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China’s Syrian Folly

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.