During last month’s G-8 summit, China was placed in an awkward position with Russia’s ‘defection’ from silent support of Libya’s Col. Muammar Gaddafi to open support of the opposition. China responded by initiating contacts with Libya’s opposition.
Some have noted that China acquiesced when the UN Security Council was voting on establishing a no-fly zone in Libya because the Arab League openly supported establishing one. Regardless of the vote, however, China didn’t want to see foreign forces interfering in Libyan affairs. This doesn’t imply that China sympathises with Gaddafi. Instead, China is concerned that if further outside action were taken in Libya, then similar situations might occur elsewhere, in countries such as Syria.
‘China has always been on the same page as the Arab League on Middle East issues to avoid offending the major Arab nations,’ one Chinese academic stated on the current situation. ‘Russia also has the same considerations. When more and more Arab nations moved away from Gaddafi, Russia finally abandoned Gaddafi. This is a reason why China’s position has had to change.’
And change it has. Chinese Ambassador to Qatar Zhang Zhiliang met Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the chairman of the transitional council. Meanwhile, the minister-counsellor of the Chinese Embassy in Egypt, Li Lianhe, visited Benghazi, reportedly to learn about the humanitarian situation and the fate of Chinese stat -companies there. At the same time, he made contact with leaders of the transitional council. These moves have been seen by the media in China as the country’s first steps in abandoning Gaddafi.
Naturally, the Gaddafi administration is aware of this. Not long after China had contacted the opposition, the Libyan foreign minister visited China to try to ascertain China’s position. Ministry contacts I’ve spoken with told me Foreign Minister Abdul-Ati al-Obeidi expressed his disappointment at China’s ambiguous attitude after he was told that China ‘respected Libya’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,’ but also ‘respected the Libyan people’s choices.’
This isn’t the only example of China becoming more active with its Middle East diplomacy.
Late last month, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Mekdad visited Beijing at a time when his country faces serious internal unrest. Meanwhile, Rafael Barak, director general of Israel’s foreign ministry, arrived to discuss Israel-China relations, during a trip that included meetings with senior Chinese officials.
That’s not all. On 12 June, former Israeli Prime Minister and now Defence Secretary Ehud Barak visited China, in the first such visit in 10 years. Aside from talks on resuming military cooperation, he also asked about China’s position regarding the establishment of a Palestinian state and Iran’s nuclear issues. Barak’s trip followed a visit by Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, who was in Beijing late last month to seek China’s support regarding Iran’s nuclear weapons.
For now, at least, all Middle East roads seem to lead through China.