Beijing and Washington are not on the same page about how to deal with international trouble spots. That problem became clear last month when China and Russia both vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad and calling for an immediate end to the violence convulsing that country. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice reacted with fury, stating that her country was “disgusted” by the veto. The actions of China and Russia, she added, were “shameful” and “unforgivable.”
But the spat regarding Syria was hardly the only time in recent years that U.S. and Chinese officials seemed to have very different views about how to handle troublesome regimes. Policy makers in both the Bush and Obama administrations expressed frustration with Beijing’s reluctance to support strong international economic sanctions against North Korea and Iran in response to their nuclear programs. China (and Russia) repeatedly delayed the approval of new rounds of sanctions and compelled the United States and the other permanent members of the Security Council to accept diluted versions as the price of withholding a veto.
There are several reasons, some obvious and some not, why Beijing has been so reluctant to go along with Washington’s policy prescriptions regarding so-called rogue regimes. In some cases, U.S. objectives collide with important Chinese economic and security interests, and Beijing’s resistance is understandable.
That is certainly true with respect to the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs. Both Washington and Beijing would prefer to keep Tehran and Pyongyang out of the global nuclear weapons club, but the overlap in interests largely ends at that point. The United States is far more intense than China about achieving that objective, and Washington would love to see the two troublesome, repressive regimes ousted from power.
China, on the other hand, has important relations with both Iran and North Korea. Iran is a significant supplier of energy to China’s voracious economy, a factor that is already important and will become more so as the Chinese economy continues to grow. An anti-American Iran also serves as a brake on U.S. hegemony in the oil rich Persian Gulf. The other major oil producers in the region, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and the small Gulf states, are all close U.S. allies or are at least under significant U.S. influence.
North Korea is seen as an essential geostrategic buffer state between the Chinese homeland and the rest of East Asia that the United States and its allies control. Beijing worries that strong international sanctions might de-stabilize the North Korean state. That was a concern even when Kim Jong-il was securely in control of the country; it is an even greater concern now that Kim’s young son is nominally in power and the actual leadership situation is murky.
If North Korea imploded, the consequences to China would be quite negative. A massive flow of refugees would be almost certain, since it would be much easier for desperate North Koreans to go north across the border with China than to try to cross the heavily fortified, ironically named de-militarized zone to enter South Korea. The long-term aftermath would not be beneficial to China’s political and security interests either. The probable outcome would be a united, democratic Korea closely allied with the United States. Not only would the geostrategic buffer be gone, but Beijing might face the prospect of additional U.S. military bases in its southern neighbor.
Such tangible political and security interests are important, but they do not fully explain why Beijing has been so resistant to Washington’s bid for strong international measures directed against a country such as Syria. Something more subtle is also at play. To some extent, Washington is paying the price for its previous duplicity regarding UN Security Council measures.
Chinese and Russian leaders have every reason to recall how the United States and its NATO allies exploited and perverted previous Council resolutions to pursue ambitious Western policy goals. That created worries that even a seemingly mild resolution on the violence in Syria could be twisted in a similar fashion. Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, likely expressed the concerns of China as well as his own government when he voiced suspicions of “regime change” intentions by “influential members of the international community.”
Given the track record of the United States and its NATO partners, it is not a paranoid sentiment. A 1999 UN Security Council resolution on Kosovo, which Beijing and Moscow reluctantly accepted following NATO’s unauthorized air war against Serbia, ultimately paved the way for Washington and the European powers to detach Kosovo from Serbia and create an independent state. The United States and its allies ignored the provision in the resolution that explicitly confirmed that Kosovo was still Serbian territory, albeit under international occupation. In blatant violation of that provision, Washington and key NATO governments bypassed the Security Council and recognized Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence in February 2008.
Chinese and Russian officials vehemently objected. They believed that not only was the action of the Western powers illegal, but it set a terrible precedent that could cause headaches for numerous countries, including China. Beijing was especially sensitive to the implications, given the Taiwan and Tibet issues and the simmering secessionist movement in Xinjiang.
More recently, Beijing and Moscow accepted a UN Security Council resolution authorizing limited air strikes in Libya, supposedly for the purpose of protecting civilian populations. The ink was barely dry on that resolution, though, before the United States, Britain, and France launched extensive air strikes to assist rebel forces overthrow Muammar Gadhafi. In other words, an ostensibly humanitarian mission was a cynical fig leaf for a regime change strategy that NATO was pursuing.
Washington must overcome its legacy of deceit if it expects China to be more cooperative on multi-lateral initiatives against odious regimes in the future. That might be especially difficult in the case of Syria, since Assad is Iran’s principal regional ally and, as noted, Beijing has been reluctant to damage relations with a major energy supplier. But the extent of the distrust about Washington’s motives goes far beyond that specific issue. China’s resistance to noble-sounding U.S. policy prescriptions in the Middle East and other regions will likely continue unabated.
Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is the author of eight books on international affairs, including Smart Power: Toward a Prudent Foreign Policy for America.