China Weighs Sending Envoys to Syria

By: Brian Spegele

China said it is considering dispatching envoys to Syria to press for an end to violence there, as Beijing faces international criticism for blocking a United Nations Security Council resolution that targeted the Syrian government.

Lebanese and Syrian protesters burn Chinese and Russian flags in front of the Russian embassy in Beirut in protest of the countries veto to a UN resolution to end a 11-month crackdown on protests by the Assad regime. (REUTERS)

Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said during a daily press briefing on Tuesday that China might dispatch representatives to the region to help push for a peace deal in the near future, though he didn’t provide details on when the mission could occur or with whom Chinese representatives would meet. The announcement comes just as Russia’s foreign minister and spy chief arrived in Damascus on Tuesday in a bid to prevent escalating conflicts from spiraling into civil war.

Both China and Russia – permanent Security Council members with veto power – on Saturday blocked a resolution that called for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step aside. The resolution was prompted by reports of growing bloodshed as the Syrian government cracked down on opposition groups.

Beijing’s veto is the latest in the string of incidents to flame anti-Chinese sentiment in the Middle East. China has emerged has an important buyer of oil and gas from Arab countries but has resisted a role of political leadership commensurate to its economic influence, analysts say.

In Libya, China has struggled in recent months to build relations with the country’s new rulers after Beijing was seen as supporting the regime of Moammar Gadhafi even as fighting picked up there last year. At the same time, China continues to be one of Iran’s closest economic and political allies, despite U.S. and European sanctions and concern by Middle East governments that Iran is a threat to regional security.

Demonstrators attacked China’s embassy in Libya on Monday in response to the Syria vote, though details of the incident were unclear. Mr. Liu condemned the violence and said Libya had promised to heighten security at the embassy.

Analysts say China’s decision to veto the Syria resolution is a reflection of growing concern in Beijing that unrest directed at regimes across the Arab world, as well as increasingly in Russia, could soon spread to Beijing. In the case of Libya, where China has significant oil and infrastructure investments, China chose not to block a U.N. resolution that authorized the use of force against the Gadhafi regime. China’s economic ties to Syria are small by comparison.

“Syria is a third-tier oil producer and a country of little economic importance to China,” said Trevor Houser, a partner at Rhodium Group, an economic research firm, who has studied China’s behavior at the U.N. “Yet driven by domestic political concerns, Beijing is protecting the al-Assad regime at the expense to its relationship with all other Middle East oil producers, save Iran, and overall stability in the Middle East.”

In a sign of growing international pressure, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is expected to raise the issue during meetings beginning Wednesday with Premier Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao. Mr. Harper is the first major world leader to meet with the Chinese leadership since the weekend vote, though it is unclear how forcefully the Canadians will lean on Beijing.

During his trip, Mr. Harper is looking to diversify Canada’s energy exports, which currently are almost entirely reliant on the U.S. The prime minister has described ensuring Canada has the capacity to export more of its resources to Asia as among the government’s key priorities.

China is buying up energy and other resource assets around the globe in a bid to continue fueling its rapidly growing economy. At the same time, questions are emerging over the stability of oil supply from some of China’s most important suppliers, including Iran and Sudan.

China has a longstanding foreign policy of noninterference in the internal affairs of other countries, which it has used in the past to block or dilute U.N. action on humanitarian grounds and resist Western pressure to comply with actions that target some of its traditional allies.

Separately on Tuesday, the Foreign Ministry said Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping would visit Ireland and Turkey, in addition to the U.S., during a trip beginning Monday. Mr. Xi is expected to become China’s next president as part of a leadership transition beginning late this year.

Source: Wall Street Journal

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