China will step up economic aid to help countries deal with the Syrian refugee crisis, but Beijing has no plan to provide shelter for refugees from the war-torn region, diplomatic observers said.
Their remarks came amid a contentious debate among mainland internet users over the past week about whether China should open its border to help handle the many thousands of people fleeing conflict in Syria and other Middle Eastern nations.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi weighed into the highly-charged discussion, pledging to help find a political solution to end Syria’s civil war.
"To solve the refugee problems in the Middle East, we must first and foremost accelerate the political settlement of the Syria conflict," he was quoted as saying by a Chinese foreign ministry statement released on late Saturday during a visit to Lebanon.
"Refugees are not migrants. As the situation improves in Syria it is natural that the refugees will begin to return to their country."
Noting that Lebanon, which sheltered some 1.5 million Syrian refugees – equal to about a third of the Mediterranean country’s total population of 4.5 million people – was under enormous pressure, Wang vowed increased Chinese assistance to help Lebanon deal with the refugee crisis.
Analysts believed Wang’s comments showed Beijing was not ready to change its stance on the refugee issue.
"China has been playing an increasingly active role in the Syrian conflict, but I don’t think China is considering to provide shelter to people fleeing Syria or other war-torn Middle East nations," said Hua Liming, a former Chinese ambassador to Iran.
"To be fair, it is not that China has explicitly refused to shelter Syrian refugees or those displaced by war and conflicts in the region. More importantly, refugees from the Middle East usually choose Arab nations or developed countries, such as the US and Europe, instead of China."
Li Guofu, a Middle East specialist with the China Institute of International Studies, also said China was not an ideal destination for Middle Eastern refugees due to religious, cultural and political considerations.
"Wang’s remarks were in line with Beijing’s long-standing policy on the Middle East, which tried to stay away from domestic violence of other nations while trying to live up to its international obligation by providing financial and other humanitarian assistance," he said.
Shen Jiru, of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, also said it was not fair to expect China to "clean up the mess" in Syria left by the US-led coalition.
"Despite China still being a developing nation with our own poverty, population and other development problems, it has done its job to help resolve the Syrian crisis. The US and its allies should take greater responsibility for the refugee issue because it was their interventionist policies that created the crisis in the first place," Shen said.
Of the record number of 22.5 million refugees globally at the end of last year, 5.5 million were forced to flee Syria, according to United Nations statistics.
On top of nearly 700 million yuan ($102 million) over the years, China pledged in January to invest another 200 million yuan to help Middle Eastern nations deal with the refugee crisis.