Much has been made of the joint Russian-Chinese UN veto to protect Assad, and now Minxin Pei has given the clearest explanation yet for why China would make that vote despite the consequences for its relationship with the US, EU, and Arab League:
In fact, the most important factor in China’s decision had little to do with Beijing-Damascus ties, and everything to do with its diplomatic cooperation with Moscow.
Since it returned to the United Nations in 1971, China has been sparing in its use of the veto in the Security Council. It often chose to abstain in votes it did not support. Whenever it did use its veto — it has done so eight times — the issues were usually of importance to Chinese national interests.
In the eyes of the pragmatic Chinese, the Assad regime is not worth a veto. But the Russians, motivated by their economic and security interests in Syria, opposed the resolution, and China apparently decided it was better not to jeopardize relations with the Russians and risk losing Russian support when Beijing might need it in the future.
The Russia-China axis of obstruction at the Security Council has now become a critical variable in the council’s decision-making process. The two countries seem to have reached a strategic understanding: they will act defy the West together, so that neither might look isolated. China will defer to Russia on matters more critical to Moscow (such as Syria) while Russia will do the same on issues China cares about (such as Zimbabwe or Burma).
Another factor that apparently tipped the scale in Beijing in favor of using the veto is the Chinese Communist Party’s ideological hostility to democratic transitions.
Ever since the Arab Spring brought down long-ruling dictatorships in the Middle East, the party’s propaganda machine has spared no effort in portraying the events in the region in the most negative light. Fearing a similar upheaval in China, the party has tightened its censorship and intensified persecution of dissidents. The overthrow of the Assad regime, especially should it happen as a result of Security Council action, would inspire the pro-democracy opposition — in Beijing and in Moscow.