In its public statements and actions, the Chinese government consistently has supported a restrictivist reading of the U.N. Charter that limits the use of military force against another state to situations of self-defense or with authorization of the U.N. Security Council. In research I have been doing for a larger project on China’s use of international law, I have found no instances of the Chinese government’s departure from this legal principle. So I was somewhat surprised by this exchange at Friday’s press briefing at the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs:
Q: Does China consider the missile strike on the Syrian airbase to be within the scope of international law? Or do you think it violates existing rules about intervention in other country's sovereign territory?
A: The Chinese side has always stood for a political settlement of the Syrian issue. Under the current circumstances, we hope all parties can keep calm, exercise restraint and avoid escalating the tension.
The latest developments in Syria highlight once again the urgency of resolving the Syrian issue through political means. We call on all parties not to walk away from the process of political settlement.
For the Chinese government, no principle of international law is more sacrosanct than non-interference in the domestic affairs of other states. Originating in its own sad history of being interfered with by foreign powers, China has made its defense of this principle a cornerstone of its foreign policy and one of its Five Principles for Peaceful Co-existence. During the Kosovo war in 1999, China did not shy from calling the NATO action a “violation of the UN Charter and the universally recognized norms guiding international relations” and causing “serious damage on the authority of the UN Security Council.”
So when the official spokesperson for that government dodges a clear invitation for it to reaffirm this basic principle, the rest of us should pay attention. I am not saying China no longer cares about the non-interference principle, but it is remarkable that it is going out of its way not to talk about it.
There are numerous possible explanations. One is that since the strikes occurred while Chinese President Xi Jinping was in the middle of a summit with President Trump, the Chinese government felt it was not in a position to issue a full-throated criticism. Another is that China has much less invested in the Assad regime than Russia (which did not hesitate to condemn the strikes as a violation of international law). China has joined Russia in blocking UNSC actions on Syria and has generally stood with Russia in the UN on all other aspects of the Syria crisis. But no doubt it cares less than Russia does. And it may see a U.S. that is entangled in Syria as a U.S. will be less able to harass its interests in North Korea or the South China.
Or is it possible that there is a real shift in Chinese thinking on the legality or propriety of these kinds of military strikes? It is way too soon to tell, but it is certainly something to keep an eye on.