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
Wednesday, April 13, 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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.”

Copyright © 2011 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization