Russia and China recently vetoed a draft U.N. Security Council (UNSC) resolution backed by the Western powers to sanction Syria over its chemical weapons use.
As the first action by the Trump administration in the Security Council, this calls into question the administration's ability to mend ties with Russia and simultaneously to sideline China.
While there is a precedent for Russia and China to veto resolutions related to Syria since 2011, this resolution breaks with a plan developed by the Russians and Americans in 2013 to rid Syria of chemical weapons. The most recent joint Russian-Chinese veto indicates that they will remain united, pitted against the West.
Then-candidate and current president Donald Trump has consistently praised Russia and demeaned China. Some analysts have suggested he is playing a reverse Nixon "China card"-that is, the U.S. will strengthen its relations with Russia to the detriment of China. Likewise, President Trump's questioning the agility and purpose of NATO and the EU, and the sense of continuing sanctions on Russia, may be a means to weaken China's growing presence in Russia.
President-elect Trump's phone call with the Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen, followed by the nomination of Russia-friendly Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, heightened concerns in Beijing over China's potential marginalization.
However, the latest UNSC vote confirmed that the Russia-China partnership is as strong as ever. Along with Bolivia, they vetoed a measure proposed by the Western allies to sanction 21 Syrian individuals, companies and organizations for using chemical weapons in Syria and to tighten export controls on components of chemical weapons.
The draft resolution text notes recent reports by the Joint Investigative Mechanism of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), established by the UNSC, which identify actors involved in several cases of chemical weapons detected in Syria since 2014-15.
Moreover, Western governments have accused the Assad regime of conducting illegal chlorine attacks in 2014-15, violating the Chemical Weapons Convention, which Syria signed in 2013. Their veto arguably undermines the most successful diplomatic U.S.-Russian effort on Syria. In 2013, Secretary of State John F. Kerry suggested that, in exchange for placing its chemical weapons under international control, Syria could avert a U.S. military attack. Support was growing in the U.S. and Europe to strike Syrian military targets in retaliation for a gas attack that killed 1,400 civilians.