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China’s Foreign-Policy Balancing Act – Part I

Every move of fast-rising China in international affairs is closely studied for a shift from old patterns. Some analysts expect China to shoulder new global responsibility; others anticipate continuation of policies upholding national sovereignty. This two-part YaleGlobal series analyzes China’s approach in determining foreign-policy priorities. China’s evolving policy on Libya reveals its earnest pursuit of African trade and investment and caution on security matters, explains author Jonathan Fenby in the first article. China did not have to take a stand on revolts in Tunisia or Egypt. But Libya – and threats against civilians – became a topic for the UN Security Council. China allowed the vote on a no-fly zone for Libya to proceed while abstaining itself. Now, China criticizes the intervention, calling for stability but offering little assurance to desperate citizens seeking safety let alone needed reforms. Fenby concludes that global powers must take stands on difficult issues – or risk losing influence. – YaleGlobal

China’s Foreign-Policy Balancing Act – Part I

China, claiming an aversion to using force for international conflicts, hedges on Libya
Jonathan Fenby
YaleGlobal, 13 April 2011
Subject of lecture: French President Nicolas Sarkozy (left) in Beijing is told by President Hu Jintao that China does not favor the use of force

LONDON: For all its enormous impact on the world economy over the last three decades, China has not found its global diplomatic feet. There is a gulf between its confidence in pursuing economic goals and its readiness or ability to play a major role in helping resolve major international problems. Though it holds a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council and is a leading contributor of forces to peacekeeping operations, the People’s Republic all too often appears to act within the narrowest confines of its national interest. All states, of course, put their own concerns first – even if some manage from time to time to elide that with a more general good. But China’s single-mindedness could end up, ironically, diminishing the role it might play in the world.

China’s single-mindedness could
end up, ironically, diminishing the role it might play in the world.

This has been evident in the evolution of its policy towards Libya. As with an earlier decision to send naval craft to help fight pirates off Somalia, China had a direct interest in events in the North African state. Some 30,000 Chinese were working on more than 50 projects in Libya. They were evacuated, and the Commerce Ministry in Beijing says Chinese enterprises suffered losses totaling $18.8 billion as work stopped.

But the revolt against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi also raised big political questions for the leadership in Beijing.Traditionally, China has upheld the sanctity of national sovereignty and not allowed the domestic conduct of rulers to affect links with nations offering what it wants, primarily the supply of raw materials. In this case, however, the decision was not to use the Security Council veto to protect the Libyan regime.

China was spared taking a position on Tunisia or Egypt as the issues did not come up in the world body, but the Middle East uprising posed a difficult challenge for China in a region of great strategic importance. After the revolt broke out in Egypt, Chinese media were ordered to use only reports from the state news agency, Xinhua. Beijing did not comment officially. But China was clearly watching the region very closely, given its large oil imports from Saudi Arabia, links with Iran and general concern about instability in nations that provide it with raw materials.

Presumably Beijing
felt no particular fondness for Gaddafi and did not want to
get on the wrong side
of a successor administration.

We do not know exactly what factor weighed in the balance presumably Beijing felt no particular fondness for Gaddafi or faith in his leadership and, having seen what had happened in Tunisia and Egypt, did not want to commit to him and get on the wrong side of a successor administration in case he was forced from power. On the economic front, the number of contracts won by Chinese firms in Libya this year is down 45 percent from the same period in 2010, and the number of completed contracts has fallen by 14 percent.

So China abstained in the UN vote on the no-fly zone. To the Western powers anxious to take action that was a welcome step. But from the start, Beijing took a cautious stance. The Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Jiang Yu, said her government “stresses that UN Security Council’s actions should be in line with the organization’s charter and existing international norms, respect Libya’s right for sovereignty, independence, indivisibility and territorial integrity, (and) resolve the existing crisis through dialogue and other peaceful means.” That gave China ample room to object, as it soon did. Before long, the Foreign Ministry was voicing “regret” over the military strikes against the Gaddafi forces and expressing hope that “stability can be restored in Libya as soon as possible so as to avoid more civilian casualties caused by the escalation of military conflict.”

