Libya shows China the burdens of being a great power

Author: Jonas Parello-Plesner, European Council on Foreign Relations

Great powers are sometimes moulded by events as much as, if not more than, by grand strategy. In 1898, the United States — at the time an isolationist and anti-colonial power — entered onto the world stage after Spain allegedly sank the USS Maine in Havana Harbor.

The commercial adventures of the East India Company compelled the British state to intervene in China, sparking the Opium Wars, while in 1850, the British foreign secretary, Lord Palmerston, ordered the British navy into the Aegean in order to protect a British subject, Don Pacifico, and reclaim his lost property. All were defining historical moments, even if they were identified as such only in retrospect. They demonstrate that the greater a rising power’s economic interests in a foreign land and the more nationals it has involved there, the more likely it will feel compelled to act should events threaten either.

Libya might be such a defining moment for China. The veto-wielding Security Council member joined the international community this weekend in voting for a UN resolution that includes a travel ban; an asset freeze on Moammar Gadhafi and his family; and a referral of the situation to the International Criminal Court (ICC). All of this behaviour is novel and unusual for China. Influencing China’s position on reference to the ICC could have been the broader demand, beyond the West, from African and Middle Eastern nations in the UN. There was also strong and unanimous backing for suspension of Libya in the human rights council.

But recent events in Libya have made China bend its cherished principle of non-intervention, most pressingly by forcing it to launch its biggest-ever rescue mission of Chinese nationals. Some 32,000 Chinese citizens in Libya are in the process of being rescued, with the majority already out of the country. A Chinese frigate that was participating in anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden has been deployed in the rescue efforts. Four Chinese military transport planes were also sent. When these planes lifted off from Xinjiang, it marked a new departure for China as a great power, symbolising Beijing’s realisation that respect for national sovereignty sometimes has to be squared with pragmatic solutions to pressing problems.

This is in stark contrast to 2007, when China vetoed a UN resolution criticising Myanmar. Then, the Chinese ambassador swept the issue under the rug, stating, ‘No country is perfect.’ China also routinely blocks international action over other intransigent governments like Zimbabwe and North Korea.

Now, in Libya, China seems to be promoting the doctrine of the ‘responsibility to protect’ — a doctrine Beijing has traditionally feared might be used against it regarding its own dispute-ridden provinces. China has not conceded on all of its red lines, of course. Beijing was reluctant to suspend Libya’s membership on the UN Human Rights Council and insisted that doing so did not represent a precedent. It is also dragging its feet on the establishment of a no-fly zone over Libya, an option now being discussed by the US and its partners outside the UN.

At the outset, China eyed the revolutions in the Middle East cautiously. Tunisia resembled a miniature China, with an authoritarian regime and relatively high growth. Chinese officials tried to let the issue slip under the radar, in order to prevent sparking internal debates about the value of the Beijing consensus abroad and — even worse — at home.

On Egypt, official Chinese press coverage was directed mainly toward efforts to get Chinese nationals out of the country. Their numbers — around 1,800 — were far smaller than in Libya, but Chinese rescue efforts there included the evacuation of around 300 Taiwanese, giving Beijing the perfect opportunity for positive press spin in China. This also served to divert Chinese press coverage away from sensitive issues about democracy and social change.

Beijing’s ambition was to continue promoting a similar press line on Libya, but Gadhafi’s violent struggle to hold onto power made that impossible. By throwing the country into chaos, the Libyan leader made the orderly evacuation of Chinese nationals more difficult. In so doing, Gadhafi infringed on China’s most holy principle: stability. Some nations are carrying out rescue operations without the full consent of the Libyan authorities simply because there is either no one to ask or no one able to answer with authority. Although it has not reported any such operations, China has probably faced similar difficulties in effecting its own evacuations, adding to the novelty of the current mission for Beijing by further reducing its compliance with the traditional principles of nonintervention and sovereignty.

What explains China’s change of tack on Libya? Had Beijing blocked action at the UN while having difficulty getting its nationals out of a chaotic situation, it would have had a tough time selling its policies as a success to domestic audiences. China’s desire to enhance its international respectability also plays a role. The Libyan situation comes at an opportune time for China to attempt to reverse the image it acquired in Asia during 2010, its annus horribilus. China spent much of last year being portrayed in the region — rightly or wrongly — as an overly assertive bad neighbour.

The need to protect its economic interests and nationals abroad are thus giving China’s foreign policy a new twist. Trends like these will bring China further out into the world and test its principles, just as broadening interests changed the behavior of the UK and the US in preceding centuries. In 1850, Lord Palmerston compared British subjects to a citizen of ancient Rome, who could proudly assert his rights by announcing ‘Civis Romanus sum — ‘I am a Roman citizen.’ According to Lord Palmerston, ‘a British subject, in whatever land he may be, shall feel confident that the watchful eye and the strong arm of England will protect him from injustice and wrong.’

China’s citizens are starting to feel the same need for protection all over the globe, forcing Beijing to shoulder one of the many burdens of great-power status. This time around, it is a burden that coincides perfectly with Western interests.

Jonas Parello-Plesner is a Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. He has worked as senior advisor with the Danish government on Asian affairs. He is on the board of editors of the Danish magazine Raeson. The original version of this paper is posted in World Political Review. This paper may not be on-published without permission.