Bitter disagreements about how to deal with the growing violence in Syria are damaging Washington's relations with China and Russia. Policy regarding the Syrian civil war has created worrisome tensions in these crucial bilateral relationships, which became evident as early as February 2012.
Following a decision by Moscow and Beijing to veto a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the violence in Syria and calling for an immediate end to the bloodshed, US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice stated that her country was "disgusted". The Chinese and Russian actions, she added, were "shameful" and "unforgivable".
Rice's boss, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, used equally accusatory and inflammatory language later that month. "It is distressing to see two permanent members of the Security Council using their veto while people are being murdered — women, children, brave young men," Clinton fumed. The actions by Beijing and Moscow were "just despicable, and I have to ask whose side are they on? They are clearly not on the side of the Syrian people", she said.
Not only could Rice and Clinton apparently use a refresher course in diplomatic language, Washington's response betrayed a troubling arrogance — and that attitude has not improved in the intervening months. In early August, the White House explicitly blamed China and Russia for the failure of former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan's mediation mission to Syria.
The Obama administration seems even more frustrated and angry at China's conduct than at Russia's.
US officials concede that Moscow has long-standing economic and strategic ties with the Syrian government, not only under Bashar al-Assad but also with his father in earlier decades. Russia supplied Damascus with economic and military aid throughout the Cold War, and the "naval maintenance facility" in Tartus is the only military installation that Russia has in the Mediterranean region.
Therefore, Russia's decision to stand by Assad does not come as a great surprise. From Washington's standpoint, though, Beijing's stance is far more puzzling and frustrating. But China's policy position is not only comprehensible, it is also reasonable.
Recent comments by Wang Kejian, a deputy director at the Chinese Foreign Ministry, contained an important clue regarding Beijing's underlying worries about the US-led efforts on Syria. Wang told a news conference in early August that "some Western countries" had hindered and even sabotaged the diplomatic process by advocating regime change in Syria.
That comment was clearly directed at Washington and its NATO allies, who have repeatedly demanded that Assad step down. The solution to the Syrian crisis must be a political one, Wang argued, with the option of military intervention taken off the table.
That point underscores the core of Beijing's concerns. It is not just the probable negative effect of Washington's policies on Syria itself, although that certainly is a significant motive. China was Syria's largest trading partner in 2011, with Syrian exports to China totaling more than $2.4 billion. China is also a major stakeholder in Syria's oil industry, which before the civil war showed the promise of growth. Beijing's primary worry, though, is about the broader, negative implications of Washington's Syria strategy for the Middle East and the entire international system.
Chinese officials suspect, with good reason, that the Assad regime is not the primary target of the US and its allies. Assad's principal offense was his willingness to be a major (and, increasingly, the only significant) ally of Iran's clerical regime. That stance not only infuriated the West, but also key Sunni countries such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
As part of Washington's strategy to isolate Iran and make it impossible for that country to develop nuclear weapons, the Obama administration decided to back the Saudi-Turkish strategy to oust the Assad government. That strategy is part of the ongoing regional rivalry between those leading Sunni powers and Shiite Iran.
But Beijing correctly concludes that Washington's approach is very dangerous. It could easily intensify the already explosive tensions between the Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam and set the entire Middle East aflame. In addition, bringing down Iran does not serve Chinese economic or diplomatic interests. Iran is a major supplier of oil to China's economy, and deposing the current Iranian government would strengthen the already dominant US position in the Gulf — increasing Washington's grip on China's oil lifeline from that region.
A still broader concern for China (as well as Russia and other countries) is that US policy regarding Syria is merely the latest manifestation of a global strategy to use forcible regime change to advance the interests and policy preferences of the US and its Western allies.
That policy was already evident in the Balkans during the 1990s, Iraq during the Bush administration, and more recently in Libya. It looks suspiciously like a power play to assert undisputed US global dominance. Even if that is not Washington's intent, the proliferation of US-sponsored regime-change wars makes China and other countries uneasy.
The Obama administration should back off from Syria and respect the concerns of China and Russia. US officials in particular need to mute the shrill rhetoric directed against their fellow permanent members of the UN Security Council. Above all, Washington needs to realize that hostile, bullying comments cause needless tensions in relations with those countries.
That outcome is especially unfortunate, since the bilateral relationship with China is perhaps the most important one of all for the US. It would be folly to let disagreements over Syrian policy do lasting damage to ties with China, but that is where the Obama administration seems to be headed.