China’s voice too soft to be heard in Libya

Gu Di, a war correspondent for the Global Times, suggested in an article on April 25 that China should get more involved in mediation in Libya. He claimed that local Libyans, both in Gaddafi-controlled Tripoli and the rebel headquarters Benghazi, hold unexpectedly fond feelings toward China.

The pro-Gaddafi side wanted China and Russia to veto the UN’s resolution 1973, so that the NATO airstrikes could have been avoided, and still look to China to play a counter-balancing role.

Meanwhile the rebels urge China to recognize the new regime and provide humanitarian aid.

Based on his on-the-spot interviews in the war-torn country, Gu concluded that China needs to take a stronger diplomatic role in this region.

However, China’s participation in the mediation depends on its influence in the country and Libya’s attitude toward China’s conciliatory efforts, neither of which, in my opinion, gives China enough leverage over Libya.

Despite the enthusiastic involvement of NATO, African Union and Arab League, it is the US that plays a dominant role in the Middle East and North African affairs.

Due to the economic crisis and the quagmire of the Iraq in Afghan wars, the US has been forced to shrink its strategic role in the Middle East, but will not let non-alliance members seize the chance to gouge out more strategic benefits from under its loosening hand, especially a rising power like China.

China will face enormous obstructions from these countries if it attempts to be a more active player.

China observes a diplomatic policy of “non-interference,” which is subject to heated dispute among domestic scholars and experts. Some of them assert China needs to intervene more in international conflicts to safeguard its national interests.

But there are others who argue against interference, advocating that the primary mission of the moment is economic development and interference would retard that progress.

The Chinese government also tiptoes around the issue of intervention in other countries’ internal affairs due to its limited influence over the world.

Even when the riots that broke out in southern Kyrgyzstan last year posed a considerable security threat to the Chinese border, China took no further action other than providing humanitarian aid. This implies its limited leverage over its neighbors, never mind an African nation an ocean away.

At present, the world, especially developing countries, mainly fastens their attention on China’s economic achievement, but even developing countries in the Middle East and North Africa do not readily identify with its political systems.

Some of them even hold entrenched and hostile stereotypes, as Gu admitted in his commentary, such as believing that China is out to steal Libya’s oil or is good for nothing except cheap goods.

China is also an officially atheist and strongly secular state, which makes it difficult to reach out to the deeply religious people of the Middle East.

On the whole, China, with its current political philosophy and despite the campaign for soft power, still falls short of the requirements needed to influence other countries’ political progress.

Gu suggests China commit itself to solving Libyan political crisis as the African Union countries did, like dispatching special envoys to reconcile the rivals’ conflicting political appeals.

But even organizations like the African Union, which has closer ties and deeper knowledge of the evolution of the crisis, could not offer a solution that both sides can accept.

How can we expect a distant nation to accept our proposals?

The author is a scholar with the Institute of South Asian Studies, Sichuan University.

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