Since its admission to the United Nations, Beijing has used its prerogative as a permanent member of the Security Council (UNSC) to cast a negative vote—a veto—only twice. The first was on August 25, 1972 (Meeting 1660), less than a year after its admission, on Draft Resolution S/10771 concerning the admission of Bangladesh as a new UN member. China’s second veto was on February 25, 1999 (Meeting 3982), on Draft Resolution S/1999/201 concerning the extension of the UN Preventive Deployment Force (UNPREDEP) in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Beijing’s reluctance to use its veto power is further highlighted when juxtaposed with the behavior of the other permanent members of the UNSC. From December 1971 (after the PRC had been admitted) to August 2006, the United States has cast a negative vote (veto) 76 times; the United Kingdom 24 times; France 14 times; and the Soviet Union (and later the Russian Federation) 13 times. China had cast another negative vote on September 10, 1972 (Meeting 1662) on an amendment to a draft resolution concerning the Middle East question that called on all parties to take all measures for the immediate cessation and prevention of all military operations and terrorist activities that breach the cease-fire. Yet, since the draft resolution itself was vetoed by the United States (S/10784), China did consider its opposition to the amendment as an “ordinary veto” .
Already in the early 1950s, long before joining the UN as a permanent member of the Security Council, China fully approved and supported the veto mechanism as a barrier against what it viewed as unilateral (and later bilateral) manipulation of the Security Council, especially by the United States. One of China’s leading authorities on international law said in 1955 that the veto is “the political foundation of the UN charter” and “the most fundamental canon for safeguarding world peace” . The Chinese believed that the principle of requiring unanimity could prevent one-sided resolutions, particularly on the use of force. Beijing has continued to promote the veto principle—in theory—after its admission to the UN in October 1971. In practice, however, the Chinese have become more pragmatic and have often subjected their principles to their interests. In retrospect, they probably felt uncomfortable when they realized that it was because of their veto—the only one among the permanent Security Council members on Draft Resolution S/10771, and one that represented Pakistan’s interests rather than its own—that Bangladesh was not admitted to the United Nations. This recognition was reflected two years later when Bangladesh was admitted without any Chinese opposition. Since then the Chinese have been reluctant to use their veto power, opting instead for abstention and non-participation in votes. In this way—typical of Beijing’s behavior in the UN as well as reflecting its cultural legacies—the Chinese are able to send a message and yet avoid the necessity of taking sides and alienating allies.
Abstaining as a Strategy
Beijing’s justifications for its occasional abstentions that raised eyebrows at the beginning have been remarkably consistent. They include draft resolutions perceived by Beijing as interfering in the domestic affairs of countries or undermining their sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity. As a rule, the Chinese prefer that conflicts be settled by the parties concerned or, as a last option, by local and regional organizations, without external intervention, including that of the UN or the International Criminal Court. Beijing has been sensitive to the issue of sanctions and the use of force under UN auspices, particularly when its own interests are at stake. Long before Beijing joined the UN, it firmly condemned UN intervention abroad, first and foremost in the Korean Peninsula. Yet, China firmly supported UN sanctions and the use of force against Western colonial and apartheid policies in instances such as the 1956 Suez Crisis, or in the cases of Portugal, South Africa and Southern Rhodesia. Once admitted to the UN and the Security Council, however, Beijing has never voted against the imposition of sanctions or the use of force. Put differently, the Chinese advocated enforcement measures under Chapter VII of the UN Charter only when applied to colonial and apartheid questions. In those cases, Beijing was willing to call for arms embargoes and economic sanctions. Nonetheless, the Chinese have consistently opposed the use of force.
For instance, on December 19, 2000, Beijing abstained on UN Security Council Resolution 1333 (2000) that imposed wide measures against Taliban authorities in Afghanistan and called on them to stop providing sanctuary and training camps for international terrorists and, moreover, to turn over Osama bin Laden nearly one year before September 11 . Beijing’s representative to the UN defended the abstention by saying that China did not favor the easy resort to or the continued use of sanctions. Such instruments, he added, should always be adopted with great caution and prudence. He said that sanctions as a tool of the Security Council were a double-edged sword, since they could harm innocent people and aggravate their plight. As such, sanctions should be adopted or strengthened only when circumstances made them absolutely necessary . To be sure, China did not want to undermine its improving relations with Afghanistan and offend the Taliban by supporting the resolution, nor antagonize the United States and other Western countries by vetoing it.
