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China’s UN Veto on Syria May Not Hurt Ties With Gulf Oil Nations

China’s UN Veto on Syria May Not Hurt Ties With Gulf Oil Nat
Syrian pro-government protesters wave Syrian and Russian flags as a convoy carrying Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov heads towards the presidential palace in Damascus, Syria. Photographer: Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images

China’s decision to join Russia in blocking United Nations action on Syria may carry little risk of economic reprisals from Persian Gulf states, the major oil suppliers that pushed to condemn the Assad regime.

“There won’t be an economic cost to China” for using its veto on Syria, Gal Luft, executive director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security in Washington, which studies the links between energy and security, said by e-mail. “Some Gulf states may cringe at China’s callousness on Syria, but at the same time those regimes are relieved by China’s adherence to its non-interventionist approach. After all, they’re hardly paragons of democracy.”

Saudi Arabia, China’s largest oil supplier, last year sent troops in to crush a revolt in neighboring Bahrain. China imported 4.75 million metric tons of crude from Saudi Arabia in December, or 22 percent of its total imports of 21.92 million tons that month, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Another Gulf state, Qatar, which armed Libyan rebels against Muammar Qaddafi, signed an agreement with China last month to build a refinery for the world’s top oil consumer.

Oil for March delivery increased $1.50 a barrel, or 1.55 percent, yesterday to settle at $98.41 on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin explained China’s veto to reporters Feb. 6 in Beijing, saying that “China is not playing favorites and nor is it deliberately opposing anyone, but rather is upholding an objective and fair stance and a responsible position.”

China’s Stake

Unlike Russia, which has military interests to protect in Syria, China is far more invested in its economic relationship with such oil-producing Arab nations that have turned against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and imposed economic sanctions on his country.

Those ties tempted Beijing to abstain in a Feb. 4 vote to support an Arab League call for Assad to hand power to a deputy within two months, according to UN diplomats who took part in council negotiations and who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly.

“We were surprised by the Chinese veto, particularly as they did not express any particular concerns about the text over several days of negotiations,” U.K. Mark Lyall Grant told reporters on Feb. 4 after the resolution collapsed. “So we thought that they were able to accept” the final text.

In the build-up to the vote in the packed chamber, Chinese envoy Li Baodong was caught by cameras encircled by about five Arab ambassadors trying to convince him to remain neutral. The last-minute lobbying was in vain when Li took a phone call from Beijing with final instructions on how to vote, according to UN diplomats inside the chamber who were informed on the matter.

Voting in Tandem

A spokesman for the Chinese mission to the UN declined to comment on whether China had contemplated abstaining. Citing his government’s policy, he requested anonymity.

Russia and China -- permanent members of the Security Council along with the U.S., U.K. and France -- typically vote the same way and support each other’s causes. Both cast a veto in 2007 for a resolution calling for an end to human rights abuses in Burma, which falls under China’s sphere of influence.

China has used Russian support for tempering sanctions enforcement on North Korea, according George Lopez, a former UN sanctions investigator who is a professor at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

“They repay the favor in discussions or future votes about Iran,” which hasn’t been resurrected at the UN since a fourth round of sanctions in 2010, he said by e-mail. “They share an interest in clipping the wings of what they now consider a Western-influenced and overly active Security Council.”

Russia’s Syria Ties

Faced with leaving Russia to veto alone or alienating Gulf states with which it does business, China rallied behind its top ally in the Security Council. Russia sells Syria weapons and has its only military base outside the former Soviet Union, a naval maintenance and supply center, in the Syrian port of Tartus on the Mediterranean Sea.

Since China has never cast a solo veto in the 15-member council, it will be the Russians, who led on blocking the Syria resolution, that will face the brunt any economic ramifications from Gulf states, Lopez said.

Russia remains a “friend of the Arab world” even though its veto on a council resolution has been misunderstood by some Arab countries, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said today.

Churkin, speaking to reporters in New York, said he had a saying for “those in the Arab world that may be upset about our positions” on Syria: “Don’t spit in a well; you may well need it for a drink of water.”

Mutual Interest

China’s relations with the Gulf region are based on mutual interest, according to Tim Niblock, a professor of Arab Gulf Studies at the U.K.’s University of Exeter. Its emphasis on respect for national sovereignty is well regarded by most of the Gulf governments, regardless of how they think they might want to deal with the Syria problem, he said.

“I would very much doubt that China’s economic interests would be greatly affected,” he said in response to e-mailed questions. “Nor would it come as a surprise to them, as the Chinese government has been very straightforward about where it stands on this over recent weeks and months.”

China maintains diversity of oil suppliers, including nations such as Angola and Iran, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Not relying excessively on any one country serves China’s security and strategic interests, according to Dean Cheng, a research fellow at the Asian Studies Center of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington policy institute.

“As for the veto, as long China is willing to pay market rates for Gulf crude, relations will decline only so far with the Gulf,” he said by e-mail. China is “very reluctant to see further toppling of dictators, which essentially increases instability and unpredictability.”

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