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China’s Syrian Folly

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NOTTINGHAM – In vetoing the United Nations Security Council’s draft resolution on Syria, China claims that it has acted in the interests of the Syrian people, a position articulated in the People’s Daily, the newspaper of the Communist Party’s Central Committee, in a commentary appearing under the penname Zhong Sheng. The characters for “Zhong Sheng” mean the sound of a bell, but they are phonetically the same as “the voice of China.” The word play was no accident: the voice of China on this issue is as clear as a bell.

The commentary’s main points are that it is wrong for the great powers to use the UN as an instrument of regime change in Syria, and it is better for the country’s multi-faceted and highly complex problems to be resolved by political means and internal negotiations. If China (and Russia) had not used their veto, a re-run of Libya would have occurred, with European powers, supported by the United States, going beyond the UN mandate and using local “rebels” to oust Syria’s government.

What is important about China’s move in the Security Council is that vital Chinese national interests were not at stake, at least not directly or immediately. This marks a departure from its past use of its UN veto. The commentary in the People’s Daily also reflects that new sense of confidence. The Chinese government now wants the rest of the world to know why it has used its veto – and expects its decision to be respected.

The problem with China’s position is that the UN resolution was aimed at ensuring precisely the outcome that Chinese leaders claim to seek. With Syrian government forces killing civilians indiscriminately and in increasing numbers under orders from President Bashar al-Assad, the resolution sought to restrain Assad from using force to “resolve” the country’s political problems.

China insists that its goal is for the people of Syria to escape violence, conflict, and the flames of war, but its veto will do just the opposite. The world has already seen the use of even greater and more wanton force against civilians in the city of Homs following China’s veto in the Security Council.

By using its veto power, the Chinese government has effectively ensured that atrocities in Syria will continue and increase in intensity. Contrary to what its leaders expect, China’s standing among most people in the Middle East – and its ambition to project soft power globally – will be gravely damaged.

If China were genuinely eager to see Syria’s people determine their own political future without Assad’s forced removal, it should have pressed for a modification of the resolution, calling for a ceasefire and the start of a political process that worked towards a settlement and Assad’s eventual departure from power. Would the US, Britain, or France have vetoed such a resolution?

Why, then, did China force a showdown in the Security Council? China’s rise, coming at a time of self-doubt and apparent decline in Europe and North America, has given its leaders confidence that they no longer need to tolerate the post-Cold War international order.

China’s communist rulers have always resented the advent of “humanitarian intervention.” After all, if the Western powers can impose regime change on authoritarian states on humanitarian grounds, why would this stop at China’s borders? But, until now, there was little that China’s leaders could do about it. Now, with the costs of the West’s misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan (and, to a lesser extent, in Libya) compounded by its major economies’ weakness, China’s leaders appear to see an opportunity to push back.

With Russia on its side, the Chinese government can take a stand without appearing isolated. And, while a long-term strategic alliance between Russia and China may not be in the offing, tactical cooperation to stop the West from imposing its values on the global community is likely to persist, so long as Vladimir Putin retains power in Russia.

A rising great power like China taking on a proactive global role is, in principle, a positive development. But the world will not be a better place if China’s newfound assertiveness is focused – or, just as importantly, is perceived to be focused – almost exclusively on helping autocrats to stay in power through brutal repression of their citizens.

Steve Tsang is Director of the China Policy Institute and Professor of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2012.

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