Global South solidarity? China, regional organisations and intervention in the Libyan and Syrian civil wars - By CWP Alumni Courtney J. Fung

Wednesday, Oct 11, 2017
by dsuchens

Why was China responsive to regional organisations’ call for intervention in the case of the Libya crisis, where it supported sanctions and an International Criminal Court referral, and acquiesced to a no-fly zone, but unresponsive to pressure from regional organisations for intervention in the Syria crisis, issuing repeated vetoes instead? Using interviews and other primary data, this article explains the variation by highlighting that China is most responsive to regional organisations when these groups remain cohesive, congregate around the same policy position and when they publicly criticise or isolate China.


Why was China responsive to regional organisations’ call for intervention in the case of the 2011 Libya crisis, where it supported sanctions and an International Criminal Court (ICC) referral, and acquiesced to a no-fly zone, but immune to pressure from these bodies for intervention in the Syria crisis, issuing repeated vetoes instead? Both cases share a similar time frame, are in the same geographic region and were outgrowths of the Arab Spring. All the other permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC) held the same positions in both cases regarding potential interventions: Russia was highly sceptical; conversely, the ‘P3’ powers at the UNSC – the USA, UK and France – advocated intervention. In both cases, China had material concerns on the line.

After all, China emphasises the relevance of regional organisations for the smooth functioning of international affairs, as these fellow representatives of the Global South ‘have the primary right to speak on the issues that directly concern them’.11. Lee et al., “China’s RealpolitikEngagement,” 110.View all notes China’s affinity to regional organisations is thought to be so strong that, if a regional organisation signals its support for a particular policy initiative, it is assumed that China will adopt the same policy. In trying to predict China’s actions at the UNSC on matters of intervention (ie the use of force to violate a state’s sovereignty),22. This article focuses on interventions under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which do not require state consent.View all notes these regional bodies are seen as bellwethers for China’s position.33. Wuthnow, Beyond the Veto; Lee et al., “China’s Realpolitik Engagement”; Lee et al., “China in Darfur”; Odgaard, China and Coexistence; and Sohn, “After Renaissance.”View all notes

Although China’s position on intervention may be shaped by strategic parameters, such as the potential risks involved, national interests and its deep-rooted concern about intervention44. Liu and Zhang, “Debates in China.”View all notes – pinpointing how regional organisations can be an intervening variable during the process of decision making brings conceptual clarity, especially when based on three empirical observations. First, China is inconsistent in its responsiveness to regional groups, sometimes taking actions that support, and at other times opposing, regional groupings. Second, there has been a qualitative change in how regional organisations interact with the UNSC. Previously, China would only have to deal with one regional organisation as its focal point (eg the response to the 2007 Darfur crisis was led by the African Union (AU); to the 2007 Burma crisis by the Association of South East Asian States (ASEAN) and to the 2008 Zimbabwe crisis by the South African Development Community (SADC)). However, in most recent cases there is often more than one regional body involved in a crisis, with the League of Arab States (LAS), the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) involved in both the Libya and Syria affairs, for example. Moreover, regional organisations may take a variety of positions on a particular issue; therefore China has to contend with competing prescriptions from these groups. Third, regional bodies are showing a trend of less resistance to intervention. This is important, since these actors are traditionally seen as part of the same cohort, sharing China’s intervention-hesitant position. Therefore explaining China’s variation in responsiveness to regional arrangements in the opening phases of the Libyan and Syrian crises speaks to a broader question too: under what conditions is China responsive to regional organisations?55. Though beyond the scope of this article, it should not be assumed that China was a passive recipient of regional organisations’ influence. Indeed, in the Syria case, both the P3 and Middle East regional organisations deliberately selected less intrusive language in their draft resolutions in an attempt to satisfy a sceptical China and pass draft resolutions – indicative that this was not simply a one-way transmission of influence.View all notes

If China is responsive to regional organisations’ positions in support of intervention, then we should expect that it will modify its position to be the same as that of the regional organisation in question. China will reference the regional organisation and it will use the same language as the regional organisation in its explanation of its position. This article finds that regional players matter most to Beijing when regional groups are cohesive actors, when a number of them congregate around the same policy position and when they can isolate an unresponsive China.

