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Syrian conflict

China’s UN vote abstention on Syria ‘part of shift towards balanced diplomacy’ in Middle East

Beijing broke ranks with Moscow by not vetoing a Security Council resolution condemning the chemical attack, a move analysts say is part of a wider foreign policy change

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 April, 2017, 11:40pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 April, 2017, 11:46pm

China’s surprise decision to abstain rather than join Russia in vetoing a resolution to condemn the chemical attack in Syria shows Beijing wants to carve out a more independent policy in the Middle East, according to analysts.

It also reflected the goodwill established between Chinese President Xi Jinping and his US counterpart Donald Trump after last week’s summit in Florida, they said.

Russia vetoed the draft resolution at the United Nations on Wednesday because it failed to mention the need for a United Nations’ inspection of the area of the chemical attack, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said. Russia said the UN’s chemical weapons watchdog should carry out an extensive investigation of the site, the Associated Press reported.

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China’s decision to depart from its usual stance of siding with Russia, the chief ally of the Syrian regime, left Moscow the only veto-wielding Security Council member opposed to the US-led proposal. China has joined Russia six out of eight times in blocking UN resolutions against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since 2011.

Trump – who ordered a missile strike against Syria in retaliation for the chemical attack – applauded China’s decision to abstain and said he was “not surprised”.

Trump’s conversations with Xi played a role in China’s decision to abstain, Bloomberg quoted an unidentified senior US administration official as saying.

In an interview with Fox News on Wednesday, Trump recounted the moment he informed Xi about the air strike during dinner on the first night of the summit at his Mar-a-Lago resort, describing the Chinese leader as “OK” with the decision.

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Chinese analysts said Beijing’s abstention reflected its intention to chart a more “neutral” policy in the Middle East, while also maintaining forward momentum in ties with Washington. “China no longer has to tie itself to Russia in its position on Syria affairs,” said Yin Gang, an expert on Middle Eastern affairs at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Wang Lian, a specialist on Middle Eastern politics at Peking University, said the United States was seeking to portray Beijing as moving closer towards its position on Syria, and China – for its part – had used the abstention to show its goodwill and willingness to work with the US on global issues.

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“But China would still want to portray itself as having a neutral stance,” Wang said. “China holds a similar position to the US in opposing the use of chemical weapons, but it remains opposed to using violence in taking out Assad.”

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China remained convinced “political means” should be the only option in solving the situation in Syria.

In a statement explaining the vote, China’s UN ambassador Liu Jieyi said parts of the resolution needed revision, without elaborating, Bloomberg reported.