In many ways, China’s decision to join Russia in vetoing the Syria resolution in the United Nations Security Council seems an aberration. The veto not only derailed the latest attempt to pressure the Assad regime to end its bloody crackdown, but also damaged China’s relations with both the West and the Arab League, which sponsored the resolution.
In fact, the most important factor in China’s decision had little to do with Beijing-Damascus ties, and everything to do with its diplomatic cooperation with Moscow.
Since it returned to the United Nations in 1971, China has been sparing in its use of the veto in the Security Council. It often chose to abstain in votes it did not support. Whenever it did use its veto — it has done so eight times — the issues were usually of importance to Chinese national interests.
In August 1972, for example, China blocked Bangladesh from gaining admission to the United Nations in support of Pakistan, from which Bangladesh had just gained independence, and which was Beijing’s ally. In January 2007, China, together with Russia, vetoed a measure imposing sanctions on Burma, a Chinese client state at the time. Then in July 2008, China joined Russia in killing a resolution punishing the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe, another of Beijing’s allies.
Syria, however, seems a strange case for China to expend its valuable veto on. China has scant strategic or economic interests in the country. Yet of the eight vetoes China has cast in the Security Council, two have now involved Syria. The first one was in October 2011, when China joined Russia in blocking a Europe-backed sanctions resolution.
In the eyes of the pragmatic Chinese, the Assad regime is not worth a veto. But the Russians, motivated by their economic and security interests in Syria, opposed the resolution, and China apparently decided it was better not to jeopardize relations with the Russians and risk losing Russian support when Beijing might need it in the future.
The Russia-China axis of obstruction at the Security Council has now become a critical variable in the council’s decision-making process. The two countries seem to have reached a strategic understanding: they will act to defy the West together, so that neither might look isolated. China will defer to Russia on matters more critical to Moscow (such as Syria) while Russia will do the same on issues China cares about (such as Zimbabwe or Burma).
So in order to get resolutions passed, the West usually has to persuade one of the duo (most of the time Russia) to drop its objections, typically by softening proposed sanctions. Russia is generally more confrontational than China, which prefers to let the former do most of the heavy lifting in frustrating the United States and Europe at the council. That is why on Iran-related matters, the West has consistently focused on winning over Russia.
Another factor that apparently tipped the scale in Beijing in favor of using the veto is the Chinese Communist Party’s ideological hostility to democratic transitions.
Ever since the Arab Spring brought down long-ruling dictatorships in the Middle East, the party’s propaganda machine has spared no effort in portraying the events in the region in the most negative light. Fearing a similar upheaval in China, the party has tightened its censorship and intensified persecution of dissidents. The overthrow of the Assad regime, especially should it happen as a result of Security Council action, would inspire the pro-democracy opposition — in Beijing and in Moscow.
Chinese leaders understand that their veto damages ties with the West. But they appear to believe they would not have gained much had they abstained or voted yes. A prominent Chinese foreign-policy specialist, Yan Xuetong at Tsinghua University, wrote on his blog that China, which has a bad image in the West because of its poor human rights record, would not have received any credit or better press had it cooperated with the West on Syria.
That may be true. But Chinese leaders will not find their veto cost-free. Their extensive efforts to burnish their image in the West, now consisting of lavish public relations campaigns and English-language news networks, is bound to be undercut by such actions.
And should a “Russian Spring” succeed in removing Vladimir Putin at some point, Beijing could find itself the lone autocratic great power in the Security Council.
By Minxin Pei, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California.