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  • Libya: Litmus Test in China’s Foreign Policy Shift

    The Libyan case does provide Beijing a momentum to review its foreign policy.

    On Mar 17th, Beijing made the unusual decision not to utilize its veto power to let the military strikes move forward. This authorized the establishment of a “no fly zone” over Libya and the use of “all necessary measures” to prevent civilians from being attacked by forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi at the United Nations Security Council vote on resolution 1973. Unusual because this marks the first time that China chose not to block Security Council-backed military measures against another government for human rights or humanitarian causes.

    Quickly, Chinese newspapers responded critically to what it considered as western military intervention. The People’s Daily and the China Daily, for example, both launched op-eds stating that the intervention further worsened the “humanitarian crisis” in Libya. Yang Jiechi, China’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, said China is “deeply concerned” about civilian casualties and called for an immediate ceasefire in Libya on Mar 24th.

    Later in June and July, delegations from Benghazi Interim Government visited Beijing and China sent its director-general of Asian and African Affairs to cultivate allies with the Libyan rebels.

    So why did Beijing not block the resolution in the first place? And more interestingly, why did Beijing meet with a delegation of Libyan rebels? Would this constitute hard-nosed realism in geopolitics? Was China playing safe by making inroads with the rebel forces just in case they won the struggle?

    As protests spread and deepen in the Middle East, China’s foreign policy towards the region might begin to show up fundamental dilemmas. The Libyan case is a particular one entailing varied layers of calculations and considerations, not all of them always consistent with one another.

    One aspect of China’s foreign policy can be accounted for by a realist, hard-nosed calculation of China’s economic relationship with Libya.

    To begin with, a failed Libyan state is not a scenario that Beijing’s policy-makers want to see.

    It is no secret that Libya is one of the major sources of oil for the eastern dragon. In exchange, Beijing issued a broad inclusion of development assistance packages, among them, the improvement of Libya’s basic physical and telecom infrastructure. A simple case of bilateral give and take: Libya’s oil in exchange for Chinese development assistance.

    Further, many Chinese companies have invested heavily in Libya alongside the deployment of Chinese workers. The spread of unrest in Libya is not good for business, particularly when thousands of Chinese labor has been deployed in this far-away country. Due to the protests, more than thirty thousand Chinese expatriates had to be evacuated from Libya in late February on chartered flights and ships. One local newspaper estimated that losses of 13 State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) invested in Libya amounted to $15 billion. Protests, from the point of view of Beijing, are expensive.

    But the most important is the principle of “non-intervention in domestic affairs” which constitutes one of five basic principles that Beijing upholds in its foreign relations. Premier Zhou Enlai first articulated it in the 1950s to distinguish China from Western powers whose calls for political reform and human rights are often seen as heavy-handed hectoring. The non-intervention principle has worked quite well, winning Beijing many “old friends” and shifting support away from Taiwan especially from Africa.

    The reverse aspect, however, of China’s foreign policy is what Yan Xuetong, dean of the Institute of Modern International Relations at Tsinghua University, maintains as the imperative for Chinese “soft power” which is far more important than military or economic power. This school of thought goes back to the Chinese philosopher Guan Zi who said: “A wise emperor adopts a legal system internally and externally practices its ideology and moral principles.”

    Dean Yan Xuetong interpets this philosophy about China’s behavior in the world and thus stated: “If a country is rich economically and powerful militarily, but it is widely perceived to be an immoral country adverse to world trends, then its international influence remains quite low.” In brief, there is another foreign policy school of thought within China that advocates for active participation in global governance, assuming the obligations of a “responsible stakeholder.”

    This principle of Chinese responsibility in the world as an emerging power was also quickly reflected by the general public’s concern over the attack on civilians via social media and applauded the government’s decision at the Security Council. Han Han, the most famous Chinese blogger, wrote: “So when friends ask for my view (on the Libya issue), I say, my view is very simple: dictators have no internal affairs, and slaughterers ought to be invaded and eliminated. Yesterday just happened to be the brightest moon in 19 years. It doesn’t matter who, it doesn’t matter why; in the name of the moon, annihilate him.” The blog itself was circulated through various versions of Chinese Twitters, reaching millions of Chinese people. Public support for Chinese “interference” in Libya was resounding.

    Libya was not a stand-alone case nor will this be the last one.

    As protests spread in North Africa and the Middle East countries with significant Chinese investments, China will again be faced with a fork-in-the-road situation vis-à-vis its foreign policy: either adopt a hands-off non-interference posture a la Zhou Enlai, or exhibit the moral basis of its power in the world a la Guan Zi. Choosing the latter, however, would require reforming its own institutions, and, in the words of Dean Yan Shuetong, “the pursuit of social justice.” Surely, this is a far cry from the quest for oil that has thus far limited Chinese engagement to the “non-interference” principle. In this respect, the Libyan struggle has certainly gone far beyond the ouster of Qaddafi and has occasioned a deep re-think in China’s engagement with the rest of the world.


    (Teresita Cruz-del Rosario is Visiting Associate Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. She was formerly Assistant Minister during the transition government of President Corazon Aquino. She has a background in sociology and social anthropology and specializes in development and development assistance, migration, governance, and social movements. She can be reached at delrosatess@gmail.com. Wang Runfei Phillie is a Researcher at Center on Asia and Globalisation, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. He can be reached at pianrandefei@gmail.com)