China's Veto Set to Backfire

By voting with Russia against a UN resolution aimed at easing the violence in Syria, Beijing faces international wrath.
An analysis by Parameswaran Ponnudurai
2012-02-07
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Syrians residing in Libya protest outside the Chinese embassy in the Libyan capital Tripoli, Feb. 6, 2012.
AFP

It's very rare for a Chinese embassy to come under attack from protesters over a foreign policy issue but it did happen on Monday in Tripoli.

Demonstrators hurled rocks, eggs, and tomatoes, broke windows and sprayed graffiti on walls, and wanted to bring down the Chinese flag at the embassy in the capital of newly liberated Libya.

They were protesting against China's weekend decision joining Russia in vetoing a U.N. Security Council resolution that called for an end to nearly a year of bloodshed in Syria and for the Middle East country's brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad to step down.

The double veto has drawn international condemnation as it threatens to escalate the violence which has left about 6,000 people dead since protests against Assad's regime began in March last year.

China has defended its veto decision, saying it was aimed—ironically—at avoiding more civilian casualties.

Beijing's state media said China's veto was in line with the principle of noninterference in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation.

Experts however questioned the Chinese position.

"I think it's the principle of noninterference carried out to its worst extreme," said Randy Schriver, head of the Washington-based Project 2049 Institute, focused on public policy in the Asia-Pacific region.

"I don't see any scenario by which Assad remains president in the future and I think the Chinese should understand that as well as anybody," he told RFA.

The veto "is only going to serve to extend the violence and extend the suffering, by extension," said Shriver, a former senior U.S. State Department official in charge of East Asian relations.

The blocking of the resolution came as a surprise to some as China risked disrupting relations with some of its key energy suppliers in the Arab League, which sponsored the defeated U.N. resolution.

"If anything, I think it is going create some resentment among the Arab League, including among leaders who have been there awfully lot longer than Assad [in power since 2000]."

Close ties

China, which imports most of its oil from the Middle East, may be the only permanent member in the U.N. Security Council which has close ties with Iran and Syria on the one hand and Qatar and Saudi Arabia on the other.

But this may change.

The Arab League chief, Nabil Elaraby, said on Monday that China and Russia have lost diplomatic credit in the Arab world.

The U.N. resolution was approved by 13 of the 15-member Security Council. It was proposed by the Arab nations after their monitors sent to Syria had failed to end the violence.

The veto came just a day after Assad's troops massacred nearly 300 people in the rebel city of Homs, activists said.

China and Russia gave a "license for the Syrian regime to kill without being held accountable,” said Syria's largest opposition group, the Syrian National Council.

The actions by the two countries "are not only a slap in the face of the Arab League, they are also a betrayal of the Syrian people,” said Philippe Bolopion, U.N. director at Human Rights Watch.

The violent move to topple Assad came as Arab Spring revolts ousted entrenched rulers in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, and raised the specter of increased Western influence in the Middle East.

It is no secret that China, dogged by bloody protests and simmering tensions in its own backyard—in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia—has been worried about the prospect of an Arab Spring-like uprising at its own doorstep.

Regime change

Chinese state media also asserted that Western armed intervention in Libya, Afghanistan, and Iraq have exposed the risks of forced regime change.

In March last year, China abstained from a Security Council vote that authorized military intervention in Libya.

But experts said the U.N. resolution on Syria pushed by the Arab nations was very modest and that countries such as India and South Africa, both of which opposed the Libyan war, also backed it.

It called for Assad to step aside and delegate powers to his vice-president, an Assad family loyalist who is required to begin dialogue with the opposition.

It also backed calls for Syria to withdraw troops from residential areas and free prisoners detained in protests.

So far, none of the Western powers has come out in even tepid support of military intervention in Syria, noted Shadi Hamid, an expert at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.

"Consumed by their own internal problems, this is not at all something they want. But it may be something the Syrian people need," he said.

The options being considered, Hamid said, are far more limited— funding and arming the Free Syria Army, establishing "safe zones" in the north and a targeted air mission to weaken the Syrian military's capabilities.

"To be sure, all of these are serious forms of military intervention, but bringing up the specter of Iraq can be misleading, just as it was in Libya."

Abandon principle

Following the Chinese action in the U.N., some experts are betting that Beijing will abandon its principle of noninterference in other countries' affairs to protect its expanding interests around the globe.

"The question is when," James Dorsey, an expert at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said in an opinion piece carried by the Bloomberg financial news service.

He said that China's economic growth and need to secure resources  have been at odds with its long-standing policy of being aloof at a time when revolts are threatening the resource-rich region that stretches from the Atlantic coast of Africa to Central Asia and the subcontinent.

"With China’s veto of the U.N. resolution on Syria, Chinese determination to cling to a principle rooted in 19th-century diplomacy seems set to backfire," Dorsey said.

China’s status as an emerging economic superpower demands that it become a more muscular global actor to pursue its interests, he said.

Ultimately that will mean taking positions on domestic disputes and conflicts around the world that have a bearing on China’s global national-security interests, the very opposite of the stance it adopted on Syria, Dorsey said.

"In short, China will have to use virtually the same tools employed by the U.S., shouldering the risks of a foreign policy that is interest-driven and therefore, at times, contradictory."