China’s role in the United Nations Security Council: An International Peacekeeper or a strategic actor?

11 May

China’s original entrance into the United Nations occurred October 24th 1945, with the country joining under the name “Republic of China.” Nearly 4 years later, on October 1st 1949, Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Although China sought to alter its seat in the United Nations to capture the country’s new political foundations, China was not able to able to change their name in the United Nations to the PRC until 25th October 1971. Yet more crucial than China’s name alteration, was the permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council that was awarded to China on this date.

What, then, is the role of the United Nations Security Council, and what are the implications of China’s veto power to the functioning of this chamber? As China holds a permanent seat on the UN Security Council – the branch of the United Nations responsible for maintain international peace and security – it, like the other permanent members of the Council, is able to review and veto UN resolutions when it wishes.

However, as China’s leaders have shown, this device has become not only a “peacekeeping” tool, but effectively another way in which China is able to protect and serve its national interests. China’s manipulation of its role in the UN to suit its interests has occurred in two main ways.

Firstly, China is strongly opposed to state intervention on issues, such as human rights, which fall within the jurisdiction of the state, yet could be seen as “security” issues. As such, the Chinese government strives to keep such issues off the agenda of the UN Security Council, (apart from in extreme cases) which reinforces China’s own non-interventionalist goals.

This non-interventionalist approach was evident when China blocked the UN Security Council from interfering with the contentious domestic affairs of Burma. For Myanmar, the defeated draft resolution would have urged the country’s government to cease military attacks against ethnic minorities and monks who were calling for democracy. Arguably China’s actions reflect its own personal lack of tolerance for democracy demonstrations; epitomized in the Tiananmen Square Massacre in June of 1989. Any legitimisation of United Nations intervention in to these cases could call in to question China’s future ability to halt domestic calls for democracy, whilst resurfacing criticisms surrounding the events of Tiananmen Square

In other cases, China has also used its veto power to maintain strong political and trade relations with countries of strategic interest to China. By blocking UN intervention in to the internal affairs of strategic partners of China, it can continue to remain on good terms with these countries on a bilateral basis. For the U.S China has complicated decision making and intervention in countries including North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Burma, Zimbabwe and Libya, (Wuthnow, 2011) and more recently Syria.

Thus, China’s resistance to United Nations intervention in these states has frequently gravitated on China’s material interests in these “rogue states”, rather than international security concerns. For example in the 2007 UN resolution against the escalating conflicts within Sudan, China stood in opposition against the United States. More recently China has continued to resist UN sanctions against Sudan, and prevent action being taken against Darfur sanctions which Sudan has blatantly ignored. It is not a coincidence that China has close trade ties with both Khartoum and Juba, and has continually acted as its protector in the international sphere. Another example of China’s strategic manoeuvring in the Security Council was China’s 2009 veto of the United Nations Security Council resolution seeking to create sanctions against Zimbabwe. Had they passed, these sanctions would have affected arms embargos to Zimbabwe, and more concerning to China; Chinese weapon exports.

A more recent example of China frustrating the ability of the United Nations to deliver a collective response to human suffering has been evident in the case of Syria. Despite the United Nation’s condemnation of the scale of human suffering at the hands of the Syrian military as being “unacceptable” resolutions have not been followed through, due to China (and Russia’s) permanent seats on the Security Council. What interest does China have in Syria? Perhaps it should not be overlooked that only a few years ago Syria became China’s largest supplier of imported products. Moreover, Syria has a large and abundant oil supply which, China has invested in over time. Despite Syria’s domestic situation, as late as last month China had continued to purchase oil from Syria, and supported Syria’s regime despite UN resistance.

Another suggestion however, is that China’s sustained partnership with Syria is a strategic tool used to support China’s lucrative involvement in the Middle East. Due to Syria’s close alliance with Iran, China’s commitment to protecting Syria from UN intervention can thus sustain China’s relationship with Iran and other Middle Eastern countries alike; which in turn are essential to alleviating China’s oil and natural resource instabilities. This same rhetoric was noted in China’s strong reluctance to sanction Iran.

Evidently, although China has only used the veto eight times to date, its decisions to block and frustrate UN Security Council resolutions can be largely attributed to fulfilling China’s strategic interests and protecting its sovereignty concerns rather than “keeping the peace” in other states. Conversely, had China not used the veto in each of the above situations the domestic situation in each state would have inevitably become more peaceful in each of the states in question; had UN sanctions or resolutions been imposed. Moreover, when China has a offered “non-interventionalist” rhetoric in recent cases, it is questioned as to whether their primary reason for doing so is so that, in reciprocation, intervention within China’s domestic affairs will be eventually seen as unreasonable. China has repeatedly shown that despite its position of peacekeeping power, in certain cases it has only sought to safeguard its own interests, whilst simultaneously frustrating the goals of the United States.



Downs, E., & Maloney, S. (2011). Getting China to Sanction Iran-The Chinese-Iranian Oil Connection. Foreign Aff.90, 15.

Gladstone, R. (2012). Friction at the UN as Russia and China Veto Another Resolution on Syria Sanctions. The New York Times19.

Ikenberry, G. J. (2008). Rise of China and the Future of the West-Can the Liberal System Survive, The. Foreign Aff.87, 23.

Weiss, R., & Hill, S. (2011). China as Peacekeeper: Implications for the Law and Politics of Humanitarian Intervention. Yale J. Int’l Aff.6, 137.

Wuthnow, J. (2010). China and the Processes of Cooperation in UN Security Council Deliberations†. The Chinese Journal of International Politics3(1), 55-77.

Wuthnow, J. (2011). Beyond the Veto: Chinese Diplomacy in the United Nations Security Council (Doctoral dissertation, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY).








One Response to “China’s role in the United Nations Security Council: An International Peacekeeper or a strategic actor?”

  1. jdh2g11 May 14, 2013 at 4:42 pm #

    It’s interesting how you argue that China uses the Security Council to protect its national interests more so that keeping the peace. I feel that this is a very valid point, but a practice used by many countries including the U.S. Although China is often detrimental to the peace process, it is a vital part of the Security Council, and it could be argued China balances the UN and helps prevent it becoming an instrument for western interests.
    However as you say China like to take a stance of non-intervention on issues (Inc. Human rights) unless they are hugely important. This is part of a wider Chinese policy and seems to stem from their history, culture, and the fact they wish for no other state to intervene in their affairs therefore they don’t intervene in others. So at what point do you interfere? Many would argue that once a state is not capable of protecting their citizens or choses to harm them, they forgo their sovereignty. However without a collective decision no action can be taken.
    I think in the case of Syria it will be interest if China’s stance changes in the near future due to increased international pressure. And whether the U.S. and other western powers intervene without UN backing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: