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Politics and business: China-Gulf ties won’t be affected by Syria clashes
Given its $90 billion a year bilateral trade with GCC, China has received less flak for vetoing the UN Council resolution on Syria. Things may change though if Syria worsens.
March 6, 2012 12:31 by Reuters
Russia has been roundly criticised in the Gulf for vetoing last month’s United Nations Security Council resolution on Syria. China, which also vetoed the resolution, has come in for much less flak. This may be partly because the Gulf Arab countries see Moscow rather than Beijing as Bashar al-Assad’s main supporter. But it is also because the Gulf and China have $90 billion a year in bilateral trade. It’s in the interests of neither that this is disrupted.
China and Gulf Arab countries value keeping politics out of business. The Syrian conflict, though, is testing that position. The Gulf nations want to see the end of the Assad regime: partly because of the killing of thousands of fellow Sunnis; and partly because their main enemy is Shi’ite Iran and the Assad regime is its top ally. Beijing, by contrast, strongly values the principle that countries should not intervene in the internal running of other states. It doesn’t want foreigners meddling in Tibet and Xinjiang.
The Middle Kingdom depends on the Middle East to meet its huge energy needs. The six-nation Gulf bloc supplied 34 percent of China’s total crude imports in 2011, according to Chinese customs data. That’s roughly three times the amount it imported from Iran.
But the Gulf can’t just cut off Beijing. Not only is China an important customer. It is, in turn, a supplier. For example, China is helping Saudi Arabia to increase the kingdom’s oil refining capacity and build giant railways connecting its holy cities. The pair also recently signed a civil nuclear cooperation agreement that supports Saudi’s ambitious domestic energy targets.
Beijing has softened its position somewhat on Syria in the past week. Not only did it express “deep disappointment” at Syria’s failure to allow the UN humanitarian aid chief to visit the country. It condemned “violence against innocent civilians” while reiterating its opposition to “armed interference or pushing for regime change”.
Beijing will probably hope it can hold this line and still keep good commercial links with the Gulf. But if the Syrian conflict escalates, it may need to modify its position further — perhaps even abstaining from rather than vetoing future resolutions criticising Assad.
— China called on the Syrian government and all parties to cease all acts of violence, “particularly violence against innocent civilians”, in a statement on March 4. Beijing also urged the United Nations or an impartial body to distribute humanitarian aid to the Syrian people, while saying it opposed “anyone interfering in Syria’s internal affairs under the pretext of ‘humanitarian’ issues.”
— The foreign ministry statement also said: “China does not approve of armed interference or pushing for ‘regime change’ in Syria, and believes that use or threat of sanctions does not help to resolve this issue appropriately.”
— China and Russia joined other UN Security Council members on March 1 in expressing “deep disappointment” at Syria’s failure to allow the UN humanitarian aid chief Valerie Amos to visit the country and urged that she be allowed in immediately. In February, China and Russia vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that supported a call by the Arab League for Bashar al-Assad to step aside as president.
— China statement on Xinhua: China raises six-point statement for resolving Syria issue
— Reuters article: China lays out stance on Syria, rejects “interference”
(The author, Una Galani, is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own; Editing by Hugo Dixon and David Evans)