The analysis contributes to our understanding of the interaction between regional organisations and China on matters of global governance. With a role for regional arrangements enshrined in Chapter VIII of the UN Charter, and as complementary organs to the UNSC in the upkeep of international peace and security, regional organisations – defined as ‘a regional grouping of states, typically with legal personality and organisational structure, which claims a degree of responsibility for regional peace and security’66. Glanville, “Intervention in Libya,” note 14; and Tavares, Regional Security.View all notes – are increasingly viewed as important actors for the smooth functioning of international politics. Regional arrangements are now addressing anti-militancy, climate change and cyber security, for example,77. “Boko Haram Crisis”; Letchumanan, Is there an ASEAN Policy?; and Organization of American States, “Cyber Security Program.”View all notes extending their writ beyond regional development, humanitarian operations and civil society building. On the vexed issues of intervention regional organisations are seen as offering an insurance mechanism for the international community in the face of potential interventionist activities. This is because regional arrangements are increasingly ‘gatekeepers’ for UNSC action: if regional organisations support a particular policy action, then the UNSC is more likely to follow suit.88. Bellamy and Williams, “The New Politics of Protection?”View all notes This correlation is indicative of the growing ‘regionalization of UNSC security management’.99. Odgaard, “Peaceful Coexistence Strategy,” 251.View all notes However, exactly how the working relationship between regional arrangements and the UNSC operates remains an under-examined issue. The process of global diplomacy does not happen on an abstract level, but within the specific contexts of the institutions and issues at hand. How regional organisations can help frame matters on the UNSC agenda or even modify China’s interpretation of its strategic concerns in a particular case sheds light on the actual functioning of international politics. This analysis aims to contribute to a broader understanding of how regional players and China navigate their relationships at the UNSC.

Finally, examining China’s approach to the Libyan and Syrian civil wars speaks to the debate on what type of global security provider China will be,1010. For opposing views, see Medcalf, “Unselfish Giants?”; Richardson, “A Responsible Power?”; and Deng, “China.”View all notes which is a question left largely ignored in the rise-of-China discourse.1111. Florini, “Rising Asian Powers.”View all notes Through its permanent seat at the UNSC, China holds formal authorities to steer the Council’s activity,1212. Hurd, “Legitimacy.”View all notes and in a last resort, to use veto votes to halt all UNSC activity – a practice that until recently it has been reluctant to use. Since assuming its seat at the UNSC in 1971, China has cast only 10 vetoes – four of which were to prevent intervention in the Syrian civil war.1313. The vetoes were as follows: in 1972, to block the admission of Bangladesh into the United Nations; in 1973, to veto a resolution on the Yom Kippur War; in 1997, to block a peacekeeping mission in Guatemala; in 1999, to block an extension of a peacekeeping mission into Macedonia; in 2007, to block a critique of Burma’s human rights record; in 2008, to block sanctions on Zimbabwe; and four times since 2011, to prevent intervention in the Syrian crisis.View all notes Despite mutual emphasis on ‘win-win’ opportunities for the Global South, via such platforms as the G77+China, the country’s recent opposition to developing world regional players implies that there is more to examine here.1414. “China urges Efforts.”View all notes The article concludes with reflections on two queries: are all regional organisations of equal importance to China? And what do these findings mean for understanding China’s evolving relationship at the UNSC with regional organisations and, by extension, the Global South? The article first outlines the current research on China and regional organisations, before turning to a brief summary of the methodology, and an analysis of each case and the findings.

Regional organisations and China

On matters of intervention China continues to view itself as a member of the Global South – symbolised by its membership in the G77+China and observer position in the Non-Aligned Movement, for example. The ‘Global South’ is not a fixed, homogeneous entity; rather it is a term that captures states with differing economic and political systems, drawn together by their experiences of a power disparity with the global elite.1515. Najam, “International Environmental Negotiation.”View all notes The cornerstone of China’s relationship with the Global South is an emphasis on the respect for sovereignty,1616. Dittmer, “China and the Developing World”; and Miller, Wronged by Empire.View all notes and, indeed, China pays special attention to regional organisations, often representatives of this Global South membership. Therefore China is a vocal supporter of UNSC actions that have host-state consent, and has a preference not to support more robust interventions.1717. Richardson, “A Responsible Power?”View all notes While China’s stance on sovereignty is carefully applied in practice, and its erosion of an absolutist commitment is well documented,1818. Liu, “China and Responsibility to Protect”; and Teitt, “The Responsibility to Protect.”View all notes even with China’s rising economic might its self-identification with the Global South is yet to waiver.1919. Dittmer, “China and the Developing World.”View all notes

