Talking Point

Beijing’s bold vote

Why China broke with foreign policy tradition at the UN last weekend

Gaddafi: he must have realised he was in serious trouble when Beijing joined unanimous Security Council vote

The last time Tobruk and Benghazi hit world headlines was in the 1940s when the Libyan cities repeatedly changed hands in the Desert War. First the Italian army surrendered them to the British. Then they fell to Rommel’s Panzers, before being recaptured from the Germans by Montgomery’s Allied forces. As Winston Churchill made clear in his history of the Second World War, the two locations had critical strategic importance in the North African campaign.

Now they are back in the global spotlight – and like Churchill, China’s leaders have quickly discovered they are strategically important too.

That’s because they have become the focal point of opposition to Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, in the two-week-old revolt against his rule. Gaddafi’s military response to the crisis has seen him condemned by America and Europe, and the UN Security Council voted unanimously last Saturday for sanctions against his regime, including an arms embargo and a freeze of his overseas assets. And for the first time, the UN referred a case of state violence to the International Criminal Court.

But what made the decision all the more noteworthy: rather than abstaining (as was expected), the Chinese voted in favour of the resolutions too. As China-watchers are keenly aware, this marked a major break with the country’s foreign policy traditions.

Why was it so significant?

For the past 30 years or so a fundamental principle has underpinned China’s dealings with other countries. Partly because of its own sensitivities related to Taiwan, China has refused to support UN resolutions that it regards as interfering in the domestic affairs of sovereign states. A similar approach has guided its foreign policy principles in general. WiC has discussed this approach at length and some of its consequences in Africa (see issue 91).

The principle was forged by Deng Xiaoping around 1978 (and ran counter to Chairman Mao’s approach – he, after all, liked to disrupt the domestic affairs of foreign lands with revolutions). But for Deng, and all his successors, the new approach fitted well with China’s narrative on its own “peaceful rise” onto the international stage. Hence the significance of Saturday’s vote: by raising its hand in favour of the measures against Gaddafi­­­, the non-interference doctrine was breached.

Indeed, bloggers in China were quick to point out this was a big deal. A writer with the pseudonym Flying Horse wrote of his own shock on his weibo (a local Twitter-like service): he wittily said he’d envisaged that China would vote with other Security Council members on these types of issues “only when mankind faced the invasion of aliens!” Another blogger, with the moniker Citizen Xu Fan, pointed to the TV footage from the UN in New York, noting the body language of China’s ambassador, who seemed to raise his hand in “a very reluctant and heavy manner” – the weight of history appeared almost palpably on his shoulders.

So the decision was a surprise?

Yes, and state media was very careful in covering it. For example, the Shanghai Daily managed to run an entire story on the resolution vote without mentioning China or how it voted. None of the newspaper editorials seemed keen to comment directly on China’s apparent about-face on sovereign non-intervention either.

In fact, Beijing has backed the UN on sanctions before (those that relate to nuclear proliferation) – but to the point where China has watered-down measures to ensure they don’t violate the sovereignty of Iran and North Korea. On no occasion has its vote – like that on Saturday – been tantamount to a call for regime change.

Indeed – historically – Beijing hasn’t thought human rights violations justified interfering in another state’s internal affairs: witness China using its veto to block action against Zimbabwe, Myanmar and Sudan. Why the policy shift now? Back to the blogs for one interpretation: “China has finally cast an affirmative vote, making so many people rejoice,” wrote Tong Zongjin. “But I think the meaning may be over-exaggerated. The vote is more based on consideration of practical interests, and this time China basically felt that when a wall is about to collapse, everybody should give it a push.”

That’s to say, the leaders in Beijing may have concluded that Gaddafi’s days are numbered – and therefore its own economic interests would be better served by voting at the UN in a way that didn’t alienate it from a successor government. (Whether this was the right calculation remains in the balance – six days after the vote the BBC was reporting that a “military stalemate” between Gaddafi and the rebels looked increasingly likely.)

Perhaps it helped too, the Wall Street Journal argues, that Libya’s government appears so fragmented (its own ambassador to the UN endorsed the sanctions), making Beijing’s decision slightly less uncomfortable.

What’s at stake, business-wise?

A lot. According to Reuters, China is working on 50 multi-million dollar projects in Libya. These include $10 billion worth of rail lines being built by China Communication Construction and China Railway Construction Corp; a $4 billion irrigation project undertaken by China Civil Engineering Construction; plus millions of dollars worth of housing projects, mobile phone networks and the like.

Then there’s the oil. China buys 10% of Libya’s oil exports, reports Foreign Policy, and CNPC, China’s biggest oil firm, is active in Libya too, exploring for oil off its northwest coast.

Thousands of Chinese nationals are associated with these projects. Xinhua reported that more than 36,000 Chinese were working in Libya when the unrest began (they’re employed at 75 different firms). So when it got violent – CNPC says its own sites were attacked, for instance – China was one of the first to begin evacuating its citizens.

Once again the Chinese were shown to be adept at crisis management (some of its nationals in Libya had posted messages like “Motherland, please save us” on the web, adding to the patriotic mood) and for the first time, Beijing sent a navy vessel to take part in the civilian rescue. With chartered ships and aircraft, more than 20,000 Chinese citizens had been evacuated by last Sunday. It was all something of a contrast, thought the UK media, to its own government’s shambolic response to rescuing its nationals. (The Guardian described a “haphazard rescue mission” and reported that Prime Minister David Cameron had made an “unequivocal apology for the failings that left British citizens stranded in Libya”.)

Signs of a new foreign policy era?

Not so, according to a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, who insisted that the non-interference principle remains “one of the pillars of China’s foreign policy”.

Of course, with its thirst for natural resources, China has often been willing to invest in states that the US and Europe have categorised as authoritarian or corrupt. Critics claim that guaranteed access to oil or ores trumps other concerns.

But perhaps that guarantee will be looked on a little differently now. The Libyan revolt has already led to economic losses for 27 Chinese firms, reports Xinhua, with facilities ransacked or damaged.

This has led some to debate the merits of the erstwhile ‘no-strings-attached’ approach. Cui Shoujun of Renmin University told Reuters that many of China’s energy projects in Africa were based on bilateral ties between two authoritarian regimes rather than rational business contracts in which political risks were factored into the equation.

“This sort of relationship is very vulnerable to their domestic upheavals,” Cui said, and added: “This is a risk that can take away all your potential gains, and knock down overnight all you have built over the years – through a new government decree or simply a change of government.”

Put simply, the price of dealing with autocrats has suddenly become more tangible, thanks to the economic fallout from Libya.

More widely, Beijing’s response to the Libyan crisis points to a changing international backdrop, in which it is increasingly difficult for the Chinese to expand their economic interests without taking on more of an active role politically.

Indeed, other countries have been calling for a Chinese leadership more engaged with its global responsibilities. Beijing has generally been cautious about entering such a debate but with so much more commercial skin in the game, that will probably have to change. Sailing frigates into the Mediterranean, and organising airlifts, also highlights the limits of staying aloof. The days of China keeping its ‘head down’ are over, the Financial Times agreed this week.


© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Exclusively sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.