Observers of politics in the Arab world and the broader Middle East continue to scrutinize China’s place in the region. Dissecting the nuances of Chinese diplomacy and foreign policy towards such a large swath of energy-rich territory that is so deeply ensconced in a U.S.-led alliance and security architecture also provides insight into the course of Sino-U.S. relations and China’s trajectory overall. Driven by its quest for oil to fuel its economy—China is the world’s second largest importer of oil—and access to untapped consumer markets for its exports, China’s footprint in the region is poised to grow in the years ahead.
Given this background, it is worth looking beyond the energy and economic interests that underlie Beijing’s presence in the Arab world to examine its approach to handling some of the most contentious issues impacting the region, including the circumstances that culminated in the independence of Southern Sudan and the conflict in Libya. China portrays itself as an ally and friend of Arab countries; China’s public diplomacy towards Arab leaders and publics is replete with references to its commitment to friendship and the fostering of relationships based on “mutual respect,” “equality” and “sovereignty.” These themes underpin Beijing’s adherence to a policy of “non-interference” in other nations’ affairs. China also affirms its support for the issues and causes that resonate among Arabs (Xinhua News Agency [Beijing], November 10, 2010). In doing so, China attempts to distinguish itself from other powers in the region, most notably the United States. Although the United States has engendered feelings ranging from suspicion to resentment to hostility, China has assumed the role of a benign power that stands by its partners and provides an alternative to the United States.
Yet in the cases of Sudan and Libya, principle seems to be divorced from practice in the application of Chinese foreign policy. Despite vocal and material Chinese support for Sudan over the years as it fought numerous secessionist movements and garnered international pressure stemming from its links to international terrorism and war crimes indictments, Beijing ultimately sided with the global consensus and recognized the independence of the Republic of South Sudan (Xinhua News Agency, July 9). Likewise, while strongly opposing foreign intervention in Libya, China did not employ its veto power as a permanent member of the UN Security Council (UNSC) to thwart the passage of UNSC Resolution 1973. This resolution paved the way for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)-led military campaign to support the rebellion against Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi’s forces. China instead chose to abstain from the vote. China’s opposition to NATO’s military campaign also has not precluded it from meeting with members of the NATO-backed insurgents fighting al-Qaddafi’s forces (Al-Jazeera [Doha], June 21). China’s apparent contradictory approach to “non-interference” is especially salient seeing that in both Sudan and Libya, China also appeared to violate its firm position on combating what it calls the “Three Evils" or "Three Forces” (三股势力): terrorism, separatism and religious extremism (Xinhua News Agency, September 22, 2006).
One goal of Chinese foreign policy over the years was to enlist international support for the “One China” principle that defines Taiwan, Tibet and the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region as sovereign parts of the People’s Republic of China, despite the latter two’s restive independence-minded, ethno-sectarian and nationalist identity politics. Defeating the threat of the “Three Evils,” for instance, underlies regional counterterrorism efforts led by China in Central Asia under the auspices of its Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Among the SCO’s multilateral initiatives is to identify and address the threats posed by terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism, including through the execution of joint military exercises such as the “Peace Mission” series that feature the armed forces of China, Russia, and the former Soviet Republics (China Radio International [Beijing], July 6; See "China’s Growing Clout in the SCO: Peace Mission 2010," China Brief, October 8, 2010).
In spite of having nurtured a multitude of strategic interests over the years in Sudan and Libya, China showed a willingness to recalibrate its position to adapt to the emerging realities on the ground. Observers of Sino-Arab relations should not be surprised by Beijing’s actions. A close reading of China’s behavior amid the evolving events in Sudan indicates that strategic expediency trumps principle and rhetoric. Most importantly, a reconsideration of China’s concept of “non-interference” and, especially, its readiness to retreat from its traditionally strong position of combating the “Three Evils” it has defined, as evidenced by its recognition of the independence of Southern Sudan and its open liaisons with the Libyan rebels, will further highlight the gap between its convictions and their real-world application. This reality raises a separate series of questions related to China’s thinking about the Arab world and its declared solidarity with countries facing the “Three Evils.”
“Non-Interference” and the “Three Evils”
Two principles that underpin Chinese foreign policy towards the Arab world and its diplomacy in the broader sense rest on China’s traditional posture of “non-interference” in the affairs of other nations, particularly developing countries, and, more recently, its advocacy for combating the “Three Evils” of terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism.
With its legacy as an influential force in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and its role in supporting numerous anti-colonial and national liberation struggles globally, China has endeared itself to regional governments and masses alike in the Arab world. As China’s economy has continued to boom, authoritarian leaders have elevated China’s state-directed approach to modernization to a status of reverence. In this regard, as an authoritarian system in its own right, China has provided a more palatable development model to neo-liberal development models, including the so-called “Washington Consensus.” China’s application of soft power to build its brand resonates in a region where collective memories of toiling under Western colonial rule remain fresh and are often juxtaposed with the present conditions that gave rise to a post-colonial American hegemony from the Maghreb to the Gulf. With a discourse that emphasized “South-South” cooperation, independence, and solidarity, countries with a history of being on the receiving end of Western-led campaigns found in China an advocate for their independence and right to charter their own paths without foreign interference or pressure. In return, China has been able to enlist support on issues related to its concerns about foreign meddling in internal affairs, including support for the “One China” principle and quashing dissent in Tibet and Xinjiang. China’s steady rise on the global stage has come with a growing boldness in upholding its interests from what Beijing sees as a U.S.-led effort led to contain China’s influence and impede its development. In a steady progression from its advocacy of the “One China” principle, China’s growing assertiveness on the question of Taiwan and concerns that domestic flashpoints such as Tibet and Xinjiang are being manipulated by hostile foreign forces, namely the United States and its allies in East and South Asia, bent on ensuring that it remain hemmed in is reflected in its spearheading of a multi-front campaign to attack the threats of terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism. China’s proactive strategy to defeat the “Three Evils” also resonates where terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism, broadly defined, threaten existing governments.
