Chinese actions over the Libyan uprising have been an admirable study in fence-sitting. By offering neither tacit approval nor disapproval over UN Security Council Resolution 1974, China allowed the Western powers of NATO to take control of the situation, while satisfying itself with triumphalist rhetoric condemning the allies’ ‘imperialistic’ and heavy-handed approach. But a later meeting with the rebels of the NTC seemed to mark a shift in policy, and an abandonment of the 50-year-old non-interference doctrine. Was China prepared at last to take a stand in defence of the oppressed?
Unsurprisingly, the answer was ultimately no. What is surprising, however, is the revelation by an NTC spokesman that a delegation of Gaddafi loyalists travelled to China in search of weapons, a move counter to the UN-mandated embargo on weapon sales to the country.
The reports claimed that the NTC found military hardware matching the descriptions listed in the orders. All this this is, of course, hardly conclusive proof that China broke ranks with the rest of the international community. Indeed, the Chinese government said it didn’t know anything about the arms. But the fact that these envoys were received at all suggests further evidence of a troubling trend in Chinese international diplomacy, namely China playing the game, but not playing by the rules.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
When China invited International Criminal Court-indicted Sudanese leader Omar Al-Bashir to the country prior to the secession of South Sudan, Beijing bluntly reaffirmed its non-assignation to the Rome Convention and the absence of any legal obligation to implement the ICC’s decision (the United States, sadly, doesn’t recognize such indictments either).
Whatever, Washington’s shortcomings, though, it has increasingly seemed as if China simply doesn’t see the rules as applying to it. Is this symptomatic of the unique position the country occupies, both domestically and internationally? Certainly, despite its rapid growth, China remains a developing country both socially and economically – the economic ‘miracle’ has essentially been the result of the boon of cheap labour. But China is also an ancient civilization, and one that has at times dominated its neighbours. As a result, the Politburo bristles at the ‘developing’ label when it believes the term is being used to look down on China, but is happy to play the developing nation card when confronted with undesirable obligations (the row over carbon emissions cuts at the Copenhagen Climate Conference are a good example).
The situation is obviously complicated by China’s ascent in becoming the dominant foreign investor in Africa. Of course, while China’s policy of propping up dictators may be morally indefensible, its pursuit of raw materials is entirely justifiable from the perspective of a realist power. Such examples of growing influence, combined with a rapidly expanding military, are difficult for China’s already edgy neighbours to ignore.
But the real problem is that China isn’t the only great power that has demonstrated an unhealthy disregard for rules that don’t suit it. The United States, with its history of questionable military interventions and flouting of inconvenient norms, has set a terrible example for China to follow.
There are differences between the two nations – China has so far resisted military interventions, for example. But it’s hard not to feel that those who have suffered under the despotic regimes propped up by China would be unlikely to see much qualitative difference between these two nations’ self-interested foreign policies.
Scott Hockley is a Shanghai-based writer