While the slaughter grinds on in Syria, the world’s diplomats last week delivered speeches and voted on resolutions in the UN General Assembly. Although the Assembly has no enforcement power, it still serves as a stage for drama and an affirmation of the UN as a club of states. They all come — the dictators, democracies, rich and poor, large and small countries — to hold discourse as sovereign states.
The Syria resolution, backed by the Arab League and directed against the Assad regime, passed overwhelmingly. And it revealed the alignment of bigger powers with Syria developing as a proxy conflict between an Iran-Russia side and an Arab-Europe-America side. What the vote showed was a lopsided power balance with Russia and China isolated on the world stage.
Yes 137 ; Abstained 17 ; No 12
Look at the “no” coalition:
Russia, China, Iran, Syria, Belarus, North Korea, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, and Nicaragua
This is the mighty coalition that Russia put together to support its side against the American-led coalition. Let’s compare the relative power of the “yes” and “no” countries. How could we measure that power balance? Well, my International Relations textbook says, “The best single indicator of a state’s power may be its total GDP, which combines overall size, technological level, and wealth.” So how do the sides stack up?
The “yes” side represents a GDP total of about $67 trillion, which is 85% of the world total. The United States and Europe each contribute about a quarter of the “yes” total.
The total GDP on the “no” side is about $15 trillion. [The total is measured by "purchasing power parity" and would be even smaller by an alternative method.] China represents almost three-quarters of the total. Russia accounts for about 15 percent, and Iran about 6 percent. The rest are a bunch of smallish countries with leftist anti-American regimes. They are along for the ride. And the 17 abstaining countries from Algeria to Vietnam together make up less than 1 trillion dollars of GDP.
So by one crude measure we can quantify the power balance at 6-to-1 against the Russian-Chinese side.
Why did China join the losing side? Why did it vote against so many countries that China hopes to influence around the world? In particular, why did China side with Russia to veto the earlier Security Council resolution? In the past China used its veto sparingly, and generally only on issues of direct relevance to China’s core concerns (Taiwan).
In one sense voting no is a natural for China. Its leaders believe in the international system as an arrangement of sovereign states, and they like the UN as a club of states, especially since they have the veto. The Chinese leadership might reason, “If a government massacres its citizens in the streets that’s no business of foreign countries. Sometimes governments might have to do that. We did it ourselves in 1989 and China’s success since then is historical vindication that our policy in 1989 was correct.”
In another sense, China — like the tag-along “no” countries — is using Syria to express opposition to the United States. After all the USA just began a buildup in the Pacific evidently intended to count Chinese power in the region. China did not support the U.S. war against Iraq in 2003, and did not like NATO’s role in helping rebels carry out regime change in Libya last year. China is willing to take a hit to maintain a reputation for meaning what it says. So why not vote against the U.S. side in the UN and give a little brotherly love to the Russians? Let the Americans know they can’t walk all over the world overthrowing governments they don’t like. The trouble for China is that the lopsided vote seems to have strengthened the United States and isolated China.
China does have a potentially constructive role to play in Syria, as a diplomatic mediator that is fairly neutral in the proxy war. China really just wants one thing from the Middle East, like the rest of the world does — oil. It buys a lot from the Arabian side of the Gulf and a lot from the Persian side. And China does not care much whether or not protest and rebellion in Syria succeed, notwithstanding that a toppling of the Syrian regime could be another bad example that Chinese citizens might (but probably wouldn’t) be influenced by.
Two days ago China sent its vice foreign minister to Damascus for talks with the Syrian government. The Chinese diplomat reiterated: “China does not approve of the use of force to interfere in Syria or the forceful pushing of a so-called regime change.” But he said China would try to “play a positive role” in seeking a solution to the Syrian conflict. Let’s see if anything comes of that.