dominant stereotype of Chinese foreign policy in
the Middle East is "amoral oil grubbing
mercantilists who never met a dictator they didn't
But the job of an
amoral, oil-grubbing mercantilist has been made
much more complicated and challenging as tensions
rise in the
region and heightened demands
are placed on the People's Republic of China
Saudi Arabia, China's largest oil
supplier, expects China's support in its campaign
Iran turns to China for help
in breaking the sanctions blockade that threatens
its oil exports, its access to the global
financial system, and its domestic economy.
The United States, the European Union,
Turkey, the Gulf States and a big chunk of the
Arab League excoriate China for seconding Russia's
veto of an anti-Bashar al-Assad resolution in the
United Nations Security Council.
contrary to its image as an opportunistic and
reactive player in the Middle East, China has not
only dug in its heels on Syria; it has stepped up
with a diplomatic initiative of its own.
China also voted against the non-binding
Syria resolution drafted for the UN General
Assembly by Saudi Arabia, the oil baron that is
generally regarded as calling the tune for China
on Middle Eastern issues.
On February 23,
China also announced it would not attend the
"Friends of Syria" aka "Enemies of Assad" meeting
in Tunisia this Friday designed to further
delegitimize and isolate Assad to pave the way for
his ouster, putting it at odds with the West, the
Gulf nations, and much of the Arab League.
China had already dispatched Vice
Foreign Minister Zhai Jun to Syria and the Middle East
to lobby for Russia's and China's (and Assad's)
preferred solution to the crisis: channeling
political and opposition activity into votes on a
referendum on a new Syrian constitution on
February 26, and parliamentary elections four
months down the road.
have also reached out to the Arab League to argue
that the PRC's stance is in line with the league's
policy on Syria.
China took the extra step
of decoupling its position from Russia's,
presenting itself as an honest broker and not an
Assad partisan, and reaching out further into the
ranks of Syria's opposition to publicize its
contacts with Haitham Manna of the National
Coordination Committee for Democratic Change.
Chinese papers are full of articles
asserting the "principled stand" and
"responsibility" of China's Syria policy, one that
will "withstand the test of history". 
The interesting question is why the PRC is
getting out in front on this issue, instead of
letting Russia, Syria's long-time ally and arms
supplier, carry the ball.
virtually nothing to China in terms of oil or
trade. Assad's fall would discommode China's
friend and energy supplier Iran but would also
please China's friend and energy partner Saudi
So why not simply reprise China's
acquiescence on Libya, stand aside, and deliver a
final adieu to Assad as he and his regime vanish
into the meat-grinder of domestic and sectarian
anger, international sanctions, and Gulf-funded
subversion and destabilization?
back-of-the-envelope explanation is that Russia
and China were burned by the Security Council's
humanitarian resolution on Libya, which turned
into a North Atlantic Treaty Organization
(NATO)-led free for all against Muammar Gaddafi's
However, an abstention on the
Syrian resolution, whether or not Russia decided
to veto, would have allowed China to have
burnished its rather tarnished West-friendly
humanitarian credentials while reasserting its
abhorrence of foreign interference. It
appears that China has decided it is time to stake
out its own position in the Middle East as a great
power with its own significant and legitimate
interests in the region, instead of trying to
shoehorn itself into whatever diplomatic coalition
the United States or Russia invokes to deal with
the latest crisis.
Yes, China as
"responsible stakeholder" appears ready to take
the Middle Eastern stage.
The Chinese move
is an ironic and predictable counter-point to
America's "strategic pivot" into East Asia.
The Barack Obama administration has openly
announced its desire to shed the incubus of the
Iraq and Afghanistan wars (and quietly signaled
that the last thing it wants is to go for a Middle
East conflict trifecta with a third war against
Iran) and seek its future in the Pacific.
This presents an opportunity for China to
fill the leadership vacuum, at least in part, and
stake its claim to the Middle East as a crucial
fulcrum of the PRC's own Pacific Century future.
The PRC claims two qualifications as a
force to be reckoned with in the Middle East.
First, and most obviously, it is the
biggest importer of Middle East energy. China and
the other Asian importers have a far bigger stake
in the stability of the region than the United
Second, and less intuitively, the
PRC believes that its model of authoritarian rule
underpinned by economic development offers the
best model for a stable and peaceful Middle East.
Partisans of democracy and Western values
will respond with a derisive snort at this idea,
especially after the intoxicating spectacle of the
However, with the apparent
exception of happy little Tunisia, the
revolutionary upheavals in Libya and Egypt have
brought with them enough bloodshed and division to
make a lot of people nostalgic for the days when a
strong man mediated and suppressed at his
discretion the political aspirations of various
ethnicities, races, confessions, tribes and
A lot of these nostalgic people,
it can be imagined, inhabitant presidential
palaces - or just plain palaces - east of Suez and
west of the Indus.
Virtually all of the
states in the Middle East, including Israel, are
either authoritarian or employ a type of managed
democracy to keep a lid on things. In fact, they
resemble the PRC, which itself struggles to impose
unpopular Han dominance on restive populations in
Tibet and Xinjiang.
