China last night joined Russia in a double veto on a Syrian resolution before the U.N. Security Council that broadcast a disastrous message of international disunity and marks a severe setback for U.S. attempts to ease Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad from power.

The U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice, was so exasperated that she described the vetoes as a “cheap ruse by those who would rather sell arms to the Syrian regime than stand with the Syrian people.” She stormed out of the chamber after the vote.

The thing about U.N. votes is that they are not always entirely about the matter on the table. China’s relations with the U.S. are currently under strain from the currency bill aimed at dealing with the effects of an undervalued yuan. The controversial bill now making its way through the Senate would impose tariffs on Chinese imports.

The New York Times pointed out today in an editorial that China is never averse to playing hardball. It mentioned possible retaliation on other fronts, including foot-dragging on customs inspections of American imports, opening new anti-dumping investigations against U.S. goods or slowing efforts to halt the theft of American intellectual property. It strikes me that China’s stand last night at the U.N. was a first shot across the bows from Beijing.

This failed resolution — already watered down during negotiations to leave only a veiled threat of sanctions — did have the effect of forcing states to stand up and be counted. The line from the U.S., France and U.K. is that they stand with the Syrian people and against the brutal Syrian regime. India, Brazil, South Africa and Lebanon (the Middle East representative on the Council but also Syria’s vassal) abstained. What is deeply troubling, though, in the vote’s result is that the draft resolution only attracted the nine minimum votes in favor on the 15-member Security Council. Not exactly a tough message to send to Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, where the vetoes were hailed as “historic.”

The Times argues today that the Senate is too blunt an instrument to force China to change its ways. I agree, and I think that we have already begun to see how China can actively work against U.S. goals.