China's Troubling Syria Veto


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. 

john r
February 28, 2012 at 02:24

the american people have been brainwashed into thinking that its all about them and whatever perserves the world they like, that the greatest power will bless them. instead 50 million plus children cry to GOD plead how long before you avenge us O/LORD the very GOD of heaven will destroy this wicked goverment and free the true american people .ABORTION is just of america great sin she has many but allowing the babylon whore to rest in this nation is the chief

February 21, 2012 at 20:05

Same goes for you!
Its funny to see that a person staying thousands of kilometers away from India knows more than its own citizen! We so not want the West to dictate us!
Keep on dreaming that India will stand along with the West in its China and Iran issues!

February 19, 2012 at 22:17

If the UN is just a body of opinions why is there a system of vetos? Nobody should be allowed to veto in a forum of discussions.

The UN’s General Assembly cannot vote binding resolutions but the UN Security Council, by construction, has the mandate to end hostilities, including through actions (trade embargoes and collective military actions). Unfortunately, the veto privilege given to the 5 Permanent members has hindered the power of the UNSC. This archaic system must be reformed.

February 19, 2012 at 00:48

Let us not forget, that, contained in the Declaration of Human Rights that all people should be be freed of tyranny and oppresion, regardless of nationality. @Iain Johnston, I have read your books, and your are correct and farsighted, however you sight “realpolitik as a useful tool in diplomacy”. To be involved in Syria is a different ballgame, however it is the UN’s mandate to uphold and condemn those who don’t follow it. As far as the border issues between PROC/India, that is a another topic, not suited for this discussion. The PROC always does what is in it’s best interst, as does every nations. My point: In this conflict, regardless of the human cost, things have to play out as they will, not according to any political ideology or theories of normative politics. If the Syrians are going to stand up, they will, if they will be put down they will. The UN is a body of opinion not decision. Comments welcome.

February 18, 2012 at 02:29

@Siddharth: Good luck! and keep on dreaming.

February 17, 2012 at 21:01

We do not need any sort of third party involvement in India-China issue.
In fact, it’s just a border issue (which we will solve with mutual understanding) and not any ideological difference!
Generally speaking, Indians and Chinese do not hate each other. Its just that people from both the countries have some wrong notions for each other (which is of course spread by the media)
Indians are as much against the policies of the USA/NATO as the Chinese and Russians.

So, please do not poke your nose in a bilateral issue!

February 17, 2012 at 07:46

@Siddharth: You should look up history to see how china thinks of India. Kissing up won’t help.

February 17, 2012 at 06:15

I can see that Russia and China have a point; and that is a regime change is not the mandate of the UNSC, nor necessarily a quick fix solution for a country like Syria, in such a region.

But what kind of Council is the UNSC, if, in 2012, it can not pass a resolution condemning “all violence, irrespective of where it comes from, and in this regard demands that all parties in Syria, including armed groups, immediately stop all violence or reprisals, including attacks against State institutions, in accordance with the League of Arab States’ initiative” ?

In which world are we that some prefer to tolerate, or worse to encourage, the continued “use of force against civilians, arbitrary executions, killing and persecution of protestors and members of the media, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, interference with access to medical treatment, torture, sexual violence, and ill-treatment, including against children”, by simply vetoing a resolution under the cover of the “non-interference” principle?

If Russia and China want to avoid “another Lybia”, they have to take their responsibility and draft a counter-resolution for the UNSC to vote. Otherwise, the UNSC system is simply broken, by this power play between the 5 Permanent Members.

At least Russia, who withdrew their tanks from the Red Square to allow a peaceful regime change in the Soviets should understand the aspiration of other people.

Iain Johnston
February 17, 2012 at 04:16

It isn’t the first and won’t be the last occasion where Chinese leaders decided other interests outweighed image. An earlier example is the Ottawa Treaty banning landmines. An huge number of states jumped on that bandwagon, leaving China (along with the US, Russia and some others) outside the process. Chinese leaders tried to reduce the bad PR effects by participating as an observer at Ottawa Treaty activities and by increasing funding for de-mining. So there may be some more minor efforts at cooperating with other states on the Syria question to reduce the damage to China’s image.

February 17, 2012 at 02:25

China did the right thing. Most of the Indian people support Russia and China on this. Else there would have been another Libya.

February 17, 2012 at 00:56

am i reading this right? its as plain as the day that the author has lost his perspective and objectivity in the preservation of us and the west’s influence everywhere on this planet.
if us decides to work its way around the un for fear that their legitimate concerns might be blocked again, so be it. they did it before in iraq. so why not now.
or if us is truly concerned about democratic movements in ara spring, why did nt they support those taking on streets in Bahrain and saudi arabia. they only offered tentative support to egyptian democratic advocates when the downfall of mubarak was certain. not to mention the rapsheet of us abondoning democratic values in favor of their dominance and political influence by backing those blood thirsty dictators.
and speaking of china being isolated on issues relating to syrria or iran. i think what the author means to say here is china’s positions are not being appreciated by us and its lackeys. even india and asean countries have second thought on that. why cant iran own a nuclear weapons? isreal did it a couple of decades ago under auspice of us. and even india got their hands on nuclear reactors without IAEA bugging them,courtesy of us’manipulation.
and then, we come back to syria. is MR. Assad a tyrant? YES. Has he personally ordered the killing of demonstrators? he probably did. but all these dont give us the reason for military intervention because, let me quote Mr. Gatz, the former defense secretary, ” Whoever advocate sending ground forces in asia should have their heads examined. and that, FYI, is only reason that us still stands on the sideline paying lipservice to those suffering in this never ending political turmoil.
its political and there is nothing to it. china has its own concerns regarding the stability in the region, expansion of us influence and most importantly, china’s strategic interests. they r all reasonable and legitimate concerns for a country of china’s size and growing importance.

February 16, 2012 at 17:30

If the U.S. doesn’t care “an obsolescence of the Council itself”, and along with it U.S.’ “cherished status as a veto-wielding member”, by single-handedly vetoing all resolutions regarding Palestine-Israel conflict, for DECADES, why should China care?

If only Americans apply whatever they boast equally to others and themselves, I will show some respect. Gee…Princeton

February 16, 2012 at 10:21

Troubling indeed!

The Dr. should reflect the other half of ‘Regime Change’ trouble in order to solicit more responses to enrich his manuscripts.

China objects interference into other state’s internal affair for decades, and Libya was illustration of extreme power abuse by the West after China caved in.

More ‘POWER Plays by those in power and Lies by the pens’ – Troubling indeed.

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