Features | Politics | East Asia

West’s Diplomacy Trumps China Fear

China and Russia were both worried about Western military action in Libya. So why didn’t they veto it when they had the chance?

While the debate continues over the question of just how far the Western coalition should go in assisting Libya’s rebels, one diplomatic achievement during this whole crisis has been largely overlooked— the fact that the West managed to avoid a major row with China and Russia.

Given the history of Chinese and Russian objections to such interventions, this was no mean feat.

Like all Security Council resolutions, Resolution 1973—which authorised the creation of a no-fly zone over Libya, and the bombing of ground targets—left considerable room for interpretation. The resolution authorizes UN members ‘to take all necessary measures…to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamhariya.’ The question that has arisen in subsequent debate, of course, is how extensively the coalition is now authorized to use air power against Col. Muammar Gaddafi’s ground forces to assist the rebels’ advance.

China and Russia didn’t exactly back Resolution 1973, but they didn’t exercise their veto rights either. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said last month that the ‘Chinese side stresses that UN Security Council’s actions should be in line with the organization’s charter and existing international norms, respect Libya’s right for sovereignty, independence, indivisibility and territorial integrity, (and) resolve the existing crisis through dialogue and other peaceful means.’

The problem that should probably have been foreseen, though, is that the resolution’s approval of force has meant different things to different people, and there is now uncertainty over where the line should be drawn between protecting civilians and assisting in the overthrow of the Libyan regime.

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Certainly, Russia and China quickly saw Operation Odyssey Dawn as having overstepped any line that might have existed. The Russian government, for example, called on Britain, France, and the United States to cease their air strikes, describing them as ‘non-selective use of force’ against non-military targets. In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu expressed ‘regret’ over the Western military strikes.

In a statement posted on the ministry’s website, Jiang added that, ‘We hope stability can be restored in Libya as soon as possible so as to avoid more civilian casualties caused by the escalation of military conflict.’ 

Chinese concerns over the potential for a protracted civil war aren’t surprising—China is still trying to manage the break-up of the Sudan, an important oil supplier, and Beijing therefore isn’t keen to repeat the experience anytime soon.

China’s state-run media has been even more caustic. Recalling the Western military interventions in Afghanistan in 2001 and in Iraq 2003, The People’s Daily noted what it sees as a pattern of Western interference in other countries’ internal affairs. One commentary warned, for example that, ‘The blood-soaked tempests that Iraq has undergone for eight years, and the unspeakable suffering of its people are a mirror and a warning’ of what might ensue should the West persist in its military operations in Libya.

With feelings running so high, Beijing and Moscow might have been expected to block Resolution 1973, or at least do more to ensure that Western powers were more tightly constrained in their use of force. After all, both governments strongly support traditional interpretations of national sovereignty, which severely restrict the right of foreign powers or international organizations to intervene in a country’s internal affairs.

So why didn’t they? Certainly it wasn’t because there was a widespread belief among Chinese and Russian policymakers that the Western initiative was really based on the humanitarian reasons proffered by NATO. Indeed, to Russia and China, such justifications over Libya bore a striking and uncomfortable resemblance to the arguments used over intervention in Kosovo. Back then, the coalition decision to provide military support to the separatists in Kosovo (who also claimed to be democrats) held the disturbing implication that the United States might also intervene militarily to defend Taiwan and Georgia against attempts at forceful reunification, or to support separatist aspirations in Chechnya, Tibet, or Xinjiang. It’s a line of thought that is likely no different under current circumstances.

In addition, China and Russia ultimately want to create a multi-polar international system in which the United Nations and international law dominate decision making on all important questions, including the possible use of force. In recent years, Chinese and Russian officials have led the opposition against imposing rigorous sanctions on Iran, North Korea, and other countries that have pursued policies that Western governments consider violations of international laws and norms. The fact that both China and Russia—and in particular, their government agencies and nominally independent private defence trading companies—have been sanctioned on numerous occasions by the United States and its allies has likely contributed to their distaste of such measures.

It therefore took some considerable skilled Western diplomacy to persuade Beijing and Moscow that it was in their interests to at the very least acquiesce in the West’s military campaign in Libya.

