The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog

China’s ‘Paradoxical’ Position on the Libyan Crisis

Posted in Internal Conflicts and Human Security by NTSblog on April 4, 2011

The unrest in Libya since mid- February has caused at least hundreds of deaths and the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of foreigners from the country. As the pro-Gaddafi force began to use force on civilians, the international community has become even more concerned about the political and humanitarian consequences of the ongoing situation. The UN Security Council adopted Resolutions 1970 and 1973 , which respectively impose sanctions and a no-fly zone on Libya, with the aim to end the violence.

It is interesting to note that China casted paradoxical votes on the two resolutions – voting in favor of the former but abstained on the latter. China’s support for sanctions on Libya has been deemed as the indication for a possible shift away from the long adherence to the principles of respect for sovereignty and non-interference, while the abstention and China’s recent criticism of the airstrikes against Libya have been consistent with its previous voting record on similar issues in the Security Council. This contradiction is the result of China’s concern for sovereign integrity and its mounting national power. In addition, the attitude of Libya’s neighbors and other major countries in the Security Council serves as the permissive condition for China’s inconsistent positions.

The increasingly visible online nationalism in China has reflected the fact that a majority of the Chinese people supports government efforts to defend sovereign and territorial integrity. This has largely been attributed to the 100-years of humiliation inflicted by foreign powers from the late 19th century until the founding of the new China in 1949. Many Chinese leaders also appear to share similar sentiments. During his meeting with the UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on China’s resumption of sovereignty over Hong Kong, Deng Xiaoping explicitly stated that the sovereignty of Hong Kong was not negotiable. Hence, China’s insecure feeling towards sovereignty has shaped its conservative position on such issues.

However, as China’s national power has been increasing, its confidence over its capability to safeguard sovereign integrity has been growing. Amid the evacuation operation in Libya, the Chinese government dispatched warships and military transport planes to evacuate nearly 36000 Chinese nationals plus 2000 people from other countries within two weeks. It is the first time that China’s air force has participated in a civilian evacuation mission overseas. Apart from that, the participation of the multilateral anti-piracy patrol in the Gulf of Aden and the expanding role of China in UN peacekeeping have all demonstrated the fact that the Chinese military is more capable of projecting its power beyond their traditional comfort zone – the Asia- Pacific.

The growing military power has to some degree eased China’s concern over its own sovereign integrity, and the support of the Arab League for the Security Council resolution 1970 has further encouraged China to back sanctions on Libya. However, as its national power is not yet sufficient to make it feel fully secure, China is not likely to abandon the non-interference principle. Moreover, the fact that Brazil, Germany, India, and Russia abstained from Resolution 1973 to impose a no-fly zone on Libya has reduced the political cost for abstention and thus enabled China to hold reservation.


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