Wednesday, September 07, 2011

China burning its bridges with Libya

China appears to be burning more bridges as it plays a very undiplomatic game with the fledgling government that is beginning to form through the National Transitional Council in Libya. On Saturday, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the head of Libya's NTC, accused China of blocking the unfreezing of assets. It was an apparent U-turn by Beijing who only two days before had agreed to the release of an initial $15 billion. The interim government desperately needs funds to begin the rebuilding of a nation that has seen significant destruction over the last 6 months, but Beijing seems to be standing in the way of allowing more money to flow. NTC spokesman Shamsiddin Abdulmolah, referring to the Chinese, said "I'm sure they are going to use their veto card to make sure that their interests here in Libya are secure." [Reuters]

It was not immediately clear what the precise complaint China has with allowing more of the some $170 billion of frozen assets to be released. China has not joined Western powers in formally recognising the NTC as the legitimate authority in Libya, though it has acknowledged its "important role" in the country following the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi.

China's stance could be a belligerent and spiteful reaction to statements made recently by an official at Libyan oil company AGOCO, allied with the rebels, who told news agencies they "may have some political issues" in future dealings with China and Russia as they prepared for a return to production [tvnewswatch].

The reasoning behind his statement was due to the fact both Russia and China had failed to support the rebellion and abstained in voting for Resolution 1973 which paved the way for NATO airstrikes and a no-fly zone.

While Russia has maintained has attempted to build bridges with the NTC and the interim government, China seems to be stoking the fires. When nations from around the world met last week to discuss Libya's future Russia said it now recognized the fledgling rebel government despite its opposition to the NATO bombing campaign.

It was the first major show of support from Russia who had earlier shown some reticence. Speaking in Moscow before the meeting Russia's president, Dmitri A. Medvedev had said Russia would withhold official recognition until it appeared the rebels could unite Libya under their leadership. But on Thursday the Foreign Ministry said in a statement that "Our country established and has maintained diplomatic relations with Libya since September 4th, 1955, and has never broken them regardless of what kind of government was in power in Tripoli." [NYT]

China's position was far more vague. Speaking on Thursday last week Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said,"China attaches great importance to the important position and role of the National Transitional Council in resolving the Libya issue." But he stopped short of recognizing the NTC as the legitimate government, only that it would seek to naintain contact and improve relations. "China is ready to maintain close contact with it (the NTC) and steadily advance China-Libya relations," Ma said [Xinhua]. 

By Monday the position had changed little with China insisting it needed to see whether conditions were "ripe" before considering recognition of the National Transitional Council. "When water flows, a channel is formed," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said of China's position as regards the recognition of the NTC. "We place importance on the position and role of the NTC and are ready to maintain close communication with it in order to steadily advance relations between the two sides," she added, insisting that communication between China and the NTC was "smooth and running." [Xinhua

But China may have difficulties with any future government in Libya. China has lost friends over its failing to back NATO action, though it is common for China to abstain in such decisions at the UN. Its vetoing the release of funds will not improve matters. Further revelations over China's support for former dictator Muammar Gaddafi will further incense feelings in Libya.

Toronto's Globe and Mail revealed on Saturday that as recently as July Chinese state companies had offered "huge stockpiles" of sophisticated weapons worth at least $200 million to Colonel Gaddafi's representatives.

China immediately dismissed the accusations. "We have clarified with the relevant agencies that in July the Gaddafi government sent personnel to China without the knowledge of the Chinese government and they engaged in contact with a handful of people from the companies concerned," said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu on Monday. She also insisted that no sales took place [Chinese - fmprc].

But according to the new Libyan government the sales of arms went through. "I'm almost certain that these guns arrived and were used against our people," said Omar Hariri, head of the NTC's military committee. The transitional council also claims it has "hard evidence" such as the  weapons themselves, retrieved from the field, as well as documents of Beijing's sales, this according to the New York Times.

The documents, in Arabic, including a memo from Libyan security officials detailing a shopping trip to Beijing on July 16th, appear to show that state-controlled Chinese arms companies offered to sell $200 million worth of rocket launchers, antitank missiles, portable surface-to-air missiles designed to bring down aircraft, and other weapons and munitions.

Over the weekend, NTC spokesman Abdulrahman Busin said the council would seek accountability for the sales. And there is a lot to be accountable for since the transactions would violate Security Council Resolution 1970, which China actually voted for in February.

Writing for World Affairs Journal, author Gordon Chang suggests that China might be under the illusion that it can trade its vote on blocked funds to ensure that the new Libyan government protects Chinese interests. "If so, the tactic looks unpromising, but even if Beijing gets what it wants in the short term, any victory will come at high cost," Chang writes. "A half decade ago, Western analysts marveled at China's deft diplomacy. Even if they were right then, Beijing officials have since lost their playbook. China is digging itself in deeper with brutish tactics in Libya, just another symptom of its new brazen and belligerent foreign policy."

In an attempt to limit the damage done by the accusation China says it will tighten arms procedures. Speaking at the Foreign Ministry's daily news briefing, Jiang Yu said the government would "further strengthen management over military exports." [NYT / LA Times]

She repeatedly emphasised that no sales took place. "Chinese companies have not provided military equipment to Libya, directly or indirectly," Jiang said on Monday. But according to documents found, sales may have been conducted through a third party. According to the Globe and Mail one memo says the Chinese companies were eager to sell whatever they had ready and to make new weapons, and even suggested a ruse to circumvent sanctions by having Libya purchase through a third country. "The companies suggest that they make the contracts with either Algeria or South Africa, because those countries previously worked with China," the Globe and Mail reported.

While some members of the transitional leadership have expressed misgivings about starting diplomatic spats so early in the process of setting up a new government. There are suggestions they may continue doing business with Chinese companies in future, no matter how unsavoury Beijing's ties were with the former regime. Other members of the NTC appear less certain, suggesting that China's reluctance to endorse the NATO intervention, and the fresh revelations of secret dealings with the Gaddafi regime, could sour relations between the two countries. Speaking on Al-Jazeera, Ali Tarhouni, the interim finance minister,  said, "If indeed the Chinese government agreed to sell arms to Gadhafi only a month ago, definitely it will affect our relationship with China." [Globe and Mail]

Before the revolt in Libya began in February, China sold arms to the Gaddafi government and was a major customer for Libyan oil, buying about 3% of its annual requirements from Libya. China has not always had a comfortable relationship with the Gaddafi regime however. In recent years, the Libyan regime clashed with the Chinese on everything from the rising power's inroads into Africa to Col. Gaddafi's economic and political ties with Taiwan. However, China's need for oil helped sweeten ties between the two countries since 2008 [WSJ].

Of course, China is not the only country which has had a close relationship with the Gaddafi regime. Some western nations including Britain built stronger ties with the former dictator. This week brought accusations that Britain may have been complicit in torture with one rebel leader Abdel Hakim Belhaj claiming MI6 aided his rendition in 2004, and that he was subsequently tortured [BBC].

No nation has been squeaky clean as regards dealing with Gaddafi in the past few years, but China has much to lose in terms of securing much needed oil resources.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

No comments: