With significant interests in Libya that is racked by a civil war between NATO-backed rebels and forces loyal to Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi, China like Russia is calling for a negotiated solution. The call bolstered by stepped up contacts with both sides constitutes a break with Chinese aloofness until now towards the deteriorating situation in the North African country.
In the latest shift in Chinese foreign policy, Mahmoud Jibril, the head of the rebels’ National Transitional Council arrived in Beijing Tuesday for a two-day visit. Days earlier Libyan Foreign Minister Abdelati Obeidi was in the Chinese capital for talks.
Like Russia, China is urging both sides to accept a ceasefire and start negotiations on ending the hostilities.
With the rebels unwilling to discuss a ceasefire as long as Qaddafi loyalists continue to attack them and their insistence that they will negotiate on the basis of Mr. Qaddafi agreeing to step down after 41 years in power, there is little hope that China will succeed where Russia has so far failed.
Nonetheless, China’s effort to nudge the party’s towards negotiations and its open engagement with the rebels constitutes a shift in Chinese policy towards Libya, which focused until now primarily on criticizing the United States and NATO for allegedly violating the United Nations Security Council resolution endorsing a no-fly-zone in the North African country.
China like Russia charges that the West is exploiting the resolution that was designed to protect civilian lives by attempting to oust Mr. Qaddafi.
By engaging with the rebels, China is effectively hedging its bets. China is seeking to ensure that is not left out in the cold should Mr. Qaddafi be forced out of office any time soon. It allows China to appear neutral while at the same time positioning itself for a post-Qaddafi era.
“China believes Libya’s future should be decided by the Libyan people. China respects the Libyan people’s decisions,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said.
China’s engagement with the rebels comes as Mr. Qaddafi’s opponents are increasingly frustrated with the cumbersome nature of their military coordination with NATO, which means that air support they need often fails to materialize when they need it. Rebel field commanders have no direct communication with NATO. Instead, they relay their requests to rebel headquarters in Benghazi which then contacts NATO in the Libyan held city, who in turn forwards the field commanders’ requests to Brussels.
Mr. Jibril’s visit to Beijing follows a meeting earlier this month in Doha between the Chinese ambassador to Qatar, Zhang Zhiliang, and Mustapha Abdul-Jalil, a Libyan opposition leader. China followed up on the meeting by sending two of its Cairo-based diplomats to Benghazi to maintain “contact with the National Transitional Council” and “gain an understanding of the humanitarian situation and the situation for Chinese investing entities.” China first bolstered the rebels in May by purchasing a shipment of oil from the opposition group for $160 million.
China has significant interests in Libya despite never having had close relations with Mr. Qaddafi. Beyond oil, China also has considerable stakes in telecommunications as well as construction with projects both in rebel-held areas and that part of Libya still controlled by the Libyan leader.
The diplomats sent to Benghazi were tasked with assessing the civil war’s damage on China’s business interests. The Chinese government says China has $18.8 billion invested in 50 projects in Libya.
China earlier this year evacuated on naval ships and civilian aircraft some 35,000 Chinese nationals from Libya.
Concern that Mr. Qaddafi’s fall may be imminent as NATO insists challenges a pillar of Chinese foreign policy not to interfere in other country’s affairs. China first compromised that policy with regard to Libya by not vetoing the no-fly zone in the Security Council, but balanced that by repeatedly criticizing NATO’s military strikes.
China’s hedging of its bets is however not restricted to Libya. It has increasingly starting doing so elsewhere too.
In Pakistan, China is reaching out to Islamist political parties. In Sudan, China supported the referendum in the south on independence and sent election observers to monitor the voting there earlier this year. It has also sought contact with rebel groups in Darfur.
The larger China’s foreign investments become, the more difficult China is likely to find adherence to its principle of non-interference. Libya is one more step in an emerging fundamental change of Chinese foreign policy towards a more activist approach in protecting global Chinese interests. It is a policy shift based on the investment principle of diversification or not putting all of one’s eggs in one basket.
(James M. Dorsey, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, is a senior researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He can be reached via email at: email@example.com)