China’s response to the recent changes in Libya has been cautious, but positive. But will it herald a more substantive shift in its own relationship with the country? For now, the answer seems to be no. Instead, what seems more likely is that Beijing will continue to watch from afar and wait for a more definitive outcome in terms of a final political settlement and peace. Should that happen, then a more active Chinese presence may well take shape.
2020 was one of the more dynamic years in recent Libyan history. The country has been split since the defeat of the Gaddafi regime in 2011. But the current national division between the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli and the eastern-based House of Representatives (HOR) and its military partner, General Khalifa Haftar and his armed forces, dates back to 2014.
The GNA-HOR/Haftar rivalry has acquired important outside support. In 2019 Haftar began his most recent military offensive against Tripoli. Backing him were Russia, Egypt, and the UAE. With Haftar on the verge of taking the country’s capital, the GNA upgraded its relations with Turkey. From the start of 2020 that paid off in Turkish assistance, which led to a GNA pushback and stalemate by the middle of the year. That deadlock opened the door to talks.
In October 2020 a ceasefire was signed. Then in November, the U.N.-assisted Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) began meeting, bringing together 75 representatives from across the country. The LPDF agreed to hold national elections in December 2021 and to set up a new interim government to oversee that process.
The election of the new interim government took place on February 5. The result was a surprise. Instead of the joint GNA-HOR slate of candidates winning, the new prime minister will be Abdul Hamid Dabaiba and the president of the presidential council will be Mohamed Menfi.
Three days later, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, provided an official response. He welcomed the government’s election and stated China’s hope that a political settlement would be found, saying Beijing would support international efforts to that end. Meanwhile, other Chinese observers, like Professor Fan Hongda at the Middle East Studies Institute at Shanghai International Studies University, noted that while the election was “commendable,” the new government will face big challenges “to bridge the divisions within Libya and minimize foreign interference in Libyan affairs.”
Delivering that may turn out to be beyond the new government. Rather than being a force for change, it now seems that Dabaiba and Menfi will offer continuity. Both have links to the past – Dabaiba oversaw many of the country’s largest public works projects before 2011 and Menfi has ties to Haftar – but their victory is also being treated as unproblematic by Russia and Turkey.
The lack of Russian or Turkish worry signals they have little to fear from the new government. A condition of the ceasefire was for external parties to leave by the end of January. That has not happened and it is unlikely the new government will be able to enforce it. In addition, the government will only have a short time in office. That means Dabaiba and Menfi will also not have enough time to deliver on other parts of the ceasefire, especially the creation of security zones and a full demobilization of armed groups.
In sum then, Libya’s recent advances may be less than they seemed at first. Because of that, observers like Jalel Harchaoui, a Libya specialist at the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, and Oxford University’s Samuel Ramani think that it is unlikely that China will shift course from its current hedging strategy.
According to Ramani, “China supports the GNA and is involved in reconstruction contracts with it. But on the other hand, it is aware of Haftar’s influence in the east and control over the oil fields there.” In short, China seeks “strategic non-alignment” in Libya, a position it has held for much of the past decade and which Ramani has himself written about for this publication.
Harchaoui agrees, saying that “So long as it’s a mess, it has meant China didn’t take sides. It has stayed outside [the conflict] to have all options open to it. China remained on cordial terms with the GNA, but also spoke to the eastern government as well – even though it knew it didn’t have things like a central bank or foreign reserves.”
Harchaoui also thinks that Chinese hedging is visible at the international level as well. Whereas the West sees Russia and Turkey locked in confrontation with each other in Libya, Harchaoui says that “From China’s perspective, it sees two actors who are anti-liberal, who have been snubbed by the West. They have more in common with each other than against each other,” including their support for authoritarian figures in Libya.
Chinese hedging is also helped by the relative unimportance of the country in Beijing’s thinking. Although there were important Chinese business interests in Libya before 2011, the uprising led to an exodus of both capital and labor. The fighting since then has not only diminished Libya’s position in the global economy, but also marginalized it from China. The distance between the two countries is apparent in the absence of a partnership between them.
Ramani believes Libya is likely to remain a secondary concern for China. China will prioritize relations in the Gulf and with Israel, where it has substantial diplomatic and commercial ties. In addition, he thinks that Chinese interests in reconstruction are focused less on Libya than in Iraq, where several Chinese firms have acquired important contracts.
Against this, Ramani does concede there could be greater Chinese involvement if the circumstances are right. “If the conflict continues to de-escalate, that would improve things for China. But if the conflict becomes active and heated again, then they will withdraw.”
If the years of war are indeed coming to an end, then China is well placed to take advantage. “If the government launches new projects, such as a large free-trade zone in Sirte, Chinese companies are very unlikely to stand idly by. They will want a piece of it,” says Harchaoui
Such a prospect could be on the cards given the lack of public investment and infrastructure in Libya in recent years. According to Harchaoui, the presence and character of Dabaiba in the new government may lead to internal pressure to open the taps. Society may also demand more as well.
Harchaoui also believes that Libya is better placed to respond to such demands, especially when compared to other conflict-affected countries in the region like Syria and Yemen. Libya has the resources to pay for new projects. Although its share of oil production has been low recently, it has capacity to ramp it up substantially. Finally, Libya also has other sources of revenue it can dip into, from minerals to a sovereign wealth fund that could be worth up to $65 billion.
Guy Burton is an adjunct professor of international affairs at Vesalius College, Brussels and a Fellow of the Sectarianism, Proxies and De-sectarianisation Project at Lancaster University. He is the author of “China and Middle East Conflicts” (Routledge, 2020) and “Rising Powers and the Arab-Israeli Conflict since 1947” (Lexington, 2018).