By Samuel Ramani
China’s experiences in the last Libya conflict are informing its position this time around.
On May 21, China’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Ma Zhaoxu, unveiled his government’s position on Libya National Army (LNA) chief Khalifa Haftar’s offensive against Tripoli.
In a statement, Ma urged international stakeholders to respect Libya’s sovereignty and called for a multilateral political solution to the Libyan crisis.
Although China’s support for a political solution in Libya aligns closely with its positions on other protracted conflicts, like the Yemeni civil war and war in Afghanistan, Beijing’s official policy of nonalignment in Libya differs markedly from its handling of the 2011 Libyan civil war.
During that conflict, Chinese companies were accused of negotiating arms sales to al-Gaddafi’s forces, and Beijing criticized NATO’s imposition of a no-fly zone and subsequent military intervention to overthrow Gaddafi.
While China’s pro-Gaddafi stance in 2011 could be explained by its possession of $20 billion in outstanding contracts with Libya before the war, its support for the status quo initially undermined its ability to forge good relations with the opposition National Transitional Council (NTC)-led government.
These tensions were worrying for Chinese investors, as the NTC stated that it would give preferential treatment to countries that opposed Gaddafi during the civil war.
Although China could point to its abstention from UN Resolution 1973, which authorized the use of force in Libya, and recognition of the NTC on September 12, 2011, as proof of the ambiguity of its position, this experience taught Chinese policymakers the benefits of appearing neutral in Libya.
China’s official policy of nonalignment in Libya should not be equated with complete detachment from the conflict, however, as Beijing has vested interests in ensuring the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) possesses control over Tripoli.
China’s partiality toward the GNA can be explained by its pursuit of commercial opportunities with entities aligned with Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj.
In May 2018, Chinese state-run oil company PetroChina signed a major contract with Libya’s National Oil Corporation (NOC) aimed at helping Libya increase its oil production. Although the NOC has maintained a working relationship with Haftar as the LNA controls critical oil facilities in eastern Libya, the institution plays a vital role in financing the GNA.
The NOC’s deals with China also paved the way for al-Sarraj’s decision to join the Belt and Road Initiative in July 2018.
Since expressing interest in the BRI, the GNA’s diplomatic outreach toward China has intensified and broadened. In September 2018, al-Sarraj openly called for an expansion of Chinese investment in Libya, and at the February 2019 Munich Security Conference, GNA representatives lauded Libya as a potential gateway for Chinese economic influence in central Africa.
In response to these statements, Chinese Ambassador to Libya Li Zhiguo praised the GNA for improving Tripoli’s security situation and stated that China had plans for a swift expansion of its economic presence in Libya.
These extant and proposed economic links between China and the GNA contrast with Haftar’s conspicuous silence about China as a potential economic partner.
The only exception to this silence occurred in October 2016, when Haftar-aligned Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani claimed that a Chinese consortium wanted to provide capital for a $36 billion infrastructure redevelopment program in Tobruk.
The refusal of Chinese officials to acknowledge this pledged investment undercut the credibility of al-Thani’s claims.
To explain the absence of official contacts between Haftar and China, Jalel Harchaoui, an expert on Libya at the Hague-based Clingendael Institute, told The Diplomat that Chinese policymakers were reluctant to invest in Tobruk because of the LNA’s lack of hard currency and the inability of the Haftar-aligned central bank to sign contracts with international stakeholders.
In order to subtly advance the GNA’s position without jeopardizing its neutrality, China has actively supported a ceasefire in Libya, as the GNA has historically possessed an upper hand in peace negotiations, due to its status as Libya’s UN-recognized government.
China’s support for multilateral peace initiatives instead of country-led initiatives, like those advanced by the United Arab Emirates, Italy, and France, aligns closely with its views on the international order and strategic priorities.
China’s adherence to strict multilateralism in Libya reflects its skeptical view of the ability of external stakeholders to constructively influence the situation in Libya.
An April 8 article in the Global Times argued that Haftar’s offensive in Libya could be indirectly explained by the West’s handling of the Arab Spring, and noted that Libya’s deteriorating economic situation was proof “that the Western model is not almighty and means huge risks for many developing countries.”
China’s May 21 expression of support for an expansion of the African Union’s (AU) role in ending hostilities in Libya also aligns with these principles, as the AU has consistently called for a ceasefire in Libya without external interference.
Within a UN framework, China is likely to take a back seat and allow other great powers to dominate the resolution of the Libyan conflict.
According to Harchaoui, China does not wish to convert its preference for the GNA into tangible support for al-Sarraj’s government.
China has notably refused to comply with al-Sarraj’s request for Chinese support in lifting the international arms embargo on Libya and has not helped the Libyan government’s efforts to unfreeze financial assets.
This demonstrates the limits of China’s willingness to directly involve itself in resolving a seemingly intractable conflict in Libya.
Although China is gradually seeking to expand its geopolitical influence in the Middle East and North Africa, Beijing’s cautious handling of Haftar’s escalation in Libya reveals its unwillingness to directly engage in the resolution of protracted conflicts.
While China’s preference for the GNA impacts how it views events in Libya, it is unlikely to extend this partiality into concrete backing for al-Sarraj’s government.
This reticence will likely ensure that China supports multilateral peace initiatives from the sidelines, without acting as a central player, in the months to come.
Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford, specializing on Russian foreign policy and conflict resolution in the Middle East.