China’s decision to join Russia in vetoing a UN Security Council resolution that could have led to economic sanctions against Syria unless it ceased using heavy weapons against civilians was unsurprising. After all, the pair had teamed to veto two earlier Council resolutions that had also aimed to pressure Assad to moderate his policies or leave office.
The UN Security Council had to decide by July 20 what to do with the UN Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS), whose initial 90-day mandate expires then. Beijing and Moscow have joined in opposing any measures that might have led to the use of military force, economic sanctions, or other enforcement action against Assad. In the case of Beijing, sovereignty is the watchword, and a sense of betrayal over the mission creep that extended the efforts in Libya colored today’s decision. But with less to lose than Russia, there is yet more that Beijing might do to deescalate tensions; and Western players would do well to recognize China’s concerns.
The Western-backed resolution that they vetoed today would have extended UNSMIS for 45 days, but also would place Annan’s peace plan under hapter 7 of the UN Charter, which would allow the Council to authorize diplomatic and economic sanctions or even military intervention, though its backers denied that they would soon seek UN authorization to use military force.
After the vote, Ambassador Susan E. Rice, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, denounced Russia and China before the media: “It’s pitiful and deeply regrettable that again today Russia and China, for the third time, have vetoed a resolution that garnered the overwhelming support of this Security Council.” When asked about the practical effects of the veto, Rice responded that “the message that it sends … is that two permanent members are willing to defend Assad and protect him to the bitter end, even if would seem logically not to be in their interests.”
Beijing had given fair warning that it would not back today’s resolution. As it did last year when NATO began escalating its combat operations in Libya, China’s state-run media recalled the protracted instability and violence that followed the Western military interventions in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 to warn against unleashing similar forces by means of a military intervention in Syria under the guise of humanitarian interventions.
Alluding to the Western-backed wars in Iraq and elsewhere, a commentary in the People’s Daily a few days ago warned that, “The wars launched in the 21st century have proved again and again that ‘pursuit of democracy’ and ‘humanitarianism’ are nothing but excuses for the powerful states to seek profits.”
Throughout the Syrian crisis, Beijing has taken an atypically strong stand in joining with Moscow in opposing the efforts of most Arab countries, supported by Western governments, to force the Syrian government to end its brutal repression of the anti-regime protesters. For the past two decades, PRC leaders have typically opposed foreign military interventions seeking to change a regime. For example, they have regularly objected to U.S. and NATO military operations in the Middle East. But they also showed their lack of enthusiasm for Russia’s August 2008 military intervention in Georgia by refusing to recognize the resulting independence declarations of the separatist provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
In the case of Syria, Chinese officials have sought a peaceful solution to the conflict through negotiations within the framework of an international consensus. They claimed that the resolution’s backers were trying to interfere in the internal affairs of a UN member country by seeking to change its regime in pursuit of their larger goals of controlling the region.
What China Sees in the Bloodshed
In explaining today’s veto, the Chinese government criticized the proposed resolution for being unbalanced, one-sided, and encouraging the regime’s opponents to keep fighting rather than engage in dialogue and compromise.
Li Baodong, China’s permanent representative to the UN, also claimed that the resolution’s intent was to legitimize the use of force against the regime. PRC officials have refused to back proposals to force Assad from office. They argue that it is improper for the international community to make such demands since the issue of Syria’s leadership should be determined by the Syrian people themselves.
“We have all along maintained that the prospect and destiny of Syria should be independently determined by the Syrian people, rather than imposed by outside forces,” Li said. “We believe the Syrian issue must be resolved through political means, and military means would go nowhere.”
Chinese leaders have strongly supported traditional interpretations of national sovereignty that severely restrict the right of foreign powers or international organizations to intervene in a country’s internal affairs.
Li also attacked the resolution’s backers for seeking to score points and embarrass China and Russia rather than achieve a genuine compromise. “It is even more regrettable that, under circumstances when parties were still seriously divided and there was still enough time for continued consultation, the sponsoring countries refused to heed the call of China, some other Security Council members and Special Envoy Annan for further consultation until a text acceptable to all parties is formed, and pressed for a vote on the draft resolution.” Denouncing such efforts as fracturing the unity of the Security Council, Li said that “China is strongly opposed to such practice.”
Although denying any commitment to keep Assad in power, Chinese officials are aware that Assad will not voluntarily step down so they consider it futile to press for such a resignation. Furthermore, Chinese analysts do not think that Assad’s resignation alone would end the fighting in Syria. Instead of pacifying Assad’s opponents, Chinese officials fear that Assad’s removal would simply encourage them to escalate their demands. They worry that international calls for such an outcome are already having such a deleterious effect.
“By only exerting pressure on the Syrian government and explicitly trying to coerce its leader Assad to step down,” continues the China Daily, “the resolution sends the message to armed groups and opponents of his regime that they have the support of the international community.” And Chinese analysts make clear their fear that the opposition has become increasingly radicalized.
The Chinese government has traditionally sought to make UN resolutions precisely worded to tightly constrain how member governments will apply them. Furthermore, PRC officials claim to have learned from the Libyan experience that they cannot offer the Western powers anything that could justify armed intervention. In 2011, China and Russia abstained on the crucial vote authorizing the use of force, except for foreign ground operations, to protect civilians from the Libyan government. NATO then gradually expanded its air campaign and eventually helped organize a rebel ground force. “Libya offers a negative case study,” cautions an earlier People’s Daily commentary. “NATO abused the Security Council resolution about establishing a no-fly zone, and directly provided firepower assistance to one side.”
Some consensus on Syria was reached in March 2012, when the Security Council unanimously issued a statement endorsing Kofi Annan’s six-point peace plan. China and Russia would only accept a final statement that did not include a condemnation of the Assad regime, any discussion of a political transition, or any justification for possible armed intervention in Syria.
Given their Muslim minority problems in Xinjiang, Chinese officials wanted to avoid associating themselves with yet another Western military intervention in a Muslim-majority country. Some Chinese leaders fear that these Western-backed revolts against the authoritarian governments of the Middle East might encourage similar resistance among their own people or establish precedents for foreign intervention in their own internal affairs.
Nevertheless, Chinese leaders do not want to be isolated on the Syria issue. They would prefer not to annoy Western countries seeking to end the Syrian violence, as well as Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, which supply China with much energy. These governments are backing efforts to replace Assad’s regime.
In the Syrian case, Beijing has been able to hide behind Moscow’s more prominent veto and support for the Assad regime. The PRC delegation in New York would probably not have cast the sole veto against anti-Assad resolutions since Beijing’s traditional practice has been to avoid vetoing resolutions alone. Especially when negotiating UN Security Council resolutions, Chinese diplomats try when possible to let Russia assume the lead in resisting Western-sponsored coercive measures.
In all likelihood, however, China will be more open than Russia to reconsidering its opposition to removing Assad from office. PRC policy makers have never placed Syria in the same category as such vital interests as Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, and perhaps the South China Sea. China’s trade with Syria is a very small share of its overall trade. Unlike Russia, China supplies far fewer weapons to Syria than Russia, Syria’s main military backer. Nor does China have access to a navy facility there.
In general, the PRC has invested less heavily in developing strategic and economic ties with Syria than has Russia and Iran, so it could more easily accept a regime change in Damascus than Russia, Iran, or other countries tied to the Assad regime.
But Western governments have also never declared the Syrian situation to be as grave as, for example, Iran’s possible acquisition of nuclear weapons. PRC policymakers can therefore continue to veto enforcement actions regarding Syria at lower risk of running afoul of Western unilateral sanctions as is happening with Iran.
However, the worsening situation in Syria could trigger greater Western willingness to intervene militarily in the crisis, and that may eventually oblige Chinese officials to revisit their stance toward the Syrian government.
Looking ahead, Chinese diplomacy could perhaps make the best contribution to ending the Syrian fighting by helping Assad and his family find asylum in a foreign country.