Beijing stays aloof of Arab Spring – for now

But recent controversy in Libya points up depth of business ties China has in region, and its confusion in the face of the changing political landscape.

By DAVID ROSENBERG / THE MEDIA LINE
September 9, 2011 10:46
4 minute read.
A Chinese flag in Beijing

china flag 311. (photo credit: Jason Lee / Reuters)

China’s traditional foreign policy of staying aloof of other countries’ internal affairs is being sorely tested in the turmoil of the Arab Spring as Beijing’s commercial ties with the Middle East have grown, Chinese analysts say.

China has a huge economic stake in the region, which is an important source of energy as well as a market for goods and services such as construction. But analysts said they don’t see Beijing raising its political profile for fear it lacks sufficient knowledge of the region and to avoid bumping heads with the West.

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“This region is very, very complicated, with its religions, ethnic groups and big-power struggles” Wei Da, a researcher at China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations in Beijing, told The Media Line.

“The US and Europe care very much about it. We worry that if we invest too much politically, they will say ‘the Chinese are coming,’” he said in the sidelines of a conference near Tel Aviv on Wednesday organized by the Center for Global Research in International Affairs (Gloria) and Signal, a non profit that fosters Israeli-Chinese relations.

Nevertheless, China suffered an embarrassment this week when documents uncovered in a Tripoli waste bin by a Canadian journalist revealed that Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi’s government was conducting talks for some $200 million in arms purchases with a Chinese company as late as July, despite a United Nations ban.

Although the rebels asserted that Chinese state-owned companies did deliver the weapons, Yin Gang, a research professor at Beijing’s Institute of West Asian and African Studies, said Beijing’s denials were probably true.

“The government can’t control everything,” he told The Media Line, suggesting that junior-level employees were behind the effort but that they could not have transferred any material without the government’s permission. “They tried to do business with sales to Gaddafi, but it was only the first stage, just talking about a sale.”

Like the rest of the world, Beijing was taken by surprise by the eruption of rebellions across the Arab world this year. The country’s leaders initially adopted their traditional attitude of non-interference, but as unrest continued, scholars say, Beijing found it increasingly difficult to avoid.

A key event for China was the evacuation of its nationals from Egypt and Libya. Some 30,000 people had to be rescued from Libya alone, in the biggest such operation by the Chinese armed forces since the end of the Cold War.

However, it was as much a humanitarian effort as a sign of the increasingly commercial presence of China’s booming economy in the Middle East. China had more than $18 billion in deals with Libya before the revolution and had doubled oil imports in recent years, even though the two countries squabbled over issues like Taiwan and influence in Africa.

Libyan rebels, who have indicated they will reward with oil and other contracts the West and other foreign powers that helped their fight against the Gaddafi regime, reacted angrily to the news of the Chinese arms talks, Yin said.

Beijing had been hesitant to back the rebels and has yet to recognize the National Transitional Council (NTC) now ruling Libya. Yin suggested that rebel anger of the alleged oil-arms sales might be a reaction to that.

“They are not pleased with China’s attitude toward the revolution,” he said on the sidelines of a conference in Israel Wednesday.

But Da, of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, said Beijing often ends up supporting the status quo in countries like Libya not because it supports despots but because it doesn’t know who among the opposition to support.

“In the Arab Spring, there are no clear leaders. It’s not a very pleasant situation for foreign policy makers,” he said. “We don’t know which voice is the official voice.”

He noted that some members of the TNC had visited Beijing while other had criticized Chinese policy toward Libya.

The turmoil in the Arab world presents Beijing’s leaders with a foreign policy dilemma but it has also aroused concerns that unrest could well up at home, even though a small protest inspired by Tunisia’s so-called “Jasmine Revolution” last February quickly dissipated.

Activists began wearing jasmine flowers on Sunday strolls in an otherwise silent campaign to demand more government accountability. But Chinese analysts said the protest never attracted a large number of supporters. The government, however, was concerned enough to ban the sale of the flowers in China.

Yin said that while China wants to do business with “all groups,” it does respond to international pressure. It has cancelled arms deals with Iran and stopped cooperating with it on nuclear power from 1997 as the West, led by the US, campaigns to prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Iran denies its atomic program has any purposes other than peaceful ones.

“China has slowed down cooperation with Iran on energy as well, under pressure from the Arabs,” he added.

Vis-à-vis Israel, China has signaled in recent months closer relations, even though Beijing has come out in support of the United Nations’ recognizing Palestinian statehood – an initiative Jerusalem strongly opposes. Defense ties had been frosty after US intervention twice scuttled Israeli arms deals with China: The sale of advanced Phalcon spy planes in 2000 and of spare parts for Israeli-built Harpy killer drones five years later.

China's chief of staff, Gen. Chen Bingde, met his Israeli counterpart Gen. Benny Gantz and Defence Minister Ehud Barak in Tel Aviv three weeks ago. In June, Barak made a rare visit to Beijing for talks with Chinese leaders, at the invitation of his Chinese counterpart Liang Guanglie.


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