China’s Libya Connection Shows New Kind of Foreign Policy

In its actions toward Libya, China has shown a new kind of nuance in its foreign policy.

In the latest sign that Beijing is hedging its bets on the survival of Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi, Chinese leaders met with Libyan opposition leader Mahmoud Jibril, who arrived in Beijing Tuesday. Jibril’s two-day visit underscores the Chinese anxiety that Libya’s turmoil may lead to more unpredictable upheaval in the rest of Africa—and that the European-led military strikes against Gaddafi could restrict Beijing’s access to Libyan resources and possibly embolden what one Chinese Foreign Ministry official called a new kind of Western “neocolonialism.”

In an exclusive interview with Newsweek and The Daily Beast, the director general of the Foreign Ministry’s African Affairs Department, Lu Shaye, expressed concern that the European-led intervention is a thinly veiled gambit to restore waning Western influence in Africa, where China’s economic involvement has boomed in recent years. "I worry about the misuse of force [in Libya],” he said. “If the West intends to restore its influence [in the country or the region], it should go through normal channels to achieve its end, [not through] interventionism."

The Chinese government has long espoused a policy of non-intervention in other countries’ internal affairs. It rarely seeks to negotiate with the opposition movement in another nation, especially if Beijing has longstanding ties with the incumbent, as it has with Gaddafi. But Beijing’s global clout and responsibilities have grown in recent years—as has its economic stake in Libya, where dozens of Chinese firms were operational and nearly 36,000 Chinese citizens were living and working before being evacuated when violence flared. In March, even while expressing “regret” over the Western use of military force in Libya, China decided not to block authorization of the Western strikes that are aimed at establishing a no-fly zone, and weakening Gaddafi's support.

Such Chinese acquiescence is unusual; in the past Beijing has often used its veto power to block or water down similar U.N. Security Council resolutions in response to human-rights abuses or humanitarian crises in countries such as Zimbabwe, Sudan, Myanmar, or North Korea. Moreover, a month ago, Jibril revealed that Beijing had bolstered the Libyan opposition’s status by purchasing $160 million of oil from the anti-Gaddafi movement. In early June, China’s ambassador to Qatar met another Libyan opposition leader. And Chinese Foreign Ministry officials publicly signaled that Beijing would welcome Libyan opposition leaders to visit. On Tuesday, ministry spokesperson Hong Lei described Jibril’s National Transitional Council as “an important political force in Libya” for the first time.

Beijing’s decision to not use its U.N. Security Council vote to block the military strikes reflects a growing sophistication and nuance in foreign-policy decision-making as China’s global economic ties continue to mushroom. China buys half of its oil and gas from the Middle East now—it’s a bigger consumer of Saudi energy resources than the U.S. is, for example—and last year it purchased about $4.5 billion worth of Libyan crude. The back-story is China’s growing unease that Western military intervention in its crucial energy markets could eventually restrict Beijing’s access to oil and gas.

Lu Shaye, an up-and-coming diplomat in China’s Foreign Ministry, was unusually assertive in defending China’s economic presence and behavior in Africa. “Not all people are happy about the growth in Sino-African cooperation,” he said, “Some believe it threatens their own interests in Africa. So they produce negative criticism… the allegation that China engages in ‘neocolonialism’ [in Africa] is groundless; it comes from the mouth of Westerners.” He went on to blast latter-day “neocolonialism” on the part of Westerners. “The old colonialists left Africa, but left behind their old system and ideologies. They still hold African natural resources in their hands; they use their cultures to enslave the Africans… Many African politicians and scholars say that whenever they see such goings on, they have the feeling that the ‘old masters’ are coming back. This should be titled ‘neocolonialism.’”