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