President Assad's inevitable fall from power, presumed to be later this year, will be important for many reasons - among them, a possible shift in the geo-strategic balance of the Middle East and how today's 'great powers' wield their batons and attempt to manipulate the marionettes on the ground. China, Russia and the U.S. have been engaging in a not so delicate diplomatic dance, as each positions itself to impact the eventual outcome of the Syrian drama. To date, China and Russia have had the most impact by exercising their UN Security Council veto, preventing the U.S. and West from doing something similar in Syria to what NATO did in Libya last year.
Russia has much to lose in Assad's potential downfall, given its 40+ year history as a client state, its military assets in Syria, and Syria's current role as a battleground for future political influence in the region. While Russia's issues are more related to regional history, its military support of Mr. Assad, and its own military presence in the country, China's issues are more ideological. China and Syria have had diplomatic relations since 1956 and have developed a common understanding of what is in each other's best political interests. For example, China supports Syria's political position on the Golan Heights, and Syria supports China's view vis-à-vis Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang province.
Moreover, China sees Syria as a testing ground for how political change unfolds in the Middle East in the future. Having abstained from UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which paved the way for NATO intervention in Libya, China was not in the end rewarded for doing so. In stepping aside at the UN, China in essence negated its own long-held position against interference in another country's affairs, for which the Chinese government was criticized at home for acceding to western demands and compromising its own principles. Meanwhile, its failure to provide overt support to the NATO military campaign left China open to criticism in Libya for not supporting the democratic movement there. So the Chinese government was harshly criticized for not blocking UNSCR 1973.
In Syria, China does not intend to make the same mistake twice. It views such interventionism as tangentially linked to the possibility of western interference in China's own proxy states, or indeed in China itself. The question of supremacy in global political affairs looms large, and China ultimately sees Syria as a firewall – if the West prevails in Syria, China may find it more difficult to influence the course of events in other countries of geostrategic significance going forward.
China has in essence adopted a combination of 'wait and see', and 'have its cake and eat it too' by embracing a two-pronged strategy. On one hand, China has bought Mr. Assad some much needed time to determine if his regime may in the end prevail, while not ruling out possible future support for anti-Assad forces. At the same time, China has ramped up its own diplomatic efforts, having dispatched delegations throughout the region to act as an honest independent broker. Doing so has demonstrated a degree of sophistication not previously seen in conflict-torn regions. China must believe it needn't play the game the way the west wants to play it, while preserving its own future options.