Calling for an immediate ceasefire, Chinese President Hu expressed fear that Libya would end up divided.

Meeting French President Nicolas Sarkozy in China at the end of March, Chinese leader Hu Jintao used unusually strong diplomatic language to stress that force would not solve the crisis and that “if the military action brings disaster to innocent civilians, resulting in an even greater humanitarian crisis, then that is contrary to the original intention of the Security Council resolution.” Calling for an immediate ceasefire, the Chinese president and Communist Party leader expressed fear that Libya would end up divided and told Sarkozy, a leading proponent of armed action against Gaddafi, that China “is not in favour of the use of force in international affairs.”

The points Hu made were standard Chinese fare, but Beijing finds itself in an awkward position. Its abstention, along with that of Russia, allowed the air operation against Gaddafi to proceed under UN auspices. China then discovered that the campaign went beyond what it could accept, particularly as attacks expanded to target ground forces. It could not, however, go back on its abstention and was caught by the rush of events beyond its control.

This is not a position that can be relished by a regime that puts a premium on being in control in everything it does and hates being seen as having been outmaneuvered. Realistically, it was not  surprising that the French and their enthusiastic allies in Britain pushed the envelope as far as they could under the highly flexible UN resolution.

Chinese media hammered away at
the need for stability, contrasting what’s depicted as chaos in North Africa with the order promulgated by Communist Party rule.

The net result is likely to make China even more leery in the future about signing up for international actions which it does not fully control. The rosier prospect may be that, in setting such a clear distance between itself and the bombing, China stays aloof from the crisis and sides with whoever emerges as the winner.

China has important domestic considerations to bear in mind. Its insistence on the importance of national sovereignty and non-interference has an obvious link to its control of Tibet and Xinjiang. China is not  Egypt, Tunisia or Libya, but the Jasmine revolutions in North Africa have set off a major crackdown by police on the mainland to head off any attempts to follow calls from an overseas Chinese website for similar revolts in Beijing and Shanghai. Chinese media have hammered away in recent weeks at the need for stability, contrasting what’s depicted as chaos in North Africa with the order promulgated by Communist Party rule.If Gaddafi is pushed from power without a properly worked-out solution, “utter chaos” could follow, wrote An Huihou, a former Chinese ambassador to Algeria, Tunisia, Lebanon and Egypt, in the state newspaper China Daily.

After launching economic reform at the end of the 1970s, Deng Xiaoping advised that China should keep a low profile in international politics while building up its own trade and commercial strength. The present leadership under Hu Jintao has shown signs of willingness to jettison that cautious approach, for instance, in its forceful response to the award of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to imprisoned dissident Liu Xiaobo. But its readiness to play a full global diplomatic role in a crisis situation such as that in Libya where it has a direct interest remains limited. Hopes on the part of Washington and others that Beijing would become a “responsible stakeholder,” committing itself to common goals, must wait awhile more to be realized.

Jonathan Fenby is author of the Penguin History of Modern China and China director at the emerging markets research service, Trusted Sources. Click here to read an excerpt from his book "Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power, 1850 to the Present."