China’s adherence to the notions of “non-interference” and its advocacy against separatism ultimately did not amount to much for Khartoum when it came to the secession of South Sudan. China formally recognized the independence of South Sudan on July 9 in its eagerness to establish full diplomatic relations with the new state (Xinhua News Agency, July 9). China’s longstanding relationship with Sudan—Sudan was the fourth country in Africa to establish diplomatic relations with China in 1959—serves as an ideal guide to testing China’s commitment to its principles in the Arab world. Sudan achieved pariah status in the international community for its ties to global terrorism and its actions in its numerous civil conflicts with separatists on its own soil, but could count on China for diplomatic and economic support. Even the international outcry against Khartoum for atrocities committed during its recurring fight against the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) fighting for the independence of southern Sudan, failed to dislodge China’s support.
Strategic imperatives revolving around oil interests always have shaped China’s policy towards Sudan. Sudan is a major source of oil for China and is China’s third largest trading partner in Africa. China is Sudan’s largest trading partner and imports over half of Sudan’s daily output of approximately 500,000 barrels per day (bpd), making it China’s sixth largest source of foreign oil (OilPrice.com, July 11; Reuters, June 16; Wall Street Journal, June 29). China’s state-owned oil firms have established a dominant presence throughout the country, having exploited its status as an international pariah and target of sanctions that discouraged many other states to do business with Khartoum. Sudan’s embattled international position stemming from human rights abuses perpetrated during its campaign to crush domestic insurrection did not prevent Beijing from providing it with arms and diplomatic support through the years (See “Sudan: China’s Outpost in Africa,” China Brief, October 13, 2005). Likewise, in spite of being born out of a separatist rebellion opposed by China for so long, the nature of South Sudan’s oil riches—most of the Sudan’s oil reserves were located in the south of the country and were inherited by the new state—require that both Sudan and South Sudan work together to ensure that oil continues to flow freely. The current placement of oil pipeline infrastructure ensures that Khartoum and Juba remain tied economically. China maintains a keen interest in seeing oil from South Sudan continue to flow north unimpeded through Sudanese territory to the Red Sea (Sudan Tribune [Khartoum], August 1).
Weighed against the multilayered ties nurtured between Beijing and Khartoum over the years, Sino-Libyan relations pale in depth and complexity. Attempting over the years to assume a leadership role in Africa and the Arab world, Libya criticized China’s growing inroads on the continent. In a critique of China’s approach to doing business in Africa, Libyan Foreign Minister Mousa Kousa declared in late 2009: “When we look at the reality on the ground we find that there is something akin to a Chinese invasion of the African continent. This is something that brings to mind the effects that colonialism had on the African continent” (Financial Times [London], February 24; See “Libya Cautions China: Economics Is No Substitute to Politics,” China Brief, December 3, 2009). China and Libya nevertheless cultivated closer relations in recent years. Chinese investments in Libya, revolving mostly around major construction and infrastructure projects, topped $18 billion. China also emerged as Libya’s third-largest oil customer (although Libyan oil constitutes only a small fraction of Chinese oil imports). Inspired by the wave of popular revolt around the Arab world, opposition-minded rebels took up arms against al-Qaddafi’s regime in February, plunging the country into a full-fledged civil war between al-Qaddafi’s regular and irregular security forces and a diverse set of rebels united in their opposition to the regime in Tripoli. At the start of the conflict, China was forced to evacuate around 36,000 workers from the country (Al-Jazeera, April 14).
While China continues to lambaste NATO for its actions against Libya and to express its wish for the peaceful resolution of the conflict, Beijing’s strong language has not precluded it to meet regularly with the Transitional National Council (TNC), the official anti-Qaddafi-led rebel government. The United States and 25 other countries currently recognize the TNC as the official representative body of Libya (ShababLibya.org, July 14). While China has not officially recognized the TNC, its decision to host its Chairman of the Executive Board Mahmoud Jibril in China in late June marked an important turning point for the rebel movement as it continues to seek international legitimacy and recognition. China first engaged the TNC officially in a meeting with TNC Chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil in Doha, Qatar in early June. China has since dispatched one of its Egypt-based diplomats to meet with TNC officials in the rebel-held city of Benghazi in eastern Libya to discuss the humanitarian situation, Chinese business interests and property in Libya and purchasing oil from the rebel government (Xinhua News Agency, June 9; Global Times [Beijing], June 21). Based on the steady growth of diplomatic contacts between Beijing and the TNC, official Chinese recognition of the TNC may be on the horizon.
The evolving nature of China’s interests and commitments in the Arab world and elsewhere are making it increasingly difficult for Beijing to adhere to policies formulated on purely ideological premises. Beijing’s attempts to strike a balance between its declared principles and the geopolitics of the day probably will make strategic reassessments and contradictions more frequent in Chinese foreign policy. Significantly, China’s incremental recalibration and softening of the "non-interference" principle and hard-line stance on combating the "Three Evils" may come back to haunt Beijing. These ideas have defined Chinese foreign policy for decades, particularly in the Arab world, where Beijing’s stance on foreign interference in domestic affairs earned plaudits. China’s acquiescence to the secession and subsequent independence of Southern Sudan and its growing engagement with the Libyan TNC may cause many who look to China as a potentially dependable ally when it comes to internal matters to think twice. More importantly, China’s apparent shift in dealing with and recognizing the legitimacy of ethno-nationalist separatist movements also may embolden Taiwanese, Tibetans, Uighurs, and other constituencies to exploit this new opening in Beijing’s rhetorical armor.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of Helios Global, Inc.