China habitually lines up behind Russia’s opposition to United Nations Security Council resolutions on Syria. But on Wednesday, China declined to join a Russia veto of an American-drafted resolution that would condemn Bashar al-Assad’s April 4 chemical attack and establish parameters for investigating it.
The shift from China’s long-held United Nations alliance with Russia came as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, traded daggers at a Moscow press conference, capping one of the most contentious Kremlin visits by an American official in recent memory. The sharpest exchanges between Tillerson and his hosts were over Russia’s alliance with Syria.
The UN vote also came as China signals a growing willingness to toughen its stance on its own ally, in Pyongyang. On Tuesday, days after Chinese Premier Xi Jinping dined with Trump at Mar a-Lago, China turned back several ships carrying North Korean coal, practically the only commodity the country exports other than illicit deliveries of weapons, Reuters reports.
The unusual cancellation, coming after China had already paid for the deliveries, indicated that Beijing may have finally agreed to punish Pyongyang after years of propping up the Kim Jong Un regime, even as Chinese officials privately express growing frustration with the North Korean leader’s antics.
“I was not surprised that China abstained,” Trump said Wednesday, referring to the UN vote on Syria. “President Xi wants to do the right thing. He means well and wants to help.”
The president later told The Wall Street Journal that he had offered Xi a deal: more favorable trade terms in return for Chinese help in confronting the North Korean threat.
Several diplomats at the UN told The Daily Beast that while they were not completely surprised Wednesday, China’s departure from voting in unison with Russia nevertheless signaled “movement.”
In votes on Syria and other global issues, “Russia is consistent, China is not,” said one senior Security Council diplomat who requested anonymity to speak about sensitive matters for his country.
China’s UN ambassador, Liu Jieyi, said his country is strongly opposed to the use of chemical weapons and supports a “thorough” investigation of the April 4 suspected sarin attack in Syria. But Liu added that “some elements” of the American draft, which Britain and France also endorsed, failed to promote Security Council “unity.” Therefore, he told the council, China chose to abstain rather than support the resolution.
Russia’s veto marked the eighth time it has nixed a Syria-related Western-sponsored Security Council resolution. In all but one case, last year, China joined Moscow in double vetoes. But Wednesday’s departure from China’s traditional alliance with Russia came after the United States, much to Russia’s dismay, fired 59 Tomahawk missiles at the airfield from which the chemical attack originated. In the past, China has adamantly opposed military action in violation of the “national sovereignty” of UN members.
As American missiles rained down on Syria on April 6, Trump had just finished “the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake,” as he described it in a Fox Business interview Tuesday. That was at the end of his Mar-a-Lago meal with Xi, during which he told his guest about the missile strikes. Xi “said to me, ‘Anybody that was so brutal and uses gases to do that to young children, it’s OK,’” Trump said. “He was OK with it.”
Meanwhile, speaking alongside NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Wednesday, Trump said relations with Russia are “at an all-time low.” A day earlier, he signaled U.S. approval for adding Montenegro as the newest member of the Western alliance. According to Montenegrin sources quoted in The New York Times, Russia recently backed a plot to attack Montenegro on its Election Day.
Favoring China over Russia represents a sharp departure for Trump, whose campaign-trail speeches described China’s trade and fiscal policies as raping the United States. He saved the glowing compliments for the Russian president. When told that Vladimir Putin is a “killer,” Trump famously said the U.S. is not “so innocent" either.
The change of direction has been compared by some to Henry Kissinger’s secret negotiations that led to the 1972 China visits by President Nixon. It took observers by surprise but represented American determination to divide two rivaling communist superpowers.
“Trump isn’t that cunning,” said one longtime U.N.-based diplomat, expressing widely held skepticism at Turtle Bay about the American president’s motives. Instead, the diplomat said, it may be that Trump simply makes policy according to the last person he talked to.