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.’Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
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.’