China’s Nimble Libya Pullout

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Ahead of the implementation of a no-fly zone over Libya, China spent a total of 10 days pulling about 36,000 of its nationals out of the country. It was a quick and effective operation, but some of the details haven’t been widely reported outside China.

Key to China’s success was the assistance it secured from Greece and Malta, which was made possible by the close bilateral relations China has with these two nations. For example, when Greece was engulfed by a financial crisis late last year, China didn’t just stand idly by. Instead, Premier Wen Jiabao visited Greece and publicly declared his support for the country, including offering to buy Greek bonds.

Such diplomacy no doubt made it easier for China to utilize two vessels from Greece to make several trips to transport more than 10,000 Chinese workers during the Libyan pullout. Indeed, when these workers reached Crete, the Greek prime minister welcomed them personally. 

China's relations with Malta are also good, helped along by a little personal diplomacy on the part of Chinese President Hu Jintao last year. When Malta’s president had a fall last year during a visit to Shanghai, Hu visited him in hospital before arranging for a new flight, and instructed a Foreign Ministry official to accompany him back to Malta. Maltese President George Abela was said to be extremely grateful to the Chinese government, and Hu personally.

Another interesting incident during the evacuation from Libya came when officials from the Foreign Ministry were waiting at the border between Libya and Tunisia for workers from Chinese companies. An expected group from a company headquartered in Beijing didn’t arrive at the stipulated time, prompting Chinese officials to dispatch a car to find out what was going on. However, the officials were detained at a checkpoint and were asked to prove that the about 3000 workers that were being detained were really Chinese. At this point the detained workers are said to have promptly stood up and to have started singing the Chinese national anthem; checkpoint officials were reportedly so surprised they released the detained workers immediately.

Meanwhile, about 1,300 workers from a Chinese railway construction company were stopped by checkpoint officials as they tried to leave Libya. A Foreign Ministry official is said to have intervened by seeking the help of Libyan police. The police reportedly responded by forming an advance patrol for the more than 40 trucks carrying Chinese workers, allowing the convoy to pass through checkpoints in time to board a plane home.

But China’s assistance extended past its own citizens. Another Chinese company ferried about 900 Bangladeshi, Nepali and Vietnamese workers from Benghazi in Libya to Crete. Initially, the Greek authorities only allowed the Chinese nationals into the country. However, China's Foreign Ministry negotiated with Greek officials and eventually succeeded in persuading Greece to allow the foreign workers in too. These workers subsequently boarded a plane operated by a Chinese airline back to Beijing. Upon reaching Beijing, they were provided with food and accommodation, while Chinese officials worked with the relevant embassies in arranging for connecting flights to their home countries.

All of this highlights three things. The first is that China saw the pullout not just as a national emergency, but also as a valuable learning experience. Second, unity between China's government, ruling party, military and the general public provided a reassuring clarity and focus that bodes well for any similar incidents in the future.

More than anything, though, the efficiency of the pullout from Libya was a genuine foreign policy success, and an example of some nimble Chinese diplomacy.

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