Posted by Sebastian Castaneda on Dec 24, 2010 Leave a comment

Balancing the United States and China’s interests

Colombia news - security council

Colombia’s new role as chair of the United Nations Security Council’s Sudan and Iran sanctions committees will reveal Bogota’s ability to balance the United States and China’s interests.

On Wednesday the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) assigned Colombia the chairmanships of Sudan and Iran sanctions committees. These committees monitor the implementation of economic and other sanctions not involving the use of armed force, and establish guidelines to facilitate the implementation of these sanctions. Colombian ambassador to the United Nations, Nestor Osorio, will personally chair the committees. Even though all decisions by the committees are reached by consensus of the 15 UNSC member-countries, the ambassador is ultimately responsible for building such consensus and managing the committees.

The importance of these two committees lies in the usual disagreements between China and the U.S. over the implementation of sanctions and their extent.

As a result of the heavy investment in Sudan’s oil sector Beijing is compelled to largely protect Sudan against UNSC resolutions and sanctions. China’s principle of non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs has allowed Beijing to speak against stringent actions that may negatively affect its relation with Sudan and hence its investments. Nevertheless, China’s longstanding strategy of abstaining from exercising its veto power in the UNSC has resulted in Sudan being sanctioned in 2004 with an arms embargo on all non-governmental entities and individuals. And in 2005 Sudan’s leadership received a travel ban and asset freeze.

China, however, plays a prominent role behind close doors in hampering the sanctions committee’s work. In March, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, as a result of continued violence in Sudan called on the committee to “find points of consensus” and “shine a spotlight on sanctions violations.” The Sudan sanctions committee’s inaction has to some extent been due to China’s actions. In October, it emerged that China was preventing a report by the committee’s panel of experts from reaching the UNSC. The report stated that Chinese shell casings were found after attacks against the joint U.N.-African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur with markings showing the ammunition was manufactured after 2009.

Regarding the Iran sanctions committee, the difficulty in managing the chairmanship is compounded by the U.S. strategic interest in the Middle East. While early this year the U.S. and its allies were calling for more stringent sanctions against Iran, China (together with Russia, Brazil and Turkey) was reluctant to this take this road. Yet, in June, a new set of sanctions was agreed by the five permanent members, although Brazil and Turkey rejected the U.S.-sponsored resolution.

Although due to information found in the Wikileaks cables the effectiveness of these sanctions is in doubt. The cables indicated that in 2007 Beijing turned a blind eye on flights from North Korea to Iran via China allegedly transporting ballistic missiles components. Moreover, various cables, the most recent from February this year, illustrated U.S. concerns over Chinese companies selling possible weapons materials and technology to Iran.

Colombia’s efforts to move closer to China while appeasing the U.S. may be a more difficult proposition now. Santos has deepened the country’s effort to diversify its exports. The Asian market, and in specific the Chinese, are therefore being strategically targeted. Yet, Colombia still deems its relation with Washington as essential; after all, the economic and military aid under Plan Colombia have been crucial in weakening the FARC. But Colombia’s weaknesses on its diplomatic decision making may complicate the inherently difficult balancing act.

Bogota’s handling of the committees’ chairmanship and its general role in the UNSC may also affect the country’s relation with Brasilia. Brazil, as a regional power, is being more assertive and independent on its international stands. A case in point was Brazil’s opposition to U.S. efforts to impose a new round of sanctions on Iran. Thus there may be other decisions where Colombia may be at odds with Brazil’s position.

Becoming a member of the UNSC may have been a legacy of Uribe’s government, but it was Santos’ decision to continue with the effort. The new year will illustrate the wisdom of this decision.