China Ink

The right (or wrong) of veto

China sided with Russia in vetoing a UN resolution condemning Syria’s crackdown on anti-government protesters

What was the reaction to the news of China’s UN veto?

The People’s Daily defended Beijing’s rejection of the UN resolution, which called for Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, to resign, claiming that its veto was an act of responsibility to the Syrian people. In the commentary, it insisted that the situation in Syria was too complex to support the UN move. “Supporting one side and suppressing the other might seem a helpful way of turning things around, but in fact it would be sowing fresh seeds of disaster,” it presaged.

The state newspaper added that forced regime change is not the solution, highlighting the experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Are not the unstoppable attacks and explosions over a decade after regime change a humanitarian disaster?”

Not everyone in China was supportive, however. He Yanguang, a former photographer for China Youth Daily, urged China to support the resolution. “Any regime that kills innocents ought to be stopped [7,000 civilians have already died in Syria]. If your neighbour hits his children, you can stand on the sideline and do nothing. But if you kill your children, the neighbours should definitely come forward,” He wrote on his blog.

Most of the Western press disagreed with Chinese state media that the veto made a peaceful outcome more likely. Tempers among Western governments also seemed to be fraying on news of the Russian and Chinese block. The Daily Telegraph quoted William Hague, the British Foreign Minister, as saying “the double veto would only make continued violence and instability in Syria more likely… Future blood spilt would be on their hands.” The Los Angeles Times also called the veto “a death knell for the Arab League’s peace road map”, quoting Susan Rice, Washington’s UN ambassador, as saying that the US was “disgusted” by the veto.

But Seamus Milne, writing in the Guardian newspaper in the UK, found himself in partial agreement with the Chinese. Intervention was unlikely to halt the bloodshed, he thought. At least 10 times as many people died after international action began in Libya last year, and the Syrian situation could be much worse, especially if Iran is drawn into a wider conflict.

China also found an ally in Malaysia’s New Straits Times for its veto. “[While a desire to stop the violence is an honourable goal] the internal affairs of Syria are nobody else’s business.”

The reason for China’s veto?

“The political landscape in the Middle East is becoming unfavourable to China,” admitted the Global Times. It said the collapse of Syria – i.e. the fall of the Assad regime – would be another step towards the West “controlling” the Middle East. And while Beijing had less of a stake in Syria than in Libya, its fall would then mean Iran could be next. The newspaper worried that a conflict between the West and Iran would then force China to rely more on Russia for its energy needs, which would “bring new uncertainty to the Sino-Russian relationship”.

Milne at the Guardian saw plenty of Chinese realpolitik, especially its opposition to externally imposed action in sovereign affairs. “Russia and China have now signalled there will be no more UN-sanctioned Libyas,” he warned.

The Economist also saw power politics at play, especially in the decision to team up with Russia. “[The veto] was another demonstration of how the two countries now see their interests as aligned… Its vote returned a favour to Russia, ensuring that neither country need fear complete isolation.”


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