Rights:Copyright © 2011 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

Comments on this Article

16 April 2011
Bashy, yours is an interesting comment. I agree with most of what you said.
-Yoshimichi Moriyama , Japan
15 April 2011
The article: France and Britain Urge Stronger NATO Action in Libya shows clearly that it is no more a question of intensify airstrikes against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s forces and shield noncombatants from loyalist attacks, it is the regime change in Libya.
After popular movements overturned the rulers of Tunisia and Egypt, its immediate neighbors to the West and East, Libya experienced a full-scale revolt beginning in February 2011. By 20 February, the unrest had spread to Tripoli. In the early hours of 21 February 2011, Saif al-Islam, oldest son of Muammar Gaddafi, spoke on Libyan television of his fears that the country would fragment and be replaced by anarchy if the uprising engulfed the entire state. He warned that the country's economic wealth and recent prosperity was at risk, admitted, "mistakes had been made" in quelling recent protests and announced that a constitutional convention would begin on 23 February. That was dismissed by the rebels.
According to the US Department of State’s annual human rights report for 2007, Libya’s authoritarian regime have a poor record in the area of human rights. Some of the numerous and serious abuses on the part of the government include poor prison conditions, arbitrary arrest and prisoners held incommunicado, and political prisoners held for many years without charge or trial. The judiciary is controlled by the government, and there is no right to a fair public trial. Libyans do not have the right to change their government. Freedom of speech, press, assembly, association, and religion are restricted
If we at all agree with USA assessment, this Libyan situation can be found in many states in various parts of the world.
Ever since, the public protests in Libya turned violent and practically divided the country in to rebel held area in the East and government controlled west, including the capital Tripoli. On 17 March 2011 the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1973 with a 10–0 vote and five abstentions from most important non-western countries. Resolution 1973 sanctioned the establishment a no-fly zone and the use of "all means necessary" to protect civilians within Libya.
On Saturday 19 March 2011, the first Allied act to secure the no-fly zone began when French military jets entered Libyan airspace on a reconnaissance mission heralding attacks on enemy targets. Allied military action to enforce the ceasefire commenced the same day when a French aircraft opened fire and destroyed an enemy vehicle on the ground. French jets also destroyed five enemy tanks belonging to the Gaddafi regime. The United States and United Kingdom launched attacks on over 20 "integrated air defense systems" using more than 110 Tomahawk cruise missiles during operations Odyssey Dawn and Ellamy.
Why did the West so quickly started bombing Libya? Was it to settle scores or topple the legitimate government of Libya?
The real problem in the equation is that in spite of all the supposed oppression Gaddafi may have committed against his opponents, his services to his people, his stubborn resistance to Western interference in Libya's affairs and his taking charge of oil assets from USA and Britain and raising the oil prices should not be forgotten.
According to many world leaders like the president of Uganda Yoweri Museveni, Cuba’s Fidal Castro and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, Gaddafi is a nationalist, a Pan African devotee and believes deeply about the plight of poor people in the Muslim world. He has poured billions of dollars as aid in various countries in Africa and the Arab world.
By the way, any government when challenged by armed rebellion, especially supported by foreign elements would do exactly what Gaddafi did. From American civil war and its murder of Black panthers in 70ies, Spanish civil war, Biafra conflict in Nigeria, Sri Lanka civil war and Russia's war against Chechen Republic are but few examples. It is not only Gaddafi but all governments want to keep power by all means necessary. I am absolutely against all kind of oppression, no matter who commits it, but we should not be selective. Israel massive use of air power and artillery fire killed 1500 civilian in Gaza in response to crude rocket attacks from some idiotic Palestinian youth is an other example.
If he was such a bad a dictator, a monster and a devil as USA officials are now painting him, how come all the western leaders were hobnobbing with him, negotiated contracts worth tens of billions and even paid visits to Libya after he discarded his nuclear program and open the oil fields to Western interests. Why was the West completely quite all these years and did not think or speak of human right and democracy in Libya? Besides this is exactly the kind of labels, Western media and governments used against Saddam Hussain before attacking him in 2003 and taking over the oil fields there. Why the United States removed Gaddafi's regime, after 27 years, from its list of states sponsoring terrorism. No one seems to answer these questions.
The sad reality is that no one in the Muslim world believes the West anymore, if they ever did. They have bitter memories of many double morals and hypocrisy being practiced, when western commercial and geo-political interests are at stake. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are two good examples, how the West picks and choose these favorite dictators.
It was Franklin Roosevelt who famously noted, "They may be sons of bitches, but they are our sons of bitches
The main frightening aspect of this Libyan affair is that Americans and Europeans are very ignorant of what their governments do behind their backs, what kind of schemes, their leaders make and that USA, UK and other big western powers have never forgiven Gaddafi for his nationalist policies.
When USA claims that Gaddafi has lost the legitimacy to govern, one should ask, has USA asked all the Libyan and is it not interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign country to demand regime change. On top of this, western media and experts have also taken sides. People sit in their armchairs in USA and Europe and describe the situation in Libya. Journalists travel with rebels, send reports and give opinions but none goes to Gaddafi forces and ask them, how they feel.
No matter, how terrible Gaddafi is, France and Britain are no better. I for one do not trust the intentions of the West.
-Bashy Quraishy , Copenhagen
-Bashy Quraishy , Copenhagen
15 April 2011
@ana , California, USA
You don't have to take that moron seriously. He has posted the same comments in many other places like the Economist's online forum, without ever changing a single word.
I don't know whether that hack thinks it's fun to sound like a robot and copy and paste words that are essentially not his own. But obviously that hack was being overly sanguine about his ability to pass off as a serious critic, while he actually looks quite clownish after having his cover blown.
Hypocrits don't openly appreciate the help US is offering, but as a matter of fact they are happily free-riding on the global security and free trade US provides. And if people like Donald Trump gets elected as the prez, we may soon expect a bill from you for your expensive service.
That's probably the moment when we'll start to appreciate what the ungrateful lot branded as "heavy-handed intervention" and miss an Uncle Sam that's beginning to look inward in a nativist tendency.
-big chinchilla , shanghai
14 April 2011
We don't want China to lead, otherwise everyone will be oppressed. As for your "Uncle Sam" comments,
the US is changing, and we WILL NOT be the World's police anymore, because nobody appreciates it anyway, and you've proven that with your remarks.
-ana , California, USA
13 April 2011
The world should know that other than praises for our fellow men in other countries such as India, we chinese have nothing to say about other inhabitants of our shared planet. We would always find faults with ourselves for only then we can strive to improve, even if it proves to be too difficult. Certainly sticking our nose into other people's knickers is not one of our habits.
Save this world not our job! We are neck deep ourselves. But, commerce, we are most enthusiastic for. These are nice knickers indeed. I have in possession 1,000 different styles here to satisfy your most basic and exciting carnal needs. Drop a call, and we can do business, just like Lady Baroness T. said.
We have so many our own problems, if you know them yourself, your mind probably will explode. The recent riot in Urumpqi is just a handy example. Of course there is racism in China, it is only just beginning to be exposed because before we had these modest levels of prosperity, people stayed mostly in their own villages, districts, and well-holes. Now with people traveling more widely, everyone has to adjust to new realities, and hell can break open with little brawls as sometimes my spit flies off to your fragranced face and yours on mine. Because of our retardedly developed venting machines such as democracy and public inquiries, and dwarf parliaments, we usually get off by breaking your nose, or sometimes chopping a few heads off especially for some of our violent fellows and tradition seeking long-knife carriers, I sometimes wonder how the Messers like Mr. Hu and Wen can ever sleep; the jobs have to be a life expectancy killer bordering on self-assisted suicide, and so little pay, and not even a mistress or two. Saving the world will just be the last straw for the life of these gentlemen.
If you see any Young & Restless (FengQing) like our proverbial Mr. Han, just please please please, ignore him. How does he know that no one ever falls off the train in China while speeding at 200 miles per hour, and how would he know may be some people prefer to sit on the roof of the train for a more splendid view, and indeed superior air to breathe in the scorching sun at a more leisurely pace.
While their patriotism is admirable, it is not what most of us think in China. There really is nothing in the world that we want other than to get the next Bottle of White Wine (read expensive), my wife's next Guci bag (fake actually), any my kids next lessons (rote learned anyways), the next car, the next house, or the next mistress (shhiii..., don't tell my wife, my last one had really those huge ... you-know-what, for a chinese lady anyway). To claim that China will lead this or that really is just a little bit over the top; that one really got my plum in my mouth wriggling. For such mundane matters, we prefer to delegate to Uncle Sam. Nice Uncle indeed, who spend the money, resources, and man-power to trouble shoot for all us in the world. It is a good bargain, especially we also get to collect a little interests, we are already getting used to it.
-huyu , huyuhuyu