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Their task was made easier by the fact that they had taken time to secure regional support for the move. But Western diplomats also recalled that in 2005, China and Russia both supported a landmark UN resolution endorsing the ‘responsibility to protect’ policy. This principle encourages the international community ‘to protect (a state’s) population from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity’ if a government is unwilling or unable to protect its people. This fact, combined with Arab League and African Union support for intervention, made it easier to secure Chinese and Russian acquiescence in the Security Council.

Still, there were good reasons for thinking that a China clearly nervous that the wave of social revolutions sweeping the Middle East this year would spread east, would offer more resistance. The Chinese government and media has limited its coverage of these unfolding events, and when they did offer commentary on the upheavals, they stressed the need for stability and called on foreign governments to refrain from interfering in the process.  The Russian media was less constrained, but like Chinese coverage, gave great play to new government measures to improve social welfare and otherwise address possible sources of mass discontent.

Such an approach has been reminiscent of the way the Chinese media responded to alleged Western support for the pro-democracy demonstrations in Iran in 2009. An editorial in the official China Daily observed, for example, argued that: ‘attempts to push the so-called colour revolution (in Iran) toward chaos will prove very dangerous…A destabilized Iran is in nobody’s interest if we want to maintain peace and stability in the Middle East, and the world beyond.’

In addition to limiting Western influence, China and Russia doubtless didn’t want to alienate Middle Eastern regimes with whom they have cultivated valuable energy and other economic ties. The Gaddafi government has indicated that it will now consider offering oil block contracts directly to China and other countries that have supported it against the rebels, while Chinese diplomats have increased their activities in the Middle East and North Africa since the Arab Spring began in an effort both to better understand developments in the region and to ensure that Beijing maintains good ties with any new regimes that come to power.

And the two countries also have significant Muslim minority populations to think about—neither Beijing nor Moscow wanted to associate themselves too closely with yet another Western military intervention in a Muslim-majority country. Conversely, publicly denouncing Western military actions against Libya was an easy way to earn favour with people in the Arab world and elsewhere who were concerned about such a massive use of force. In fact, even some Arab leaders who supported the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya objected to the use of air strikes against ground targets. Amr Moussa, secretary general of the Arab League, complained after the bombing began that, ‘What’s happening in Libya is different from the objective of imposing a no-flight zone…what we want is the protection of the civilians, not bombing them.’ 

Yet eager as they have been to avoid inflaming Muslim opinion, Beijing and Moscow clearly saw the risk of straining ties with the West as an even bigger danger.

After years of attempting to reassure the world about its peaceful rise, the past year has seen a number of missteps in Chinese foreign policy, including a series of provocative acts over border disputes. Stung by the criticism it has received, and keen not to exacerbate tensions with the United States in particular any further, China apparently decided not to stand in the way of the West’s intervention. Russian officials, meanwhile, want to continue to ‘reset’ relations with key Western countries that have only recently begun to recover from the Russia-NATO freeze that followed the August 2008 Russia-Georgia War.

Evidence of this new mindset is clear from the fact that not only did China and Russia decide against exercising their Security Council veto, but they have also declined to coordinate their opposition to Western policies in Libya. So far at least, cooperation has merely consisted of government officials citing each other’s opposition to reinforce their own complaints.

Still, the awkwardness over the Chinese and Russian decisions to accept the Western military intervention in Libya shouldn’t be underestimated. The Russian ambassador to Libya, for example, resigned in protest over what he called Moscow’s ‘betrayal’ of the Gaddafi government. Meanwhile, a commentary in People’s Daily sounded more than a little defensive as it justified China’s abstention by claiming that China had once again insisted on ‘consistent principles.’

Maybe. But either way, if the United States and other NATO members want to ensure there is no lasting diplomatic fallout over the Libyan issue, they will need to keep their military operations in the country modest, lest they further antagonize a disgruntled China and Russia.

And, of course, such limited means are in any case appropriate for a war that is supposedly being waged for limited ends, as part of a conflict where there are clearly no vital national interests at stake for the coalition that is waging it.