I have coverage of this morning’s Security Council meeting on the situation in Syria up at UN Dispatch. If you’ve been paying attention to my last few posts here on how Syria is faring at the UN Security Council, you’ll know that the Russian veto came as no surprise to me. A disappointment, yes. But not a surprise. China on the other hand managed to surprise the hell out of me. When I first began hearing rumors of a double veto, I was definitely shocked. The meme that’s existed since the People’s Republic took over the seat from Taiwan, that China will likely abstain on a draft where it the situation is not in China’s backyard and doesn’t authorize force over the will of the state in question rather than veto, may finally be dead.
The reasons why Russia opposed this resolution are known to be numerous, legion even, mostly based around its arms sales and the use of its naval base at Tartus. China’s motivation for vetoing the resolution was overlooked entirely this week. Throughout the last several days of negotiations, not a peep was said about China having substantive issues with the draft. Not one journalist picked up rumors that Li Baodong’s vote would be anything other than an abstention, or if they did I missed the article. I don’t fault them though, as even the United Kingdom’s Mission was completely without warning:
Yes, we were surprised by the Chinese veto, particularly as they did not express any particular concerns about the text over several days of negotiations. So we thought that they were able to accept the text that was put into blue by the Moroccans.
China’s choice to make its strong opposition to the draft public strikes me as odd. A China who abstains on this draft while Russia vetoes would have the exact same outcome without the public grief that Russia would have gotten. China’s objections would never come to fruition as Russia had already tanked its chances of passing. Why is Beijing inviting bad publicity in the Arab World at a time when ties were beginning to strengthen?
There are two reasons I can think of for China to choice to cast a veto rather than abstaining: the first, that Russia was in the end wavering unless it had support in vetoing, which would forced China to come out against, lest provisions in the document China didn’t accept passed through unopposed. Given Ambassador Churkin’s attempts to amend the text in the minutes leading up to the vote, I doubt this would be the case.
The second is that China is sending a message to members of the Arab World that are less sure about Qatar and the Arab League”s new policies: “We won’t come for you next”. If and when new protests rise up, requiring the members of the GCC to use enough force that the issue makes it to the Security Council, China would veto intervention and continue arms sales. Given how cynical I feel right now, this seems more likely to me, but it still doesn’t square with China’s usual affirmation of the usefulness of regional bodies in solving regional issues. The main reason everyone expected China to abstain was that the request and basic structure of the draft came from and supported the League of Arab States.
No matter what the reason behind it, China seems to be getting less blame than Russia over this, by far. Still, I get the feeling China has likely miscalculated. Things are going to get worse in Syria before they get better. And should Assad fall, as the many new members of the Free Syrian army recruited based on this veto will strive for, the new government will remember who helped keep Bashar in power. Even if the Arab League plan is somehow implemented, the new members of the unity government will still need someone to blame; China has graciously volunteered to keep Russia company in this regard.