Tuesday, February 07, 2012

China and Russia gamble over future of Syria

Like card players dealing high stakes at a card game, China and Russia this week have gambled over the future of trouble stricken Syria. Both countries vetoed a UN resolution which aimed to bring about a peaceful resolve to the ongoing conflict between government forces and pro-democracy activists. Both China and Russia want to avoid giving support to the idea of regime change, but each country has more personal reasons for their opposition to the UN resolution.

Russia says it wants swift stabilization in Syria, but it is clear that they favour the current administration. Should President Bashar al-Assad be pushed from office Russia would likely lose lucrative arms deals and a strategic naval base. As for China, it followed a predictable and much stated policy of 'non-interference' with another country's affairs.

The stance of Russia and China has brought much criticism from the international community. But should Assad's government fall both countries are likely to lose more than friends.

China's veto of the much watered down UN resolution was anticipated by many observers. The South China Morning Post ran with the headline "After Libya, no vote is no surprise".

Tsinghua University international studies professor Sun Zhe says he thinks China is following Russia's lead on the Syria issue, but he acknowledges that Beijing also has its own concerns.

Sun believes Chinese leaders see the Syrian government's actions as "extremist," but are afraid of Western intervention because, in his words, "they do not want to see another Libya or another Egypt." [VOA]

China has few ties in Syria, and as such less to lose from regime change as Russia does. But in failing to support the resolution it has not won many friends across the Arab world. Many Arab papers were scornful of the decision. Jamil al-Dhayidi, writing in London's Saudi-owned Al-Hayat said, "The Russian and Chinese stance is clothed in shame and disgrace. Moscow and Beijing insist on dancing on corpses and disregarding the massacres by Assad's regime. Vladimir Putin and his like will go to the rubbish heap of history haunted by the curses of angry Arabs... The Russian and Chinese people should speak out against the veto that gives a license to kill... But we doubt that this will happen." [BBC]

China's netizens react

There was some comment on China's microblogs in support of the Syrian people, though such posts were quickly deleted by censors.

One Shenzhen netizen calling himself "anti-CCTV ballistic egg" wrote, "As a Chinese citizen, on behalf of myself, I deeply apologize to the Syrian people for the voting in the United Nations resolution. I did not participate in any of China's elections, so that ballot couldn't be counted as mine cast."

Another Weibo user, "Devil of the gods," said that it should be made clear that the Chinese people do not have the right to vote, and as such have no control of their government or their decision. "The veto does not represent the point of view of the citizens (at least not mine)," he wrote. "NATO, give some power to defeat them. If the evil is not punished, righteous and goodness will not be known." [Epoch Times]

Western leaders "disgusted"

Of course the strongest condemnations came from western leaders. US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said she was "disgusted" by Russia and China's veto while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the veto "a travesty".

"Faced with a neutered Security Council, we have to redouble our efforts outside of the United Nations with those allies and partners who support the Syrian people's right to have a better future," Clinton said while reinforcing the dictate that "Assad must go".

Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague, speaking in parliament also voiced his concerns and said that Assad had been given carte blanche to continue its massacre of civilians and those that opposed him.

"They chose to side with the Syrian regime and implicitly to leave the door open to further abuses by them." William Hague said. "They did so while President Assad's tanks were encircling Homs and shells were pounding the homes of Syrian civilians, killing up to 200 people, and on the 30th anniversary of the massacre in Hama."

He called the veto a "grave error of judgment" that will have "increased the likelihood of what they wish to avoid in Syria - civil war." Furthermore he said both China and Russia will have "placed themselves on the wrong side of Arab and international opinion." [Full statement: FCO / Video - BBC / BBC]

He drew broad support across the house, but also further action from some MPs. Green MP Caroline Lucas pointed out that Tunisia, a country which sparked off the so-called Arab Spring, had expelled its Syrian ambassador, and asked whether the British government would consider doing the same.

The foreign secretary replied that he had not ruled out doing so, but stressed he would consult with other EU and Arab partners before taking any such action.

Meanwhile as the bombardment by government forces intensified on the Syrian town of Homs, the Syrian ambassador was summoned to the Foreign Office for a dressing down.

Assad "doomed"

The British Foreign Secretary insisted the Assad regime was "doomed" and that its days were clearly numbered. Should the regime crumble both Russia and China will have a difficult time dealing with any new government.

On Monday demonstrators attacked the Chinese Embassy in the Libyan capital Tripoli throwing rocks, tomatoes and eggs. The previous day the Russian Embassy was also attacked and its flag torn down. "All of this is because of what is happening in Homs, this is because of the Chinese and Russian veto," Ahmed Mourad a Syrian expatriate in Libya, said [Reuters]. 

Losing friends

China and Russia won few friends in the new Libya after failing to support NATO and the UN in its action against the former dictator [tvnewswatch: China & Russia may lose out in new Libya]. And even after Gaddafi's fall, China was accused of blocking the release of much needed assets to the Nation Transitional Council [tvnewswatch: China burning its bridges with Libya].

China has struggled in recent months to build relations with the country's new rulers after Beijing was seen as supporting the Gaddafi regime, even though it did not use its veto and instead abstained. This was an attempt to retain a position of impartiality given the importance of Libya's rich oil resources.

China's economic ties to Syria are small by comparison. "Syria is a third-tier oil producer and a country of little economic importance to China," says Trevor Houser, a partner at Rhodium Group, an economic research firm, who has studied China's behavior at the UN. Beijing does not want to give the signal that it supports any form of popular uprising and add fuel to any home-grown revolution. China's leaders are "driven by domestic political concerns," Houser asserts. But he says, "Beijing is protecting the al-Assad regime at the expense to its relationship with all other Middle East oil producers, save Iran, and overall stability in the Middle East." [WSJ]

Risk of an African Spring

With growing anti-Chinese sentiment across the Arab would and Africa, China may be on a rocky road. An African Spring has yet to manifest itself, but should the likes of Angola, Zimbabwe and Nigeria go the same way as some Arab countries China will have to make some difficult decisions. Angola for example supplies a significant proportion of China's oil imports, more than 20%, far greater than that supplied by Iran. It also relies on many African states for its growing need for copper. Regime change in any of these key countries could prove to be particularly important for China. Failing to support a popular uprising in such states could be disastrous for China as it builds its economy and infrastructure with Africa's rich resources.

There is a growing debate as to whether Africa needs its own revolution [BBC] and with the beginnings of demonstrations in Senegal, whether it has already begun [Al-Jazeera]. Much of Africa is far from free, but would likely face for more difficult hurdles than those seen in Egypt, Libya and Syria. But the demand for change is gaining momentum nonetheless.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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