Therefore, China can
present itself as a more natural and sympathetic
partner to rulers in the Middle East than the
United States, which shocked Saudi Arabia in
particular with its abandonment of Egypt's
president Hosni Mubarak as the revolutionary
agitation reached its climax.
the Chinese media have been virtually silent on
the Saudi-directed crackdown on Shi'ite democracy
protesters in Bahrain and its suppression of
Shi'ite demonstrations inside the kingdom itself,
a piece of forbearance that Saudi Arabia perhaps
appreciates as much as America's embarrassed
silence over the issue.
The first crisis
in which China has the opportunity to test-drive
its Middle East strategy is Syria.
to Western observers it may appear utterly
quixotic for the PRC to promote a peaceful
political resolution through a referendum and
elections conducted by the Assad regime, given the
bitterness engendered by the one-year crackdown
and the chorus of Western and Arab derision and
condemnation, the Chinese hand is not as weak as
Minorities' fears of sectarian
bloodletting, even if self-servingly encouraged by
the Assad regime, are genuine. The liberal,
democratic, non-sectarian peaceful uprising has
been overshadowed by a resistance that is rural,
Sunni, conservative, armed and, in some
manifestations, alarmingly sectarian, and which
has largely stalled without penetrating the main
cities of Damascus and Aleppo.
armed intervention on behalf of the Syrian
opposition is off the table, largely because of
deep-seated doubts about the Syrian National
Council, which looks like a stalking horse for the
Muslim Brotherhood filled with bickering exiles
with little presence inside the country.
Tellingly, the "Friends of Syria"
conference scheduled for Friday is expected not to
anoint the Syrian National Council as its only
friend, merely describing it as "a" (as opposed to
"the sole") legitimate voice of the Syrian people.
Simply imploding the Assad regime to spite
Iran would appear to be easy, but has not
Turkey is already providing safe
havens for the Free Syrian Army, but apparently
has not unleashed it. Western Iraq is aboil with
doctrinaire Sunni militants happy to stick it to
the Alawite regime, and Qatar has allegedly
already laid the groundwork for underemployed
Libyan militants to find profitable occupation
fighting alongside the opposition in Syria, but
utter bloody chaos has yet to erupt.
fact that Aleppo and Damascus have only been
ravaged by two car bombs is perhaps a sign of
Wahabbist restraint, and may have been taken by
the PRC as a sign that the Gulf Cooperation
Council's commitment to overthrowing Assad is not
By the brutal calculus of
authoritarian regimes, the Syrian government has
shown restraint in its military suppression of the
populist revolt and has not completely forfeited
its domestic legitimacy. Seven thousand dead over
12 months is no Hama. Assad's uncle Rifaat (now
residing in a $10 million mansion in London's
Mayfair district and somehow beyond the reach of
world justice) killed approximately 30,000 over a
few weeks as he besieged, assaulted and purged the
Muslim Brotherhood stronghold in 1982.
Chinese standards, 7,000 dead is, if not a bloody
blip, something along the magnitude of the show of
state force inflicted on pro-democracy protesters
in Beijing and other cities in 1989.
as the ruling group in Beijing considers the
Tiananmen incident the key act in an authoritarian
drama that kept the PRC from sliding into
political chaos, and established the political
foundation for 20 years of high-speed growth, the
Ba'athists apparently regard Hama as the
cornerstone of three decades of national
In fact, 30,000 killed
apparently doesn't even disqualify one from
eligibility as a potential leader of Syria.
Al-Arabiya, the English-language voice of
conservative Saudi opinion, interviewed Rifaat
al-Assad in his luxurious digs. Rifaat, who has
assumed leadership of a Syrian opposition group,
the National Democratic Council, generously shared
his view on the Syrian problem:
"The solution would be that the Arab
states guarantee Bashar al-Assad's security so
he can resign and be replaced by someone with
financial backing who can look after Bashar's
people after his resignation," he argued.
"It should be someone from the family
... me, or someone else," he said. 
Perhaps Bashar al-Assad will extract
the lesson that the slaughter needs to get into
five-digit figures before he is considered genuine
leadership timber by the demanding standards of
the Middle East.
In a situation in which
the opposition political movement has stalled, the
situation is degenerating into an armed conflict,
and the great powers are apparently unwilling to
hurry things along militarily, Chinese support of
Assad's referendum and election plan is not
But there are difficulties,
the greatest of which is that the door to
reconciliation is in danger of swinging shut
permanently as the government tries to squelch the
defiant opposition and make a defendable case for
itself as the indispensable guarantor of Syria's
stability and unity.
Significant swaths of
the Syrian countryside and many towns are
apparently de facto out of government control. The
government, which still possesses an overwhelming
and relatively loyal military force, appears to
have made the decision that trying to reassert
government control is either too difficult or too
polarizing, and is letting the local opposition
run things, at least for now.
