs of former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
More >

But China misread U.S. politics and President Barack Obama’s calculus on Syria. In doing so, it has missed an important opportunity to demonstrate that it is a great power and a constructive global leader.

The fact is that Obama has shown a clear reluctance to use force in Syria. Since President Bashar al-Assad began his campaign of horrific violence against the Syrian people in March 2011, Obama has demonstrated a preference for political solutions and has struggled to find effective diplomatic options. Obama began—not unilaterally but alongside partners in Europe—by tightening sanctions, searching for a political resolution, and, when that failed, calling for Assad to step down. Between October 2011 and July 2012, the United States put three draft resolutions before the UN Security Council, and all three were vetoed by China and Russia—even those supported by the Arab League.

In August 2013, Assad launched a chemical weapons attack that killed more than 1,000 civilians, including many children, as they slept. Obama deemed it important that the international community send a message that the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable and that a regime willing to flout international norms must face consequences. Turning a blind eye would set a disastrous precedent for the international community, with catastrophic ramifications across the globe.

While Obama felt strongly about the need to take a firm stand against the use of weapons of mass destruction, U.S. military action was not his preferred option. And it has not been for some time. He ran on a political platform to end wars in the Middle East, not start them, and he has talked often of the American public’s as well as his own war-weariness. His reluctance was also evident in his surprise decision to seek approval and support for military action in Syria from the international community and the U.S. Congress. And recently, when Russian President Vladimir Putin put forth a proposal to have Syria’s chemical weapons placed under international control and destroyed, Obama jumped at the opportunity to pursue this alternative.

The United States and Russia negotiated an agreement on the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, and French, British, and American diplomats subsequently drafted a binding UN Security Council resolution. On September 27, China followed Russia’s lead in voting for the resolution, but it was not a part of developing the proposal, nor did it actively participate in the drafting of the resolution’s language. Beijing took a very passive stance at a time when the world could have benefited from China's participation and leadership.

China could have used the window of opportunity opened by this preference for a diplomatic and multilateral solution to promote its interests on the international stage and reassert Chinese pride and power. Because of its unique relations and influence with the parties involved—from Moscow to Damascus and Tehran—Beijing has an important role to play in identifying and negotiating creative diplomatic efforts in Syria. China could have reached out to the United States and other key players to try to be part of the solution. Instead, it stood on the sidelines and offered criticisms and empty rhetoric.

One factor driving China’s passive and inactive approach may be related to a long-held belief in Beijing that security at China’s borders and in its own neighborhood trumps security concerns in faraway locations. In the past, Chinese leaders have assumed that countries in closer proximity to the Middle East than China or with greater strategic interests there would step forward to maintain peace and stability in the region. China’s leaders may believe that they can free ride on U.S. security guarantees in the region while focusing on problems in the Asia-Pacific.

Unfortunately, problems in the Middle East are likely much closer than Beijing realizes, and the solutions found now are ones that China will have to live with for decades. Beijing should reconsider its passive approach and step in to help shape these outcomes. Otherwise, it risks a resolution that is potentially inimical to China’s own current and future interests.

And Beijing has many interests in the conflict. China is a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which forbids the production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons. The indiscriminate and gruesome nature of these weapons threatens everyone’s security, and China has an undeniable stake in holding the Syrian regime accountable and preventing others from becoming emboldened to defy international law. If Assad faces no repercussions, what signal would China be sending to its rogue neighbor North Korea about the consequences of Pyongyang’s nuclear-weapons program? It has already been reported that after Assad’s chemical weapons attack, North Korea restarted one of its nuclear reactors in direct defiance of appeals from Beijing and the international community.

Beyond weapons of mass destruction, China’s economic development and industrialization requires enormous increases in energy consumption. China’s ability to sustain economic growth is therefore tied to stability in the Middle East, with Chinese dependence on Middle Eastern energy increasing. Projected to become the world’s top oil importer next month, China gets more oil from the Middle East than any other region—about 60 percent of its total oil imports. By comparison, Middle Eastern oil accounted for only 26 percent of total U.S. oil imports in 2011. The International Energy Agency projects that U.S. oil imports from the Middle East will fall from 1.9 million barrels per day in 2011 to just 100,000 barrels per day by 2035, or 3 percent of total imports. Over the same period, China’s oil imports from the region are projected to increase from 2.9 million barrels per day to 6.7 million barrels per day, or 54 percent of total imports. And as China becomes more dependent on the Middle East for energy, its stake in the region’s stability increases.

Beijing has an enormous interest in preventing the spread of extremism and terrorist networks within and beyond Syrian borders. The Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda sister organization, has already emerged as a dominant force in the Syrian rebel movement. As long as the conflict remains unresolved, extremism will threaten China’s western front and its national security.

Moreover, taking a more active approach to Syria is integral to China’s broader strategic position. Chinese President Xi Jinping has launched a campaign to promote the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. This entails advancing China’s interests in international bodies and increasing its influence by coming up with solutions to global challenges. But so far, China has not demonstrated a willingness to accept the burdens and obligations that come with elevated status in the world.

China’s rise to global leadership means rhetoric and vetoes are no longer enough. If it wants to be treated as a great power, Beijing needs to begin developing original ideas, actively presenting them for consideration by the international community, and taking ownership of them.

Leading diplomats in Beijing have said consistently that a political resolution is the only realistic way to solve the issues in Syria. Certainly, all countries want such a solution, but a political resolution between the increasingly fragmented and entrenched sides seems the least realistic of all options at the moment. The most pressing issue now is what to do about the use of chemical weapons, and the international community welcomes China’s constructive participation in addressing this concern.

China has an important stake in holding Assad accountable for using chemical weapons, massacring his people, and destabilizing a region that is of increasing strategic interest to Beijing. Although China’s misreading of Obama’s position and intentions on Syria has been costly, openings for meaningful Chinese participation, creative diplomacy, and leadership on Syria, Iran, and North Korea remain. Beijing should seize the next opportunity.

This article was originally published in Chinese in the Financial Times Chinese.