China decided to cast its veto over the Syria question at the UN Security Council. The American ambassador, Susan Rice, was so outraged that she used the undiplomatic expression of 'disgusted' to criticise the veto by both Beijing and Moscow. Such a condescending tone has triggered widespread anger in China. Chinese bloggers, it is said, are 'utterly disgusted' by Rice's language.
It is clear Rice was genuinely upset by this vote, for she has been a spiritual guru behind the Obama administration's ideology of a universalist foreign policy, especially after its earlier successes in peddling universalist concepts to the world, including a hardly deserving Nobel Peace Prize for a president who had not yet done anything. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, however, chose a more moderate expression - 'travesty' - to depict this vote, as Rice continues to insist in the American media that China and Russia will 'regret' their action.
Hardly. First, why did China cast a veto at the United Nations? The real reason is that it feels betrayed by the West over Libya. The official explanation from Beijing is the need to defend the fundamental principles of the UN itself. This is not entirely incorrect. Ever since the founding of the UN, we have yet to see the passage of a resolution demanding that a head of state 'must go', as was proposed in the case of Syria. Although the US and European leaders claim this does not mean 'regime change', what does it mean other than that?
China, like Russia, learned a hard lesson over the Libya resolution last year: their abstentions provided a green light for unrestricted military and covert operations that eventually led to the change of the Libyan regime. Also, it seemed suspicious that the West wanted to ram through the draft resolution at the Security Council before further consultation.
Moreover, the Chinese veto is not designed, as many commentators in the West claim, to revive the old Sino-Russian alliance during the cold war, but is an effort to defend the UN system that was initially designed by the US and other leading victorious powers after the second world war. It is true that China is conservative in dealing with the issue of reforming the UN principles, but only because Beijing correctly perceives a hidden agenda in the draft resolution over Syria - to set a precedent of international justification for future military operations under the name of humanitarian intervention.
Thus, what the Western powers consider to be a 'negative attitude' towards 'universal human rights' (in Rice's language) is viewed by Beijing as a 'noble negative' action: defending the status quo of the existing UN system and the rules of the game is essential when Western powers are casting away the current system for the obvious purpose of preventing and delaying the decline of the West.
What the West is saying doesn't seem to be matched by what it is doing. As an English saying goes: 'When I see a bird that walks like a duck and swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, I call that bird a duck'. But the West, however, categorically refuses to admit that its policy in the Middle East amounts to 'regime change'. As a result, neither China nor Russia sees any benefit in continuing to accommodate the hypocrisy of the West.
Beijing is even more frustrated by the US, which has launched a quasi cold war in Asia, with a well-designed project of military and diplomatic encirclement around China. But Washington has also refused to call this a strategy of 'containment', even though every aspect of it harks back to the original cold war. In fact, the West prefers to promote regime change through the UN system, whenever possible, in countries that have adopted different political systems. But by deliberately avoiding the expression of 'regime change', Western leaders become increasingly less convincing in hiding their real intentions.
Through active use of its veto power, China has finally stepped out of the shadow of Deng Xiaoping's 'low profile' international diplomacy. For a long time, China has been known as a 'giant power of abstention'; it avoided direct confrontation with the West over many sensitive issues through a vote of abstention. But, in the past few years, it has begun to understand the importance of taking a clear-cut position, especially because the West continues to exercise a linguistic hegemony on the world stage over critical issues of governance.
President Hu Jintao pointed out recently that, in international affairs, the West has remained stronger than China in terms of monopolising the language and conceptual frameworks. To change this disadvantageous position, China must become more assertive in expressing itself. Even though such assertiveness does not always yield positive results, as in the case of the South China Sea, the Chinese must fully utilise the UN and other international organisations to gain more experience in great-power diplomacy.
The veto action at the Security Council thus heralds the coming of age of China as a leading player in great-power politics. After all, China has already been pushed onto the central stage of world politics in recent years. To become a responsible player in the transformation of the current international system, China must start making its intentions and its stand clear.
With the decline of the West, the power of interpretation would shift towards the East. It is not even obvious that the Arab spring will end up boosting the Western ideological power of dominance. At this critical time of a global power shift, there is little doubt that the world will benefit a great deal from any alternative view on global governance to the one hitherto dominated by the West.
Lanxin Xiang is professor of international history and politics at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva