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China hardens stance against Libyan air strikes

Text by Eric Olander

Latest update : 2011-03-25

The Chinese government is stepping up its demands that the Western coalition halt air strikes on Libya. Beijing called for an immediate ceasefire on Thursday and warned an even larger humanitarian crisis is in the making.

The Chinese government stepped up its criticism on Thursday of US and European air strikes on Libya. "We believe that the objective of enforcing the UN Security Council resolution is to protect humanitarian (objectives) and not to create an even bigger humanitarian disaster," foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said at a regular news briefing in Beijing.

Jiang's comments are just the latest in a series of critical signals to come from Beijing over how the coalition is implementing United Nations resolution 1973, which authorised the creation of a no-fly zone over Libya and the bombing of ground targets.

China abstained from the vote, and Beijing has been very clear in its position that the coalition air attacks risk killing civilians and should be halted immediately. 

Chinese trade with Libya

Libya, like other countries in Africa, is an increasingly important Chinese trading partner. Prior to the current unrest, there were an estimated 35,000 Chinese expatriates in the country who largely worked on multi-billion-dollar construction projects.

These infrastructure deals point to increasingly close Sino-Libyan cooperation, with Chinese investment in the country totalling an estimated US$10 billion and bilateral trade last year nearing US$7 billion.

For some perspective on Chinese policy in Libya, sat down with China-Africa relations scholar Deborah Brautigam of the American University in Washington, D.C. Professor Brautigam is the author of "The Dragon's Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa" and blogs on the issue at "China in Africa: The Real Story".

What was behind China's decision to support economic sanctions against Libya and not block the passage of United Nations resolution 1973 authorising military force against the Libyan government?
Well, the way I saw it was there was a domestic concern amongst the Chinese leadership. They were looking at companies that are doing [a] huge number of construction projects across Libya. Those Chinese companies were being attacked and the Chinese were having to send in ships and send in planes to evacuate people. So I think if the people in China had seen their government appearing to [ignore the attacks] on Chinese companies, [it would be seen] as the Chinese government not protecting the Chinese people. 
Where is the balance of interests for the Chinese in Libya between their economic investments and their political objectives internationally?
I think it's a combination of interests, but what is always foremost in Chinese concerns with the Security Council is they do not want to set a precedent to have the Security Council be turned against China when they're dealing with their internal disputes, as in Xinjiang, Tibet or Taiwan. They don't want to set a precedent for Security Council action against them.
So that's always a delicate dance. Now the commercial interests are there as well ... . For example, in Sudan there's been much more of an attempt by the Chinese political machine and diplomats at the UN to water down sanctions that would hurt Chinese economic interests.  
In Libya it's a somewhat different situation. They don't have oil interests that are very large. They don't have a lot of oil installations. They're doing exploration, but there isn't much that they control there.
Most of the Chinese business activity in Libya has been in construction. I was looking back on some of the statistics on this, and in 2008 they signed US$10 billion in construction contracts. So this is a lot of business, but it's not something that they need to protect through trying to hold off on sanctions. 
Does China see its interests more aligned with African and Arab states than it does with the West or the UN?
That's an interesting question. The Chinese are always looking to taking the pulse of African states and Middle Eastern states, and if the Arab League had not come out in support of this no-fly zone or in support of sanctions I don't  think the Chinese would have joined in, not nearly as easily as they did.  
So the Arab League was in support and the Chinese went along. Unfortunately, African governments and the African Union have not been forceful on the Zimbabwe issue or the Sudan Darfur issue, so the Chinese have been taking their cues from that as well. So they see there are a whole lot of countries in Africa, 53 countries, who have votes at the United Nations, any one of them could flip over and recognise Taiwan.
There's a lot of concern in keeping those diplomatic relations happy, but for the Chinese, of course, the United States and Europe are really important stakeholders in the global political economy. And they care about we think, but they also care a lot more than we do about what these other countries think.

Date created : 2011-03-24


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