Assad regime is hoping to get some political wind
at its back so it can move back into these
villages under the banner of reconciliation or
stability as part of the referendum/election
process, and not a simple reconquest.
there is Homs or, more accurately, the Baba Amro
district of Homs, which has turned into a symbol
of resistance, armed and otherwise, to Assad's
Assad's Western and domestic
opponents have put the onus on Russia and China
for enabling the Homs assault by their veto of the
UN Security Council resolution, a toothless text
that would have called for Assad to step down.
However, the significance of the veto was
not that it allowed Assad to give free rein to his
insatiable blood lust for slaughtering his own
citizens, as the West would have it.
true significance of the veto was the message that
Russia and China had endorsed Assad as a viable
political actor, primarily within Syria, and his
domestic opponents, including those holding out in
Baba Amro, should think twice before basing their
political strategy on the idea that he would be
out of the picture shortly thanks to foreign
It is difficult to determine
exactly what the government's objectives are for
Baba Amro. Hopefully, they are not simply
wholesale massacre through indiscriminate
Recent reports indicate that the
government, after a prolonged and brutal
softening-up, has decided to encircle the
district, send in the tanks, and demonstrate to
the fragmented opposition that "resistance is
futile", at least the armed resistance that seems
to depend on the expectation of some combination
of foreign support and intervention to stymie
Assad and advance its interest.
the plan is, the Chinese government is probably
wishing that the Assad regime would get on with it
and remove the humanitarian relief of Homs from
the "Friends of Syria" diplomatic agenda.
The difference in coverage of Homs between
the Western and Chinese media is striking.
Even before the deaths of journalists
Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik, the agony of Homs
has been the subject of wall-to-wall coverage in
the West. A Google News search for "Homs" yields
over 6,000 stories.
Even as the siege
grinds on and horrific reports and footage fill
the Western media space, Chinese media coverage
seems to echo the old saw about the tree falling
in the forest, as in "if a mortar shell falls in
Homs and it isn't reported, maybe nothing
important is happening".
references to Homs are usually along the following
Libyan websites disclosed the death
of three Libyan Islamists at the Baba Amro
neighborhood in Homs last Monday. Other websites
cited similar cases about the killing of a
number of fundamentalists who came in from Iraq,
the United Arab Emirates and Jordan to fight in
Even foreign press have reported
the killing of five Wahabbi terrorists in the
Damascus suburb of Zabadani, including the
Kuwaiti Fuad Khaled, better known as Abu
Hozaifa, during clashes with security men.
Media reports also said that no less
than 1,000 gunmen from al-Qaeda have infiltrated
into Syria and most of them stationed in
Damascus suburbs and the central city of Homs.
The message that Syria and China
hope the domestic opposition will extract from
Homs in the next few weeks is that, in the absence
of meaningful foreign support, armed resistance
has reached a dead end; it is time for moderates
to abandon hope in the local militia or the gunmen
of the FSA and turn to a political settlement.
To Syria's foreign detractors, the message
will be that the genie of armed resistance has
been stuffed back into the bottle thanks to "Hama
Lite"; and the nations that live in Syria's
neighborhood might reconsider their implacable
opposition to Assad's continued survival.
In particular, China would need to make
its vaunted good offices available in the matter
of getting Saudi Arabia to overlook its hatred for
all things Assad, perhaps by serving as guarantor
that Syria would no longer funnel aid to Hezbollah
China is playing a dubious
After one year of a brutal
crackdown, that on top of decades of bullying and
torture by Syria's security apparatus, even
members of the moderate opposition will probably
be disinclined to put their future in the hands of
the Ba'ath and the new constitution.
Internationally, Assad has been officially
designated the current Monster of the Century and
the intangible psychic benefits and real political
and strategic advantages of terminally ostracizing
his regime, no matter what it means for Syrian
society, will probably be too tempting to ignore.
However, if Assad can manage the Baba Amro
endgame and put Homs behind him, and gets some of
the genuine opposition to participate in the
summer elections, perhaps China will offer Syria a
much-needed economic boost: supporting the war and
sanction-crippled economy and, through it, Assad's
regime by a program of aid and investment that
will defy the sanctions regime that will
undoubtedly continue to dog the regime.
Assad can survive through the long, hot summer of
2012, China will count it as a victory for its
approach to the Middle East - and a rebuke to
American pretensions to moral and diplomatic
leadership in the region.
It's a long
shot, as Global Times, China's voice of brawny
China has chosen a difficult role as
a mediator. If neither the West nor the Arab
League cooperates, the Syrian opposition can
hardly heed the appeals of China. The chance of
a prompt and peaceful settlement is slim.
It's unnecessary for China to see a
quick effect. The time for the opposition to
agree to a compromise is yet to arrive. But if
the Assad administration continues to hang on,
chances of a peaceful negotiation will grow.
Any progress made by Chinese efforts
to promote a peaceful settlement will mark a
significant diplomatic achievement. China will
not become deeply involved in the way the US has
become with the Palestinian-Israeli dialogue.
The West will not allow that to happen, either.
What China wants is for the principle of
settling a crisis through peaceful channels to
be understood and supported. 
the West might not be ready to have China play a
leading role in the Middle East. But China can
afford to be patient ... especially since the
consequences of any miscalculation and failure
will be borne by the citizens of small and distant