Will veto put Beijing on wrong side of history?
The totality of evil of the Syrian government is now on display for the world to see. And so the blame game has begun. The obvious target of global wrath is President Bashar al-Assad. But not far behind on the international hate-and-blame list are Russia and China. They blocked UN Security Council action against Damascus by refusing to vote for resolutions that called for major changes. But about the use of the so-called veto, two things must be said.
The first is that Russia and China come at the issue from different perspectives. Moscow works from strictly defined national interest. By contrast, Beijing approaches the issue from a broader perspective of geopolitical philosophy; its overall foreign policy is grounded in the long-held principle of non-interference in the affairs of other states. The contrasting principle would be the 'policeman of the world' approach that the US has been accused of taking.
The Russian view reeks of pure craven power politics. But the Chinese view is rooted in more complex thought and experience. That includes a tortured history of invasion by foreign powers.
That view also derives from the Treaty of Westphalia, which in 1648 ushered in the era of sovereign nations. From the Chinese perspective, therefore, nothing that has been happening inside Syria should be said to be axiomatically a candidate for international intervention.
This leads to the second point. In the age of all-seeing and easily transmitted digital technology, the shortcomings of the Westphalian nation-state political philosophy are more evident than ever.
This world reality has been recognised by the UN, which has offered itself as one way out of the no-exit nation-state box. Kofi Annan, the previous secretary general, deserves credit for having insisted on the new global doctrine - 'the responsibility to protect' - in the wake of the humanitarian disasters of Rwanda, Somalia, Srebrenica and Kosovo. The theory here is that the international community must exercise 'the right to humanitarian intervention' when nation-states are pulverising their own people.
And so, notwithstanding the structural impediment of the veto, the UN has been carving out an internationalist role for itself.
Current UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon believes that 'a natural evolution of history' will make the 'see no evil, hear no evil' Westphalian approach outdated. If so, then Beijing might be viewed as being on the wrong side of history. But, at least, the Chinese tendency is rooted in something other than narrow national interest. This contrasts with the Russian view, which is Westphalian at its worst.
Tom Plate, the Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Affairs at Loyola Marymount University, is author of the Giants of Asia series