In a move that mirrored previous votes in October and February, the Russian Federation and China have joined forces to veto a Western-backed resolution on Syria. The vote came out as 11 in favor, with South Africa and Pakistan abstaining, and the two votes from Russia and China killing final passage of the resolution. While the outcome itself is unfortunate, what is most interesting is that it proves that China’s increasing use of the veto can no longer be seen as an anomaly.
China’s policy at the Security Council has long been to abstain on drafts rather than vetoing, providing their core interests were not at stake. As their role in international affairs has increased, so has their willingness to take stands less on pure national interest than on principle. Principle was the reason they gave for vetoing the February draft, stating then that the Western draft was overreaching and interfered with Syria’s sovereignty. While national sovereignty has often been a concern of China, only recently have they begun to apply the principle to use of the veto in cases where their interests were not at risk.
This flexing of its diplomatic muscle has not been kindly received by the West, as their Ambassadors pilloried Russia and China following the vetoes. China maintains that it is being a productive partner on the Syrian issue, despite the claims of the US and its allies. As if to hammer home the point, Ambassador Li Baodong of China gave the following statement post-vote:
Just now a few countries made statements that confused right and wrong, and made unfounded accusations against China. This is utterly wrong. It is out of ulterior motives, and firmly opposed by China.
China has all along participated in the Security Council consultations on the Syrian issue in a positive, constructive and responsible manner. It is committed to pushing for ceasefire and cessation of violence in Syria, and implementing the communiqué adopted at the Geneva meeting, Security Council resolutions 2042 and 2043 and Annan’s six-point plan. China is committed to supporting extension of the mandate of UNSMIS and Annan’s mediation efforts.
In contrast, a few countries have been intent on interfering in other countries’ internal affairs, fanning the flame and driving wedges among countries. They are eager to see tumult in the world. From the very beginning, they have adopted a negative attitude toward Annan’s mediation and UNSMIS. Over the past few months, they have been spreading words about the futility and failure of Annan’s mediation and UNSMIS．
This time, they repeated their old trick by setting preconditions and obstacles for extension of UNSMIS, and pegged it to invoking of Chapter VII of the UN Charter and threat of sanctions, in an attempt to change, even repudiate the hard-won consensus reached by the Action Group during the Geneva meeting. They showed no sincerity but arrogance during the consultations. We can’t help but question their willingness to see extension of UNSMIS, or early settlement of the Syrian crisis through a Syrian-led political process. We urge these countries to earnestly reflect on their policy and behavior, and immediately return to the right track.
Meanwhile, in the English edition of the state-run Global Times, the following excerpt was published in an op-ed responding to the outrage following the vote:
Western countries are again blaming Russia and China for a split UNSC vote. They seem to have forgotten that one of the most important principles of the UN is opposing military intervention in a country’s internal affairs.
It is a shameless lie to attribute the escalating tension in Syria to China and Russia. Without the West’s support, the small-scale conflict wouldn’t have turned into today’s bloody confrontation. If the West had truly backed Kofi Annan’s peace plan and responded to calls from Russia and China, Syria could have avoided the situation it is in now.
It’s likely that the Assad administration will be overthrown. But China does not necessarily need to change its policy and principle of opposing foreign military intervention in Syria. China should stick to this attitude until the last day before UNSC’s intervention in the Syrian situation is needed.
This firming up of policy is a strong shift away from the Beijing of a decade ago that was loathe to make waves unless absolutely necessary, as in the case of its oil interests in Sudan. The case of Syria won’t be able to be viewed as an exception moving forward. While the three vetoes China has cast on Syria have been in tandem with the Russian Federation, this may not always be the case. That being said, it’s hard to imagine where the Russian view of matters of sovereign concern is more lenient than the Chinese in the near term. In any case, the job of the West’s Permanent Representatives has just gotten that much more difficult.