The President of Syrian Arab Republic, Bashar-al-Assad, marked a momentous visit to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on 21st September 2023. The Syrian premier was scheduled to be one of the chief guest at the opening ceremony of the 19th Asian Games on 23rd September 2023 in the south-eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou. The symbolic visit by the Syrian President to PRC in the context of being the chief guest at the 15 day sports competition portrays a profound development in the bilateral relationship between the countries who have completed 67 years of diplomatic relationship. That said, in two decades of no official visit to PRC, the premiers of both the countries, Xi Jinping and Bashar-al-Assad managed to upgrade their bilateral relationship to a strategic partnership which aims to promote a new type of international relations and build a community of shared future for humanity.
The two leaders jointly announced the upgradation of their bilateral relationship to a strategic partnership and hinged on the continued enhancement of friendly cooperation in the fields of economy, trade and agriculture along with the continued Chinese assistance to Syrian reconstruction and recovery.
China’s Meandering Diplomatic Outreach and the International Order
China is one of the few countries who have continued to maintain diplomatic relations with Syria despite the decades long civil war which has engulfed the latter politically and economically leading to an acute diplomatic isolation, both regionally and internationally. The Caesar Act legislation as inflicted by the U.S. administration in 2019 further worsens the reconstruction and recovery efforts as it sanctions Syrian government officials and industries operating in infrastructure, military, energy and finance.
Despite that, China-Syria relations have continued with the former being one of the few countries outside West Asia to maintain diplomatic bonhomie with the latter. The cordial relations between the two is outlined in the joint statement in which both the leaders pledge to firmly support each other on issues concerning territorial sovereignty, foreign interference, thereby upholding international fairness and justice. The Chinese side also urged the immediate lifting of unilateral and illegal sanctions imposed on Syria.
However, on the Chinese side, courting the head of state from a war torn and one of the most sanctioned countries seems a peculiar yet strategic move by Beijing, which has made similar moves in the past. The most recent being the visit of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to China in September 2023 and the subsequent announcement of upgrading their bilateral relationship to an all-weather strategic partnership. Venezuela has been consistent in maintaining close ties with China as the latter is its main creditor with Venezuela repaying the debt with its shipment of oil, thereby justifying the aligning of their national interests.
Similarly, a few months ago in February 2023 ,the President of Iran, Ebraham Raisi, marked a historic visit to China, which was the first by an Iranian President in 20 years. Both leaders expressed support in constructive cooperation and recommencement of negotiations on Iran’s Nuclear agreement. As a matter of fact, China is the biggest trading partner and the only customer of Iran’s heavily sanctioned oil exports.
In all such instances, PRC aims to engage with countries and entities which have been heavily sanctioned by the West, and are accused of going against the international order and rule of law. However, there seems to be a loophole here. What exactly is the international order and what are the rules which one has to follow? If one of the many rules is promoting democratic values and respect for territorial sovereignty, then how can one justify the U.S. and UK’s position on the island of Diego Garcia? Diego Garcia is one of the islands on the Chagos archipelago which was split off by the UK from its Mauritius and Seychelles colonies to create British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) in 1965. The BIOT has been exclusively used as a military base with the naval and air force facilities being leased to the U.S. thereby displacing the original inhabitants and civilian population from the island. The military base has been operational under the UK and the U.S. military since 1967 and has been a strategic location to check on the Soviet expansion during the Cold War period and subsequently during the U.S. war on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq. The continued presence of the UK and the U.S. military on the island, even after being reprimanded by the International Court of Justice in 2019 to discontinue with the unethical practice, highlights the severe human rights violation of the civilian population who is not been granted even the right of coexisting with the military facilities unlike the other civilian arrangements of the U.S. military bases abroad.
On the other hand, how justifiable is the continued French intervention in its former colonies of Africa who have always been the recipient of the formers ’economic and military intervention? France continues to deploy its troops in the West and Central African countries in the garb of fighting terrorism. On the monetary front, the use of CFA franc has been operational since its creation by the French government in 1945, which only adds to the neo-colonial posture of the French in its former colonies.
From the aforementioned examples it seems that the international rules based order as outlined by the Western countries is literally an international order based on political expediency and self- interest. As universal as it is made to believe, the rules of international politics are beyond morals, values and principles and functions purely on interest defined in terms of power. Here power projection is to pursue national interest which emanates from the constant objective of attaining security in the domain of international politics which is as strategic as it is promiscuous. So if China courts Iran or Venezuela and gets access to their vast energy resources in return of the loans it provides to these countries or if U.S. maintains troops on an island in the Indian Ocean called Diego Garcia so that the former could maintain its strategic foothold in the region emanating from its erstwhile Cold war concerns to China’s current assertiveness in the neighbouring South China Sea, then international order is more about tracking national interest with a “whatever it takes” approach and less about upholding the rule of law. Here China conforms to an alternative international order which does not fit into the interests and rationalities of the U.S. Therefore, its diplomatic outreach towards countries like Syria and Iran only justifies the above mentioned proposition.
However, it is not to justify the incorrect actions by either of the parties, particularly when humankind is at stake, but it’s to critically analyse the international order, which bends itself for strategic convenience and rewarding diplomacy. The gross human rights violation in countries like China, Venezuela, Iran or on the island of Diego Garcia is hard to overlook and is to be blatantly criticised but its pertinent to analyse the key international developments on the basis of which any country could be termed belligerent or peaceable.
All things considered, the timing of PRC and Syria’s meeting appears a very calculated move by China, which has only recently brokered a peace deal between long time regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran. Given that China engages proactively in West Asian politics reveals the alternative centres of power in international politics have begun to move past obsolete universalism and are edging towards pluralist and non-conformist approach to international politics, the source of which is the complex domestic conditions of different countries at different periods of time. As in the words of President Xi Jinping, “China supports Syria’s reconstruction, capacity building and political settlement based on Syrian- led and Syrian- owned principle” and negates all forms of unilateralism. Considering both the countries are on the receiving end of Western, particularly U.S. led restrictions and reprimand, with Syria being the worst hit among the two, China’s endorsement of its Syrian counterpart is in line with its defiance posture.