Minxin Pei, the most original of current Sinologists, makes the point that authoritarian/totalitarian regimes inherently give priority to protecting regime leaders over the nation's long-term interests. To preserve the former's power, they sacrifice the latter's needs. In the process, they encourage a breakdown in the world order. Beijing is now demonstrating the phenomenon in spades.
By using its U.N. Security Council veto, Beijing has exacerbated the already intractable problem of Syria. Under the propaganda rubric of noninterference in others' internal affairs, China - along with its camp follower, Russia - blocks a fumbling, U.S. "leading-from-behind" international effort to force out the brutal regime in Damascus. As the situation erodes, it has troubling political and ethnic tentacles entangling all the countries in the region.
Tagging along, Russia's fading prime minister - and apparently president-again-to-be - Vladimir Putin is trying to pull a rabbit out of the hat, seeking to preserve some semblance of the old Soviet strategic influence in the Arab world through its former Syrian satellite. It's so much bluff. Russia has neither the resources - including military assets - nor, in the end, the ability to play a guiding role over an unknowable successor regime, despite the celebrated talents of Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. For once, the Arabs are united in wanting to dump Syrian leader Bashir Assad before he spreads chaos to the whole region.
Whatever else motivates the Zhongnanhai, the ruling party's Beijing GHQ, there is clearly paranoia about the North African jasmine revolutions - so far away but instilling fear that their spark might somehow ignite China's own domestic political kindling. That scent of jasmine further frightens China as it watches control of the Arab Spring rapidly drift into hands of Islamic radicals. With its own 25 million Muslims, especially the rebellious Turkic Uighurs of Sinkiang bordering on Central Asia, China has experience with Islamic terrorism.
China's Communist Party leadership has plenty of other intruding realities to contend with. Obscured by events elsewhere, a wave of protest is building again among the repressed Tibetans in southwestern China. With a deteriorating situation in neighboring Afghanistan and with its ally Pakistan facing internal turmoil, Beijing must worry about all its Central Asian borders. That is in addition to the almost daily news of local dissidence as China's economy has to adjust to rapidly falling growth rates. There are plenty of tough decisions awaiting a still-contested new generation of leaders set to take power this fall.
Chinese leaders repeatedly shoot themselves in the foot. No one is more dependent on Mideast stability and Gulf oil supplies than China. By siding with the crumbling Assad regime - rather than joining the belated Western and Arab League effort to finesse a negotiated succession in that Mideast powder keg - Beijing is threatening its own vital interests. China also continues to support Mr. Assad's sugar daddy, Iran, against an almost universal allied effort (again with the notable exception of Moscow) to block the mullahs' drive to obtain nuclear weapons.
If a breakout of the Syrian conflict or an Israel/U.S. military strike against Iran sets off even a 200-day regional conflict, the result would be catastrophic for the Chinese economy. Han Xiaoping, chief information officer of the China Energy Resources Net, recently warned that the country's estimated reserve of 110 million barrels would last only 46 days if there is a Persian Gulf closure. China's dependence upon imported crude is far greater than that of the United States, with some 40 percent coming from the Gulf. Just a declining 11 percent share of that oil comes from Iran, with the rest from the Arab states now unsuccessfully lobbying China to help defuse the Syrian and Iranian crises.
Western leadership, notably among the U.S. naval military, has tried to convince itself and the world that Beijing's growing power would be a "peaceful rise." That was the phrase, now abandoned in the Beijing lexicon, used by Chinese scholars and propagandists to describe how a renascent China would not repeat the bitter histories of other emerging world powers, such as Germany's bloody ascent in the 19th and 20th centuries. Alas, abandoning the phrase may be symptomatic of where Beijing leadership now thinks its primary interests lie.
Unfortunately, China's corrupt leadership - based on "revolutionary" genealogy that elevated the scions of old communist families - increasingly dominates Beijing decision-making. If that continues to be the case, China will become an even greater source of international friction, threatening its world partners as well as its own future.
• Sol Sanders, a veteran international correspondent, writes weekly on the intersection of politics, business and economics. He can be reached at email@example.com and blogs at www.yeoldecrabb.wordpress.com.