China’s veto of a draft U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria was important not only for the outcome it produced, which was a failure of the Council to address escalating violence in that country. It also reflected a diminished willingness by Beijing to heed international opinion as it makes decisions in the world body. This should be a focus of concern as China’s next president, Xi Jinping, is visiting the U.S., and in continued interactions between Washington and Beijing.
As Minxin Pei has pointed out, two factors led to China’s veto. First is a growing strategic alignment between China and Russia, in which the two coordinate positions in the Council so that neither will be isolated, thus forming an “axis of obstruction” vis-à-vis the West. Second is a wariness about fomenting democratic protests, which Beijing fears may embolden anti-government actors within its own borders. The experience of the Arab Spring lies behind, and buttresses, both of these factors.
Yet the veto is striking because of how internationally isolated China was. By aligning with Moscow, China not only blocked a goal of the U.S. and its European partners. It also contradicted the will of others on the Council (including South Africa and India, members of the so-called BRICS group, which have often expressed views in favor of non-intervention; and China’s erstwhile ally, Pakistan), and with the Arab League as a whole. It’s one thing to deny Washington an ideological objective; it is another to stand against world opinion writ large.
That China parted ways with the Arab League is especially interesting and, in some ways, troublesome. Historically, the opinion of regional organizations, and key regional powers, have informed Beijing’s decisions within the Council. For instance, ASEAN’s reluctance to criticize the regime’s internal policies provided diplomatic cover for China’s 2007 veto on a resolution related to Burma. South Africa’s strong opposition to U.N. involvement in the crisis following Zimbabwe’s elections in 2008 influenced China’s veto of sanctions on that government.
Similarly, the support by the Arab League and the African Union was a reason why China chose to take the unprecedented step of affirming (and not merely abstaining on) a referral of Muammar Gaddafi to the International Criminal Court in 2011, and a reason why Beijing didn’t block the imposition of a no-fly zone to protect civilians in that case, despite long-standing concerns about the negative side-effects of using force to solve domestic conflicts.
There are several possible explanations for China’s willingness to adopt such an unpopular position vis-à-vis the Arab world. One is that Beijing discounted the importance of the Arab League relative to Russia. As Chinese foreign affairs scholar Yan Xuetong writes, strengthening relations with Russia will “enhance China’s strategic position in Asia,” at a time of renewed U.S. interest in the region, whereas retaining goodwill in the Middle East is of secondary importance. Another is that there is a perception among China’s Middle East watchers that Arab League decisions are driven by a handful of pro-Western states, such as Saudi Arabia, and don’t represent the will of the region at large. A third is simply that China’s leaders felt that they had to draw a “red line” under U.N. involvement in internal conflict, no matter what the political repercussions.
Whatever the reason, a significant implication is that, if China remains comfortable maintaining opposition regardless of the political costs, coalition-building within the Council will be more difficult. For instance, the fourth round of sanctions on Iran passed in June 2010 relied on intensive efforts by Israel, Saudi Arabia, the U.S. and Europe to influence Beijing. This ultimately paid off with a “yes” vote. If the latter is less susceptible to such remonstrations, then the ability of the Council to leverage pressure against “rogue” regimes is likely to be rendered all the more nettlesome.
The visit of China’s paramount leader-in-waiting, Xi Jinping, offers an opportunity for the U.S. to stress that it will, if necessary and with the support of the regional stakeholders, pursue avenues outside the Council to address the continuation of violence in Syria and elsewhere. This message should be relayed to Xi now and over the next year, as he prepares to assume power within China. The only thing that China likely prefers less to a U.N. resolution is an obsolescence of the Council itself, and along with it China’s cherished status as a veto-wielding member.
Joel Wuthnow is a Fellow in the China and the World Program in the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University. He is completing a book manuscript on China's diplomacy at the U.N. Security Council.