Chinese Press Review: Syria, very clever

At a moment when everything had seemed to be set for a showdown, things changed dramatically, writes People’s Daily. Yesterday night, Syria officially responded to the international community and said it was willing to hand over all its chemical weapons so as to avoid American attack.  (叙利亚危机剑拔弩张的气氛出现戏剧性变化。

After a short account of Kerry’s sudden suggestion on a press conference in London that Syria could only avoid U.S. military strikes by handing over its chemical weapons, and Russian foreign minister Lavrov’s and Syrian foreign minister Mouallem’s statements, amounting to a Syrian willingness to do just that, plus Obama’s ABC interview, People’s Daily quotes an old diplomat and professor, Zhou Zunnan (周尊南) of the Chinese Foreign Affairs University, in an interview with the “International Financial Journal”:

Russia is very clever. They have successfully used diplomatic techniques, and the important thing is that in the current situation, with all the different parties’ interveaved interests, this is a “good move” [in a game of chess].  On the one hand, America gets under international pressure by gradually lowering other countries’ support for unilateral American war, and on the other, objectively, Russia showed support for Syria, perhaps implicating that “no matter if you use force or if you don’t, we will stand on Syria’s side.”


People’s Daily is hedging its bets, regarding the likelihood of open American military intervention. From the Third Middle-East War (meaning the Six-Day War) to Syria’s occupation of Lebanon in 1976, and to Syria’s “flirting glances” (与伊朗保持“眉来眼去”的关系) with Iran, things had put this Middle-Eastern country’s relations with Western countries “out of sorts”, the paper writes. In the latest stage of the Syrian conflict, America had sought an “pretext” (quotation marks by People’s Daily), which was the chemical weapons.  There were several indications, People’s Daily quotes Zhou Zunnan (周尊南), still from the “International Financial Journal”, that the issue of chemical weapons was just an excuse. It would have looked bad to take military action against Syria before the UN inspectors delivered their findings, and besides, Russia had borrowed the position Kerry stated in London, Syria had cleverly strengthened its alliance with Russia, thus putting America into a difficult position. A third problem was American public opinion, according to Zhou.

And after all, the situation was complicated: Turkey would have to forget about a four-country economy including Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, if the Assad stepped down. And Russia’s only naval base in the Mediterranean was Tartus, in Syria. Syria was at the center of solving or mishandling the big Middle-Eastern issues.

Referring to further sources, People’s Daily suggests that oil prices had to be critical factors in Washington’s deliberations, too – with repercussions for the U.S economy. And still, this could also help America to replace the Middle East as the world’s center of energy sources, with an impact on countries depending on those, such as China and India. Therefore, the possibility of military action could not be ruled out. People’s Daily quotes a Russian political scientist (波利卡诺夫) who was also quoted by Xinhua a day earlier as suggesting that the military strikes were only delayed, but had not been stopped by Moscow’s and Damascus’ decisions.

Even China wasn’t on the sidelines in Syria, writes People’s Daily.  Syria had maintained close oil trade with China, and Chinese state-owned energy companies had business in Syria. A SINOPEC spokesperson is quoted as saying (again from “International Financial Journal”) that his company had temporarily closed their branch company in Syria, with most of the staff returning to Beijing, and some staying in Lebanon. Despite all the emphasis on diversification, about fifty percent of China’s crude oil imports were still coming from the Middle East, an expert from the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) is quoted.

Economics aside, People’s Daily concludes, there had also been a close Sino-Syrian relationship in other fields. Reports say that when China was treated unfairly in the international arena, it could always count on Syrian support.

This is about as far as official Chinese media go in their support for Damascus. Voicing official or semi-official positions is frequently the job of high-ranking academics, when Zhongnanhai prefers to remain silent or low-key. Zhou Zunnan’s comments in the “International Financial Journal”, which is in fact a branch of People’s Daily itself, probably play this kind of role.

On September 4, another academic, Li Shaoxian (李绍先) of the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, was quoted by Huanqiu Shibao with a rather candid statement (which may or may not mirror the official Chinese position, obviously):

Besides, Li Shaoxian believes that, when Bashar al-Assad said that China and Russia were Syria’s allies, that was the great banner used as a tiger-skin [a way to impress enemies]. China wasn’t Syria’s ally.  “Although China and Russia both insist on a peaceful solution and both oppose foreign military intervention, Russia has major actual interests in Syria to protect, while China’s interests in Syria are small.”




» Netzschau (German blog), Sept 10, 2013
» Less than 40 percent, Global Times, Dec 12, 2011


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