During the civil war in Libya between Colonel Qaddafi’s forces and rebel groups, China did not publicly take sides. But after the fall of Qaddafi’s government in Tripoli, official statements indicated that the Chinese government was not ready to put their support behind the newly-minted Transitional National Council, and journalists found documents which indicated that Chinese arms dealers had in fact tried to sell arms to Qaddafi’s forces during the conflict, in apparent violation of international sanctions. Today, the Chinese government moved away from its past support for Qaddafi by officially recognizing the NTC as the legitimate rulers of Libya, Xinhua reports:
“China respects the choice of the Libyan people and attaches great importance to the status and the role of NTC, and has kept in close contact with it,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said in a written statement.
The announcement was made as the NTC has controlled most part of the North African nation following a six-month civil war and about 70 countries have recognized the legitimacy of the council.
“China will work with the NTC to realize a steady and smooth transition and development of bilateral ties,” Ma said, stressing China hopes that all the treaties and agreements inked previously with Libya will remain effective and be implemented seriously.
According to the spokesman, the NTC leadership are “delighted with the result that has long been expected.”
And from the Guardian:
China had already held talks with the NTC and said it valued its “important role”, but had held off full recognition.
“They have taken their time in recognising the rebels,” said Steve Tsang, professor of contemporary Chinese studies at Nottingham University.
“I would have thought they really should have done this much earlier. I suspect the timing was simply determined by the practical issues of negotiations with the National Transitional Council and that now they have something they think will be satisfactory from their perspective.”
But he added China’s behaviour would affect how it was seen by the rest of the world.
“You will have quite a lot of people concluding China is much more interested in protecting its own national interests than performing its duties as a leading power in the international scene. As [one of the] P5 [permanent members of the UN national security council] there are certain expectations and moral responsibilities … The way the post-Gaddafi situation has been handled, [people] have not been giving China a particularly high mark,” he said.
It is not yet clear what impact this move will have on relations between the new Libyan government and China, which have been tense following China’s past support for Qaddafi’s regime. The Wall Street Journal reports:
It wasn’t clear whether Monday’s announcement would pave the way for the further release of frozen Libyan funds, a major sticking point in relations between Beijing and the rebels. NTC leaders have complained recently that China was blocking the release of some such funds. Beijing has said it isn’t opposed to releasing more funds but needed to make sure adequate regulatory mechanisms were in place before agreeing.
Meanwhile the New York Times reports that the effort to sell arms to Qaddafi may have indicated tensions between the Defense Ministry and the Foreign Ministry:
China’s leaders have never liked international sanctions, calling them interference in other nations’ affairs. But the disclosure of the Libyan negotiations underscores a divide many analysts say has long existed between the Defense Ministry and the Foreign Ministry — which both have a say in approving arms sales.
Some believe that big state-run weapons companies, with their close ties to the military, easily make end runs around the diplomats in the Foreign Ministry, which negotiates China’s position on international sanctions.
“It’s possible, and has been the case in the past, that Chinese arms companies push their own agenda,” Mathieu Duchatel, a senior researcher in Beijing with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said in an interview. “There are informal relationships between the different actors, and the logical decision-making process can be bypassed in certain cases.”
The military alliance may gain an added edge when the diplomats are themselves embattled. Since the rebels mounted their revolt last February, China’s policy toward Libya has been up for grabs, with the government apparently torn between economic interest in Colonel Qaddafi’s continued rule and a desire to be on the winning side should his opponents take control.
A report in the Economist last week looks at how China’s response to the Libya crisis may reflect an evolution away from the strict policy of “non-interference” in foreign affairs:
Rhetorically, the principle of “non-interference” remains sacred. On September 6th China issued a white paper on its “peaceful development” (ie, rise), its first on the topic since 2005, well before financial crisis crushed Western economic confidence and propelled China even more to the fore in international terms. The document said China still upheld the principle and that it respected the right of others to “independently choose their own social system and path of development”. Usually this has meant supporting whoever is in power no matter how thuggish or unpopular. In Libya, though, China wavered.
It could have done as it did in earlier Arab uprisings: wait on the sidelines and recognise the legitimacy of opposition movements only after dictators had fallen. But Libya presented an unusual combination of challenges for China. These included demand at home for prompt action to ensure the safety of more than 35,000 Chinese working in the country; widespread support among (China-friendly) Arab countries for tough action against Muammar Qaddafi; and economic interests in Libya that might be threatened by supporting the wrong side.
China’s response at the start of the year to the upheaval in Egypt was typical of the old style. The state-owned media were quick to portray Cairo’s anti-government demonstrators as lawless troublemakers and played down their impact. The Communist Party did not want citizens at home to get any ideas. After President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation in February, and with calls for a Chinese “jasmine revolution” circulating on the internet, many police were deployed in the centres of big cities to prevent any copycat unrest. China appeared defensive and insecure.
But its approach to the Libyan unrest proved somewhat different. First came its decision to vote in favour of UN sanctions against Colonel Qaddafi. Then it mounted a big operation to fly out its citizens on chartered flights and four military aircraft (China also sent a frigate from its duties off the Horn of Africa to provide protection for vessels transporting refugees across the Mediterranean). The official media called this the largest such operation China had mounted abroad since the Communist takeover in 1949. In a recent paper, the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank, said these moves seemed to reflect China’s realisation that a posture of non-interference was “increasingly at odds with its global economic presence”.
Al Jazeera reports that, Chinese support or no, Libya’s government faces challenges ahead:
– “China recognizes Libya’s NTC as ruling authority, representative of people” from Xinhua
– “Libya’s NTC gains Chinese recognition” from the Guardian
– “China Recognizes Libya’s NTC” from the Wall Street Journal
– “Secret Bid to Arm Qaddafi Sheds Light on Tensions in China Government” from the New York Times
– “China’s evolving foreign policy: The Libyan dilemma” from the Economist
– “‘Don’t Rush to Celebrate the Post-Gaddafi Era’” from China Digital Times
– “Beijing Says Qaddafi Officials Sought Chinese Arms Supplies” from China Digital Times