China and the World

Up in arms

A bad week for China’s relations with Libya

Went weapon shopping in China

For Chinese companies worried about the future of their $18 billion of business interests in Libya, the news this week couldn’t have been much worse.

On Saturday, Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper published a story from Tripoli suggesting that China’s state-controlled arms manufacturers were prepared to sell Colonel Muammar Gaddafi more then $200 million worth of arms. Crucially these would have helped him battle – and potentially beat – the rebel forces now widely recognised as Libya’s legitimate government.

The story – based on official-looking documents found discarded at the side of the road – detailed a trip by Libyan security forces to Beijing in mid-July. The delegation seems to have been offered an arsenal of  weaponry and munitions.

On Monday, a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman confirmed the talks had taken place but denied that the government had known about them.

She also insisted that no arms had been delivered to the Gaddafi regime either directly, or via a third country – a possible option mentioned in the documents.

But the Canadian newspaper also reported that many rebels believed that the weapons had in fact made their way to Libya, making their advance on Tripoli all the more bloody and difficult.

Whatever the case, media outlets in general agreed that the documents have the potential to make already strained Sino-Libyan relations even worse, as power shifts to a post-Gaddafi regime.

Some of the new Libyan leaders have already suggested that they might penalise China for abstaining from the original UN Security Council vote that authorised military intervention in Libya to protect civilians – the effective turning point for the rebels in the war.

To be fair, China had earlier broken with its own foreign policy traditions and voted in favour of sanctions against Gaddafi’s regime at Security Council meetings in February. As WiC noted in issue 97 this ran counter to Beijing’s long-held principle of non-intervention in the affairs of other nations. The act also signalled a reluctance to continue to back the Libyan dictator, its erstwhile ally.

But in a confused stance, it now remains the only permanent member of the Security Council not to have acknowledged the rebel National Transitional Council (NTC) as Libya’s legitimate government.

Instead, the foreign ministry this week said it would recognise the NTC when the conditions are “ripe”. Several editorials in state-owned newspapers said that this was the right move, and that Beijing should hold off until the new Libyan government gave solid assurances that Gaddafi-era contracts will be honoured.

“China has no intention to create difficulties for the NTC or to flatter them either,”  an editorial in the Chinese language Global Times read. “[China] can’t bow in front of a small country. The request that the NTC protect its interests in Libya is reasonable. If they overlook China’s demand, they will pay the price accordingly.”

The same editorial went on to denounce the NTC as “immature” for saying China might lose out on future contracts by tying the release of Libya’s frozen assets to promises that Chinese business interests would be protected. The NTC is trying to get governments around the world to release Libyan funds that were frozen under February’s Security Council resolution – $15 billion of which are in China according to an article in the China Daily.

Interestingly, even after the foreign ministry confirmed the arms talks, many state outlets continued to refer to the Globe and Mail’s story as a “rumour” perpetuated by Western media in order to reduce China’s share of post-conflict contracts in the North African country.

By comparison, the China Daily chose to offer words of advice to Libya’s new government, urging it to avoid “an extreme political clean up ” and to “objectively access the merits and the demerits of the [Gaddafi] regime.”

“After all,” it concluded, “it was Gaddafi who built Libya into a modern country.”


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