Chinese Attitudes to International Law: China, the Security Council, Sovereignty, and Intervention
China vetoing a February 2012 UN Security Council resolution.
China’s engagement with the UN Security Council has received close attention since its veto of UN action in Syria in February 2012. Some commentators have argued that this veto signals the beginning of a more aggressive and independent China, and that it is an indication of its resilience to Western and foreign pressure. However, this note argues that the significance of China’s resistance to UN action should not be overstated.
The proposed intervention in Syria, like in Libya, was justified in legal terms on the basis of the doctrine of the “responsibility to protect” (R2P). Since the genesis of this doctrine at the turn of the century, China has tried to improve its international reputation as a responsible power by endorsing or at least tolerating the notion of intervention based on R2P. However, China was unable to constrain the development R2P. The concept of R2P came to undermine the key pillars of China’s foreign policy, and ultimately led China to veto UN action on Syria.
China’s position on Syria provides a current and topical example of the tension between China’s efforts to be regarded as responsible global power and its support of its traditional foreign policy norms of non-intervention and sovereignty. As outlined in the note below, every foreign policy decision – from China’s relationship with rogue regimes to its position on UN peacekeeping – requires China to balance these interests. While the Syria situation brought China’s foreign policy into the spotlight, assuming China can stall the development of R2P, it will be eager to return to a more low-profile foreign policy and a strategy of abstention on Security Council resolutions.
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