By Sandy Alkoutami & Frederic Wehrey
Among the bevy of great and middle powers involved in Libya, China is often neglected.
It is not pouring in mercenaries or conducting airstrikes—like the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Russia—but China is steadily investing and exerting influence in ways that promote Libya’s eventual integration into China’s global ambitions.
When Libyans erupted in protest against Gadhafi in 2011, China abstained from the U.N. Security Council vote to authorize military intervention and swiftly decried the NATO-led response of a no-fly zone and aerial attacks on government forces.
Couched in fears of a “humanitarian disaster” and potentially countervailing U.S. influence, China’s vehement resistance reflected its calculated neutrality in Libya and the broader region at the time. This policy of neutrality has grown even more salient since.
Since the fall of Gadhafi’s regime, China’s involvement in Libya has focused on economic penetration—its most robust line of influence—and behind-the-scenes diplomacy.
Underpinning these activities is China’s mercantilist ambitions and wariness about military entanglement. Yet despite Beijing’s strict adherence to its principles of cautious and limited engagement, China has shown an acute awareness of local realities, reconfiguring its approach to adapt to shifting conditions while maximizing its gains to account for the conflict’s unknown outcome.
The Origins of China’s Nonalignment Policy in Libya
China has maintained business interests in Libya since long before conflict in the country began in 2011. Under the Gadhafi regime, China engaged in various infrastructure activities, and Libya sent considerable capital to China in return.
By 2011, China had 75 companies conducting roughly $18.8 billion worth of business in Libya. These activities involved 36,000 Chinese laborers working across 50 projects, ranging from residential and railway construction to telecommunications and hydropower ventures.
Most notably, in the year leading up to Libya’s revolution, Libya was providing 3 percent of China’s crude oil supply—that is, 3 percent of the supply for the world’s second largest consumer, constituting roughly 150,000 barrels per day, or one-tenth of Libya’s crude exports.
Chinese businesses were deeply involved in the Libyan oil industry, beyond imports. All of China’s top state oil firms—CNPC, Sinopec Group and CNOOC—had standing infrastructure projects in Libya.
When confronted with the outbreak of protests in 2011, China sought to preserve its economic ties to Libya while rejecting the NATO-led military intervention, a campaign that would impugn China’s long-held dogma of noninterference.
China also had to contend with its relationship with the Arab League and African Union member states; both organizations resolutely supported the military intervention, and though China opposed the NATO-led campaign, Beijing also had an interest in maintaining its recently strengthened diplomatic and economic relations with countries in the Middle East and Africa.
Even more, Beijing sought to protect its own domestic security and avoid endorsing the so-called Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, a global norm of intervention in sovereign countries on the basis of protecting human rights.
This outlook was also shared by Russia, resulting in a convergence of Sino-Russian policies regarding not only Libya but also Syria and Iran, with China often following Moscow’s lead.
Such factors in 2011 help to explain China’s subsequent maneuvering in Libya.
China’s abstention in the U.N. Security Council vote prevented it from being locked in a rigid position on Libya, leaving it space both to criticize airstrikes against the Gadhafi regime and eventually to recognize the opposition’s political body, the National Transitional Council (NTC), as the sole legitimate authority in Libya.
The latter action could have been motivated by fears of growing criticism from the NTC, which singled out the refusal of countries such as Russia, China and Brazil to support rebels during the revolution.
The opposition-run oil firm AGOCO told Reuters in 2011, “We don’t have a problem with western countries like the Italians, French and UK companies. But we may have some political issues with Russia, China and Brazil.” Yet by the end of the spring, China initiated contact with the NTC and soon established a steady working relationship with opposition leadership.
In June 2011, China held its first meeting with then-chairman of the executive board of the NTC Mahmoud Jibril, and in the following month the director of the Department of West Asian and North African Affairs of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Chen Xiaodong, visited Benghazi.
Despite the growing closeness between the NTC and China, Beijing still maintained relations with the Gadhafi regime, even receiving the Libyan foreign minister and his representatives in Beijing.
But in July 2011, reports began to surface accusing China of hosting Gadhafi officials to secure arms deals with Beijing in violation of the U.N. embargo, which the Chinese Foreign Ministry later denied, marking the lowest point in the China-NTC relationship.
Jibril expressed alarm at dealing with China following these allegations, stating that the NTC could not cooperate with Beijing in the same way it had with the U.S., Italy and France.
With a damaged reputation on the line, as well as its businesses interests, China exercised caution against complete partiality, instead leveraging its economic clout and relatively limited involvement in the conflict.
What ensued was a series of dialogues with Libya’s new de facto government. From September 2011 until the outbreak of civil war in mid-2014, China and officials from the newly formed Libyan government held five more diplomatic meetings.
To be sure, the declining security conditions after 2011 affected China’s economic footprint in the country.
Though many Chinese projects were suspended in Libya and year-on-year bilateral trade between the two countries decreased by more than 57 percent, China’s careful neutrality paved the way for Beijing to stand in good stead with the later U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) for years to come.
Frederic Wehrey is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the author of “The Burning Shores: Inside the Battle for the New Libya.”
Sandy Alkoutami is a Gaither Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.