For similar reasons, China also abstained on two draft resolutions on the withdrawal of Syria’s forces from Lebanon (Resolutions 1559 of September 2, 2004, and 1680 of May 17). Wang Guangya, China’s representative to the UN, said that the problems reflected Lebanon’s internal affairs and thus should be settled by the parties concerned without UN interference. Evidently, the Chinese wanted to avoid taking a stand either way. This is especially obvious in the case of Sudan, where the Chinese have widespread interests. Whenever the issue of Darfur was put on the UN Security Council agenda, China abstained (e.g. Resolutions 1556, 1564, 1591, 1593 and 1672). Most of these resolutions called for the imposition of travel and financial sanctions on Sudan under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. Beijing considers Darfur an internal affair that should be solved by Sudan’s government, assisted by regional organizations such as the African Union. Obviously, China was against the use of sanctions that, it believed, could only complicate matters. “Experience shows that sanctions could not reach the expected results and victimized the civilian population” (Security Council SC/8700, April 25). Yet, for all its interests in Sudan and its opposition to sanctions, Beijing did not veto the proposal.
Perhaps the most relevant example that involved the use of force under UN auspices is Iraq —very much like the Korean Peninsula 40 years earlier. Although Beijing distinguished from the very beginning between Iraq’s aggression and foreign military intervention—opposing both—it voted for all 11 Security Council resolutions on Iraq. These included Resolution 661 (that imposed economic and military sanctions against Iraq), Resolution 665 (that imposed a naval blockade) and Resolution 670 (that imposed an air blockade). Resolution 678 (adopted on November 29, 1990, authorizing the use of force to expel Iraq’s troops from Kuwait), however, was more than Beijing could swallow; Beijing refused to support military intervention, even under UN auspices. At the same time, China did not want to use its veto power to prevent military intervention, an act that would further harm its relations with the United States that were already shattered by the Tiananmen massacre. Consequently, Beijing decided to abstain. A senior UN Western diplomat later disclosed that China’s delegate always attended sessions where the Security Council’s permanent members discussed and drafted the resolutions regarding the Gulf crisis but “was often silent” during the meetings . When he finally voted, however, his vote has reflected the fact that ultimately for Beijing, Washington was far more important than Baghdad. In the short run, China’s abstention had indeed paved the ground for an improvement of its relations with the United States. Yet this would not last for long as Washington soon become concerned with—among other things—China’s “non-conventional” relations with Iran and primarily, its lenience toward Iran’s nuclear plans.
Attitude toward Iran
Contrary to the media’s assertions that China would block UN Security Council resolutions to impose sanctions against Iran—not to mention the use of force—Iran is unlikely to provide an exception to China’s time-honored behavior in the Security Council. Knowing very well that they would not veto such resolutions at the Security Council, from the very beginning the Chinese have preferred to settle this issue outside of the Security Council and preferably by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Yet, Tehran’s intransigence and inflexibility pushed the dispute to the Security Council and forced Beijing to take a stand. Consequently, on July 31, Beijing voted for the UNSC Resolution 1696 that, for the first time, provided for the imposition of sanctions against Iran. It called upon Tehran to suspend “all [nuclear] enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, including research and development” by August 31 “or face the possibility of economic and diplomatic sanctions.” The first of its kind since the Iranian nuclear issue was placed on the Security Council’s agenda, the resolution was adopted by 14 against one (with Qatar voting against it), under Chapter VII (41). While sanctions on Iran are no more than a “possibility” as the resolution only mentions an “intention” to take “appropriate measures” and “underlines that further decisions will be required should such additional measures be necessary,” it has already tied China’s hands, narrowing its freedom to maneuver. Tehran’s refusal to accept the incentive package offered by the UNSC’s permanent members and Germany (P5+1) and to suspend uranium enrichment by the August 31 deadline has removed what little leeway was left for China’s response.
Although the Chinese have insisted from the very beginning that they would not support “the arbitrary use of sanctions” nor “approve the use of force” against Iran, China has never claimed that it would oppose or prevent them from being imposed. Beijing has never promised Iran’s Ahamadinejad—nor Iraq’s Saddam Hussein before him—that it will use its veto power. Tehran is not unaware of Beijing’s false pretenses. Hoseyn Adeli, a former deputy foreign minister, said that Iran should not put too much trust in China and Russia because each country would pursue its own interests. Likewise, a member of Iran’s National Security Council wrote in an article titled “China and Russia Will Sell Us Out” that in spite of the advantages offered by Iran to Beijing and Moscow, the record shows that in the end, both countries would rather align themselves with the Western powers. In fact, the author claims, they are U.S. proxies. A report published by Iran’s Majlis [Parliament] Research Center in April on Sino-Iranian relations also concluded that China does not prefer Iran to the United States: China’s cooperation with Iran would proceed no further than the point that would displease the United States. Another comment warned that if Iran does not comply with the policy of inducement and sanctions, “we will probably see China and Russia joining the West” . Most likely, this may prove to be a self-fulfilling prophecy as it is most unlikely that China would veto a UN Security Council proposal to impose sanctions—or even to use force—on Iran.
1. Samuel S. Kim, China, The United Nations, and World Order (Princeton, 1979), p. 208.
2. Ibid., p. 204.
5. Lillian Craig Harris, China Considers the Middle East (Tauris, 1993), p. 318, n. 4.
6. All citations from “Selection List – Persian Press,” Dialog (NTIS).