Written by Yitzhak Shichor.

Having been excluded from the UN for over two decades, Mao’s China often condemned the UN as an evil organisation under whose auspices the United States, the Soviet Union and other member-states initiated intervention, intimidation and committed aggression against many countries, first and foremost China. In October 1971 China was admitted to the UN as one of the permanent members of the Security Council, but for ten years at least, Beijing continued to be suspicious about the UN and occasionally behaved as if it was still an outsider. In fact, until the early 1990s Beijing still regarded the UN as being manipulated by the two superpowers in order to promote their own interests. China’s image as a “silent partner” which avoids active involvement in the UN based on its “non-intervention” principle still survives among leaders, academics and the media who urge Beijing to become a “responsible stakeholder” and contribute its due share in settling international and regional conflicts. However, in reality Beijing’s UN policy is much more complex, flexible and sophisticated than is commonly assumed. Beijing has always intervened, and still does, yet in subtle, indirect and hidden ways.

To be sure, Beijing prefers that regional conflicts should be settled by the parties directly concerned. If they fail then the next option is that regional or professional organisations (e.g. the African Union, the Arab League or the International Atomic Energy Agency) should help facilitate a settlement. Only if these organisations fail the Chinese, by default, turn to the UN as a third – and last – option. Nonetheless, the Chinese have occasionally affected the Middle East situation – as well as their own – by casting their votes, one way or another, especially at the UN Security Council.

China’s modified UN policy emerged in August 1990 following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Initially, the Chinese preferred a peaceful settlement by the parties concerned, or through the Arab League. Soon however, Beijing perceived an opportunity to repair its tarnished image after the Tiananmen Square repression, to revoke some of the sanctions imposed on China, to force Washington to depend on the Chinese vote and, most significant, to step into the shoes of a great power. At last, after twenty years as a member of the UN and the Security Council, Beijing had a chance to play a crucial role in world affairs. China could not vote for the use of force against Iraq (Resolution 678, 29 November 1990) because it contradicted its principles, nor vote against it, which would undermine relations with the US. The optimal option Beijing chose was to abstain. Yet, unlike Beijing’s past UN abstentions, this one was proactive since it facilitated the allied offensive against Iraq. This was a typical ‘vote with Chinese characteristics’. Over twenty years later, China has avoided any UN resolution authorising the use of force against another country, and it is unlikely that they will in the future either by abstaining let alone by endorsing.

While the Chinese would never vote for the use of force, they have begun to vote, reluctantly and selectively, for sanctions. Thus, they voted for all eleven earlier UN Security Council resolutions against Iraq such as No. 661 (regarding military and economic sanctions), 665 (naval blockade) and 670 (air blockade). This precedent that was later repeated in the cases of Libya and Iran, but not in the case of Syria. Still, Beijing’s ‘intervention’ in the first Gulf War should be interpreted not in regional but in international terms. It had been motivated less by the conflict in the Middle East and more by Beijing’s expected gains – and it worked. Shortly afterwards, Sino-US political and economic relations resumed and Deng Xiaoping said that the abstention ‘showed the whole world that China has a decisive say in solving major disputes in the world. Our foreign policy is firm and principled’.

Also contrary to conventional wisdom, Beijing supported at least seven UN Security Council resolutions imposing a variety of sanctions on Iran from 2006 to 2011 (Resolutions 1696, 1737, 1747, 1803, 1835, 1929 and 1984). While some of these resolutions had been diluted as a result of Chinese pressure, others imposed an arms embargo and called Iran to suspend all nuclear enrichment and reprocessing activities. It is true that Beijing tried to slow down and delay these resolutions but by no means could it be regarded as indifferent or inactive. Though China abstained on most UN Security Council resolutions imposing a variety of sanctions on Sudan, it still voted (along with the US) for resolution 2035 (17 February 2012), which imposed sanctions on individuals and entities blamed for “impeding peace in Sudan”, as well as 2046 (2 May 2012) that threatened to use sanctions against Sudan.

In addition Beijing, which initially rejected the use of UN peacekeeping forces, decided to become involved. In 1988 China voted for all UN resolutions concerning peacekeeping operations – for the first time. In 1990 five PLA observers joined the UN Truce Supervision Organisation (UNTSO) to monitor the Israel-Syria agreements. From April 1991 to October 2003 Beijing sent 12 officers to UNIKOM (United Nations Iraq-Kuwait Observation Mission). As of the end of October 2014 China has 218 peacekeepers attached to UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) and four to UNTSO. Another 233 are deployed with UNAMID     (UN-African Union Hybrid Operations in Darfur) and 353 with UNMISS (UN Mission in the Republic of Southern Sudan). Of China’s total 2,183 peacekeepers, only 222 are in the Middle East proper (10.2 per cent).

Sudan again provides an example. On 24 March 2005, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution authorising the dispatch of peacekeeping forces. Based on an agreement between the parties, the PRC was quick to comply and two months later sent its first mission of peacekeepers to Sudan. Like those that followed, it included engineer, transportation, and medical troops – but no fighters. Similarly, though China voted for the UN Security Council 16 May 2006 resolution which appropriated the Darfur peacekeeping mission from the African Union, it still underlined that the agreement and cooperation of the Sudanese Government must be obtained. Furthermore: ‘That is a basic principle and precondition for the deployment of all peacekeeping operations’. If this principle is not respected, China would – and did – abstain. Beijing also endorsed sanctions on Libya (Resolution 1970, 26 February 2011) although it could have blocked the US-inspired resolutions by casting a veto – but did not.

In fact, China has not only been active in UN Security Council but also sided with the US on most resolutions. Of over 500 resolutions on the greater Middle East – including Iran, Cyprus, Turkey, Sudan and North Africa – adopted by the UN Security Council since its admission, China voted for some 430 resolutions (84 per cent), along the US; abstained on 26 (5 per cent) and was absent from 56 votes (11 per cent), for the last time on 23 November 1981. China has been extremely selective in using its veto. Beijing’s Syria veto, however, was an exception.

Since its admission to the UN more than 43 years ago, Beijing used its veto power only eight times, of which three dealt with the Middle East, all with Russia and related to Syria (4 October 2011; 4 February 2012; and 19 July 2012). This was a reaction to the “Libyan deception” when Beijing (and Moscow) agreed to withhold their veto power after having been informed that the UN Security Council “no flight zone” resolution was aimed at blocking Qadhafi’s use of his Air Force against civilians. Only later did Beijing (and Moscow) find out that the real intention had been to remove him. China’s Syria veto, therefore, was meant not only to block the UN Security Council-sponsored intervention in Syria but, furthermore, a unilateral intervention outside the UN Security Council aimed at removing Assad, which could have triggered a Middle Eastern war with far reaching consequences to all parties concerned, including China. It was also a loud and clear Chinese message to the US to stop interfering in the internal affairs of other countries. While there is little the Chinese can do once action is taken outside the UN, they can play a significant role within the UN.

Yitzhak Shichor is Professor Emeritus of Asian Studies and Political Science, at the Hebrew University and the University of Haifa. Image credit: CC by Nichols Raymond/Flickr.