Therefore, out of all the permanent members of the UNSC, China is noted to have a particular concern with the positions of regional organisations, in a logical extension of Beijing’s ‘state-centric approach to global governance’,2020. Lee et al., “China’s RealpolitikEngagement,” 110.View all notes which emphasises states, regional organisations and the United Nations as the units of international affairs. In an example of this, the first time China initiated a thematic debate during its UNSC presidency, it focused on how regional organisations could promote multilateralism and boost international security through closer cooperation and coordination with the UN.2121. Zhi, “Security Council.”View all notes

Regional organisations are regarded as the heart of China’s political, military and economic outreach strategies,2222. Odgaard, China and Coexistence; and Sohn, “After Renaissance.”View all notes and, in the event of humanitarian crises, China notes that ‘the opinions of the country and the regional organisation concerned should be respected’.2323. Foreign Ministry of the People’s Republic of China, Position Paper.View all notes In the case of intervention in Darfur in 2007 China consistently held that the positions of regional organisations should be key when applying coercive measures against Sudan, noting that the AU was more cautious about intervention against that country.2424. Fung, “Trying to be a Friend.”View all notes Again, in the case of the potential UNSC rebuke against Burma for massive human rights violations in 2007, China justified its veto by noting that ASEAN did not see Burma’s internal affairs as a threat to international peace and security.2525. United Nations, S/PV.5619, 6.View all notes Lastly, in the case of intervention in Zimbabwe following worsening violence after elections in 2008, China explained its veto by emphasising the need for ‘great attention and full respect’ to be offered to AU/SADC-led efforts.2626. United Nations, S/PV.5933, 12–13.View all notes

The common thread in these cases is the Chinese anti-intervention position in reference to regional organisations’ stance against UNSC intervention. Nevertheless, most recently regional organisations have been regarded as stimulating change in China’s position on intervention. For example, despite China’s initial scepticism about Chapter VII enforcement measures under the auspices of the responsibility to protect, it eventually relented under the condition that regional organisations offered input to the UNSC:

we are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council, in accordance with the Charter, including Chapter VII, on a case-by-case basis and in cooperation with relevant regional organisations as appropriate.2727. United Nations, A/60/L.1, para 139.View all notes

Indeed, regional organisations, like the LAS, played an ‘absolutely crucial’ role in China’s voting patterns regarding intervention on Libya.2828. Evans, “Interview.”View all notes

Therefore, in order to answer how and under what conditions regional organisations may affect China’s position on intervention, I use a controlled comparison of the 2011 Libya crisis and the 2012 Syria crisis (Table 1). These two cases show variance on the dependent variable of China’s responsiveness to regional organisations’ position on intervention. In the former case China responded to regional organisations’ requests for intervention with sanctions and an ICC referral, and acquiesced to a no-fly zone against Tripoli; in the latter case, China’s immunity to pressure from these bodies for intervention against Damascus was underscored by vetoes. Both cases share a similar time frame, are in the same geographic region and were outgrowths of the Arab Spring. Further, these two cases are similar across factors that shape China’s response to intervention:2929. Wuthnow, Beyond the Veto; and Liu and Zhang, “Debates in China.”View all notes it had strategic interests at stake;3030. By 2010 China was importing 11% of Libyan oil exports, and Chinese firms were operating in the oil, transportation, irrigation, construction, and network development sectors, worth $20 billion in total. Pierson, “Libyan Strife”; and Sotloff, “China’s Libya Problem.” By 2010 China was Syria’s third-largest importer. Chinese firms were heavily involved in the electricity, transport and telecommunications sectors. Lin, “Syria.”View all notes its permanent UNSC counterparts were subject to the same divisions – Russia was highly sceptical, while the ‘P3’ advocated action – and China itself started from a conservative baseline against mounting pressure for intervention into these states’ domestic affairs.


Keywords: egional organisationsinterventionLibyaSyriaChinaUnited NationsArab Spring






Global South solidarity? China, regional organisations and intervention in the Libyan and Syrian civil wars

Courtney J. Fung

Pages 33-50 | Received 09 Feb 2015, Accepted 28 Jul 2015, Published online: 23 Sep 2015