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Chinese non-interference has changed, but not in Iraq and Syria

Chinese non-interference has changed, but not in Iraq and Syria
Published 28 Sep 2015   Follow @dvanderkley

Thank you to Marie-Alice McLean-Dreyfus for raising the important question of whether China's non-interference policy works in the age of ISIS. She correctly argues that the recent capture of a Chinese citizen by ISIS raises uncomfortable questions, and adds that Beijing will need to re-evaluate its policy of non-interference.

I would frame my thinking differently: China has already significantly adapted its non-interference policy in other parts of the world, so why not in Iraq and Syria? 

Non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries is a long-held official Chinese foreign policy under the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence. While the rhetoric of this policy has changed little over the years, its application has transformed significantly. 

This is most clear in China's involvement in UN peacekeeping operations (UNPKOs). Prior to 1989, China did not participate in any UNPKOs. As the UN's interventions have grown in scale and complexity, so has China's participation. As of September 2015, China has 3078 police and military troops participating in UNPKOs including a growing number of combat troops. China's personnel contribution is the largest of any permanent UN Security Council member.

Politically too, Beijing has become more involved in the affairs of other nations. [fold]

In Sudan, Beijing publicly (and privately) pressured the Khartoum Government to accept the presence of a joint African Union-UN PKO, something Beijing has previously been reluctant to do. The Chinese have also facilitated meetings between the Taliban and the Afghan Government. This was part of a significant rethinking in China's Afghan policy – until 2011, 'They just used to send people to read out statements in meetings'.

Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials also recognise the shortcomings of strict adherence to the non-interference policy. China's special envoy to the Middle East, Wu Sike, said in 2011 that 'non-interference in each other's internal affairs does not mean doing nothing.' Similarly, a Chinese ambassador to Africa was quoted saying in 2014, 'Of course we are increasingly involved in the politics of African countries, we are being pulled in, we have no choice.' 

So why then is China not being pulled into Iraq and Syria? My view is that it is a strategic calculation, not an ideological one. The perceived threats don't justify the risk of significant involvement in Iraq and Syria.

Although China imports significant amounts of oil from Iraq, its supply is not yet affected by the country's turmoil. China's main oil assets are in the relatively stable south, and they are producing record amounts of oil. Perhaps future threats to oil assets would provide sufficient motivation for Chinese involvement (it did in Sudan), but the world is currently awash with oil.

The direct threat from ISIS is seen as more ideological than operational. ISIS and other global terrorist organisations have offered moral support for the Uyghur cause, but this hasn't translated into operational support. In fact, numerous Chinese observers indicated to me that ideological propaganda is the biggest security threat emanating from the Middle East (and Afghanistan/Pakistan too) – extremist propaganda from global organisations influencing dissatisfied Chinese Uyghurs in Xinjiang. It is unclear to these analysts that the degradation or defeat of ISIS would stop the ideological threat. The preferred method instead is to clamp down internally in China and stop the threat there. 

Finally, Chinese questions remain over the efficacy of a military solution in Iraq and Syria. China has watched interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 15 years and the outcomes have not filled Chinese observers who I speak to with confidence. The risks of involvement do not currently match the perceived threats. So while the capture of a Chinese hostage will likely cause much hand-wringing in Beijing, it is not likely to change China's strategic calculus in Iraq and Syria. Non-interference is simply a good justification. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr user United Nations Peacekeeping.

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