China: An Eminently Respectable Stand
Frank Ching (Commentator based in Hong Kong)
In recent months China has voted with the US to condemn North Korea and Iran for their nuclear programmes. Last week, Beijing joined Russia to veto a UN Security Council resolution proposed by Washington and London that demanded an end to political repression and human rights violations in Myanmar.
"The Myanmar issue is an internal matter of a sovereign state," said China's ambassador to the UN Wang Guangya. "China believes there's no need for the UN Security Council to get involved."
The vote was reminiscent of the cold war situation. However, in this case the issue is far from clear, as can be seen by Security Council voting. In addition to the US and Britain, France, Slovakia, Peru, Ghana, Belgium, Italy and Panama supported the resolution. South Africa also opposed the resolution and three countries - Indonesia, the Republic of Congo and Qatar - abstained.
Indonesia's position was particularly significant since it is one of the most important countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a body that also includes Myanmar. The Indonesian UN ambassador, Rezlan Jenie, said the issue was "not a proper subject of a Security Council resolution".
The Myanmar resolution sheds light on Beijing's criteria as to what constitutes an internal issue, and when it is proper for the international community to intervene. Why, for example, did China vote against North Korea and Iran but refuse to take action against Myanmar?
In the North Korean and Iranian cases, China voted with other Security Council members on the grounds that world and regional peace and stability were involved and there was a need to safeguard the nuclear non-proliferation mechanism.
But in the case of Myanmar, Beijing's position is that there is no threat to regional security. Presumably, if there was an exodus of refugees from Myanmar into neighbouring countries, the situation would be different.
The US-sponsored resolution expressed "grave concern that the overall situation in Myanmar has deteriorated and poses serious risks to peace and security in the region". However, this position is difficult to sustain, as it is not endorsed by Myanmar's neighbours. Asean, which has just held its annual summit in Cebu, urged Myanmar to keep its promise to implement democracy but declined to adopt sanctions.
Similarly, the Non-Aligned Movement, which consists of more than 110 countries, holds that Myanmar does not constitute a threat to international peace and security, and opposes any Security Council action.
This is not to say that Asean, or the Non-Aligned Movement, approves of Myanmar's rulers. In fact, quite a few countries have publicly urged Myanmar to move towards democracy and respect for human rights.
South African ambassador Dumisani Kumalo, for example, said the Myanmar issue should be handled by the UN's Human Rights Council, not the Security Council.
If adopted, he said, the US resolution would "compromise the good offices of the secretary-general", particularly the mediation efforts led by UN Undersecretary-General Ibrahim Gambari.
Other countries have taken a similar position. On this issue, therefore, China is far from isolated.
It is rare for a resolution to be jointly vetoed by Russia and China. In fact, this is the first such double veto since the disintegration of the Soviet Union 16 years ago.
In the past, Beijing had used its position on the Security Council to punish countries that had diplomatic relations with Taiwan. In this instance, however, Beijing's position is eminently respectable. No matter what one feels about Myanmar and its regime, there is little indication that there is a threat to regional peace and security.
Having taken this position, however, it would be difficult for China to oppose a resolution critical of Myanmar in the Human Rights Council.
(Originally appeared in the January 17, 2007 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, reproduced here with permission.)