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Beijing’s Impotence in Libya

John Lee

In a recent article published by China’s official Xinhua news agency, the Paris Conference on Libya’s political transition and future without Muammar Gaddafi was decried as a “West-dominated meeting” seeking to entrench American and European interests by maintaining a pre-eminent role for NATO. Although the ousting of the Gaddafi regime was initiated by Libyans rather than outside powers, the fact that the National Transition Council promised “a new, democratic and pluralistic” government for all Libyans would have created further angst amongst Beijing’s authoritarian leaders. Indeed, China has appeared unsure and caught on the back foot rather than confident and assertive since the rebellion against Gaddafi began in January 2011. More broadly, China has just been reminded that its capacity to shape global events is still much more restricted and limited that should be the case for the world’s second largest economy.

At issue is the often praised and pragmatic Chinese policy of non-intervention, or at least the appearance of it. Supporting a traditional notion of sovereignty in which established governments have absolute discretion to rule their people in any way they choose, Beijing provides refuge to other dictatorships such as North Korea and Burma in order to stand against what it sees as a Western-led conspiracy among democracies to impose the creed on other states including China.

But China also unquestioningly provides support to other authoritarian powers in order to secure much needed resources and investment markets for itself. For example, China imported around $5 billion worth of Libyan oil each year when Gaddafi was in power. Chinese companies had agreements to build infrastructure worth $18billion. Beijing assiduously crafted a strong relationship with the Gaddafi regime as it does with other authoritarian regimes in Africa and the Middle East in order to advance its economic interests.

This win-win strategy of non-intervention makes pragmatic sense if the existing regime remains in power. After all, in authoritarian systems, major industries tend to be nationalized and those governments exercise strong influence over the most important and valuable sectors in the economy—a model Beijing knows extremely well.

But China’s non-intervention approach works less well when regimes in authoritarian countries are destabilized. The timeline of China’s response to the Libyan crisis brings this out.

When unrest first became apparent in January, Beijing made a point of offering strong support to the Gaddafi regime and called for the rapid resolution of the crisis and return of stability—code for putting out the fires of dissent. In March, when the Arab states and African Union backed a U.N. Security Council Resolution for the establishment of a no-fly zone, China abstained rather than veto UNSC Resolution 1973 which would have been its preference.

The forced passivity of Chinese abstention allowed France, Britain and the United States to pursue a more interventionist approach in supporting the rebels in Libya. Although China publicly opposed the subsequent NATO-led bombing in Libya, Beijing could do little but remain in the sidelines, emerging only occasionally to issue the occasional piece of rhetorical and diplomatic barb against Western interference.

In conversations with Chinese think-tankers, officials and strategists in Beijing began to question the efficacy of a passive non-intervention approach when rebels gain control of key oil fields and terminals in eastern Libya. Beijing had further cause for alarm when the rebels formed the breakaway Arabian Gulf Oil Corporation which controlled 40 percent of the country’s oil production. In April, the NTC’s finance minister Ali Tarhouni announced that all existing oil contracts would be honored “as a matter of principle” but held out the possibility that those countries refusing to support the uprising could be denied new oil contracts when the old regime was deposed.

Faced with the real possibility of ostracism, Beijing began to speak to officials from both the Gaddafi regime and NTC. In doing so, China all but abandoned its long-standing principle of dealing only with established governments, and condemning rebel groups. Where the policy of non-interference once appeared pragmatic, it now seem not just amoral but impotent. In the face of increasingly vulnerable authoritarian regimes and an emboldened network of Western democracies seeking to advance their values and interests, it is no surprise that a sidelined China viewed the Paris Conference as a western conspiracy.

Strategic and diplomatic advances by China in Africa and the Middle East are genuine but still shallow. China remains adept at seducing corrupt regimes in charge of weak states and failing economies since money talks louder to these governments. But China’s non-intervention strategy is much less effective when it comes to shaping the transitions that are defining the current histories of once authoritarian states in Africa and the Middle East—much less shaping these transitions when it is one towards pluralism and democracy.

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