By JR of the excellent Just Recently blog
According to American or European conventional wisdom, China and Singapore have a lot in common. They are both “authoritarian”. Malaysia’s then prime minister Mahatir Mohamad and Singapore’s then prime minister Lee Kuan Yew advocated the concept of “Asian values” in the 1990s. Lee Kuan Yew still believes in authoritarianism. But he also believes in an American role in Asia, “to balance China”. So does the Vietnamese party leadership.
When I stayed in Aleppo, Syria, a few years ago, you would find Chinese light trucks in every street. You’d also find typically China-made consumer goods in every street. The light trucks were quite popular. Most other Chinese products were obviously bought, too, but they weren’t liked. Displayed on markets and in shops, along with pieces of traditional Syrian handcraft, the reason for the contempt was palpable. Comparing the prices, the demand was palpable, too.
Some Syrians who I heard condemning China’s growing economic influence in Syria will now condemn its political clout – at the UN Security Council. But other Syrians – “ordinary” people, too – will like it. It’s hard to assess how much popular support the Syrian regime has, how much popular support the Free Syrian Army has, and how many people of different ethnicities and religions are caught between two warring parties, neither of whom seems to show much respect for individuals who just want to survive.
Let’s suppose that the conditions were exactly as described by most mainstream Western media and al-Jazeera, in March 2011. Let’s suppose that peaceful demonstrations turned violent, because the regime hadn’t learned to handle them peacefully. And let’s suppose that Syria’s well-being was foremost on the minds of American, European, Turkish, and Arab-League leaders when they began to arm Syria’s opposition.
Obviously, everyone is free to comment and explain how this, in his or her view, is not so – but I want to keep my point within this post rather simple.
There is the idea that once innocent people are being killed, and you have the means to stop the killings, you have to do so. There is, to put it into legal words, “R2P”, the “responsibility to protect”.
The problem with that: neither Beijing nor Moscow liked the concept – and both of them feared losing a relative ally in the Middle East, the regime in Damascus. Beijing probably also disliked the notion that an existing regime may not be legitimate. Either way, once their approach had been rejected by the UN Security Council, the R2P “specialists” began to create facts by tunneling international law, and stoking the fire with arms supplies to the Syrian opposition.
The idea looks simple, and decent: you arm innocent people so that they can protect themselves against brutal dictators. That could be a great idea – if there were only criminals among the dictators. But there are criminals among the opposition, too.
It’s hard to tell how things would have evolved if the monopoly on violence (in the sense of legitimate and illegitimate force) would have remained in the hands of the dictators. What we do know however is that the question is no more “how many million people Assad is going to kill”. The question is how many Syrians will get killed in a protracted civil (or international, depending on how you look at it) war in Syria.
There is a responsibility to protect when you are in a position to protect. But the question arises if the Syrian regime hadn’t done a “better” job in that responsibility, if they and their opponents had been left alone with each other.
One can engage in an assignment of guilt here. In my view, neither side at the Security Council really put the Syrian people first. That’s a burden on every party outside Syria. That neither party sees that shared responsibility for the current misery is one reason for its continuation.
But there’s a bigger picture. The concept of sovereignty may be outdated in a number of ways – but in international relations, nothing practical has replaced those aspects. In 1982, Assad senior flattened an entire Syrian city to “quell unrest”. Nine years later, the same regime was a welcome ally in America’s war to liberate Kuwait. Nobody can tell me that our fundamental values have changed to a degree that made the bypassing of the UN mandatory in 2011 or 2012. “Humanitarian concepts” can open the door to arbitrary political decisions, and they frequently do.
Not that the Chinese concept of “democracy in international relations” is less compromised. As Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi said: “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.” That’s why Lee Kuan Yew likes the idea of America balancing things in Asia.
Both sides, when it comes to their beloved concepts, want to have their cake and eat it. For now, there can only be a balance between human rights and sovereignty – upheld by highly compromised proponents.
Things could be worse – but if both sides took their own concepts more seriously, things could also be a lot better.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.