China’s desert-dance in Libya

As its international profile and interests grow, China's foreign policies – now those of a great power – are coming under increasing scrutiny. Here are the four fault lines that are forming in how Beijing deals with the world.  

This article originally appeared on China-US Focus.

‘Keeping a low profile’ is still a central tenet for Chinese foreign affairs. Yet others pull China out in the open. Chinese investments were a hot and debated issue in the recent election campaign in Zambia. In normally top-down run Burma a giant dam project orchestrated by a Chinese company was shelved due to local popular opposition. Most poignantly, Libya is the 2011 test case unearthing the new fault lines in China’s foreign policy. Protecting its workers and companies abroad is making China encounter the burdens of great power.

Fault line number one: non-intervention. When rebellion and chaos erupted in Libya in February, China had its many workers and investments to protect. For some years China has been more active in securing its citizens abroad and gearing up its consular protection. This time the system was tested mass-scale bringing out around 38.000 people even including some workers from other countries thus abiding by President Hu Jintao’s command to “spare no efforts to ensure the safety of life and properties of Chinese citizens in Libya”. This sets a precedent and raises popular expectations among Chinese that the government will be able to provide such similar protection in future cases of instability. And this at a time where the presence of Chinese companies and workers are mushrooming up all over the world with around a million in potentially unstable parts of Africa. China now has an established commitment, its own version of a ‘responsibility to protect’ of citizens and workers abroad with consequences for ‘interventions’ in future situations of instability. It might both entail moral hazard by Chinese companies that don’t do their own risk management and expect the state to come and take care of them in times of crisis and it might entail Beijing’s unwanted involvement abroad if future rescue interventions don’t run as smoothly as Libya.

China’s previous posture of absolute non-interference is increasingly at odds with its global economic presence.

Fault line number two: non-interference. China was stress tested in the UN on Libya. China gave its support to UN Security Council Resolution 1970, a surprising breach of its sovereigntist approach to international relations, which imposed an arms embargo, travel ban and asset freeze on Gaddafi and his nearest and dearest, and made possible referral of Gaddafi and other Libyan leaders to the International Criminal Court. This was a marked departure from previous China’s stance by making a leader accountable for alleged internal human rights violations. China was under pressure by the insistence of the African Union and the Arab league for an international response through the UN.

However, three short weeks later, the Chinese diplomatic turtle starting withdrawing into its hard shell by abstaining on UN Security Council Resolution 1973 that authorised the no-fly zone enacted primarily by Western allies. Since then China came to perceive the Libya resolutions as a covert Western method for enacting regime change. When it came to international decisions on Syria, China was back on its usual trail and vetoed a resolution at the beginning of October that would hold Syria responsible for the mistreatment of protesters.   

Fault line number three: diplomatic presence versus economic actors (the flag versus the money). The Libya conflict highlights the many different actors and demands that shape Chinese foreign policy. Although China is an authoritarian system the capacity to agglomerate the national interest becomes harder.

China’s economic actors are shaping foreign policy options by their massive presence abroad. In Libya, the Chinese companies present on the ground had an initial need for protection and for securing their investments with the new regime. They thus had an interest in getting diplomacy to pursue relations with the new powers to be. The Chinese diplomacy opened up channels to the rebels already in May to hedge bets yet thereby bending in practice its cherished non-intervention principle. Still, official China remained a slow mover and in the endgame the last of the UN-powers to finally recognise the Transitional National Council on the 12th of September. 

Just before recognition of the TNC, China’s relations with the new powers in Libya were given an extra twist by another batch of its economic actors: its merchants of death. Through documents unearthed in a Tripoli garbage bin, close contacts between Gaddafi’s emissaries and Chinese arms companies were unveiled. Such a sale would have been in contravention of UN Security Council Resolution 1970, for which China voted, and would taint China's image as a responsible permanent member of the Security Council. The foreign ministry has confirmed that Chinese firms were in contact with Gaddafi, but caveated this with the claim that this was without the knowledge of Chinese government departments, and asserted that Chinese companies did not sign any contracts or actually export any weapons.

The arms deals highlighted how Chinese arms companies have an economic interest that can clash with China’s multilateral reputation and with other economic interests from Chinese construction companies in quickly picking up where they left in Libya before the conflict.

None of these factors are going to diminish. China’s foreign policy will continue to be a contested area for different interests inside the Chinese system. Traditional diplomacy conducted through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is increasingly just one component of China’s foreign affairs.

Fault line number four: spinning the narrative. The Libya uprising was part of the larger Arab Spring and the Chinese government and party apparatus didn’t desire to hear talk of democratic transition and people’s power enter Chinese wavelengths. There was an internal clamp-down on anything smelling faintly of Jasmine revolution.

The media attention was directed in both Egypt and Libya towards the successful evacuation of citizens. In Egypt the presence of 300 Taiwanese gave the possibility for extra positive spin. This also served to divert Chinese press coverage away from sensitive issues like democracy and social change.

When the no fly zone was enacted, the Chinese press portrayed the events in Libya as ‘foreign military intervention’. Beijing's wish to convey the message to the Chinese public that foreign military intervention proliferates instability and chaos.  Xinhua, the state news agency, maintained a special section on par with the ‘global financial crisis’ on ‘foreign military intervention’. China Central Television (CCTV) used a caption “War and chaos continue in Libya”. There has been no desire to publicise talk of democratic transition and 'people power' and that rebellion can be justified. For example, an editorial on August 26 in the Oriental Morning Post, a Shanghai-based paper, which framed it as an issue of 'giving the people a choice’. It was quickly removed from the newspaper’s website. A blogger commented sarcastically about the official Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement about respect for ‘the choice of the Libyan people’ and retorted about when the Chinese people’s choice would be respected.

This coverage was increasingly at odds with China’s simultaneous diplomatic efforts in securing a place in Libya’s future and reconstruction. Beijing hoped to hedge its bets establishing contacts with the TNC already in May, through its embassies in Cairo and Qatar. China also participated for the first time in the 'Friends of Libya' summit, hosted in Paris by Sarkozy on September 1. Yet Xinhua did not mention Chinese participation in its coverage, and dismissed the meeting as Western dominated.

The media coverage and the dissident blogs and commentator voices show the difficulty even with state-control of media and internet in maintaining the government’s sole story line on outside events.

It is becoming increasingly difficult for China to make friends of colours abroad and protect growing commercial interests while conveying the right narrative at home.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

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