A rising power starts to knock against the limits of its hallowed “non-interference”

Alone of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, China has yet to recognise the new government in Tripoli, a clue as to how the recent upheaval in the Arab world has put unusual stress on the country’s much-vaunted hands-off policy when it comes to others’ affairs. With growing economic interests and ever more citizens to worry about in far-flung regions, Chinese policymakers are tweaking their strategy. A more normal—that is to say, less reactive—big-power approach could be slowly in the making.

Rhetorically, the principle of “non-interference” remains sacred. On September 6th China issued a white paper on its “peaceful development” (ie, rise), its first on the topic since 2005, well before financial crisis crushed Western economic confidence and propelled China even more to the fore in international terms. The document said China still upheld the principle and that it respected the right of others to “independently choose their own social system and path of development”. Usually this has meant supporting whoever is in power no matter how thuggish or unpopular. In Libya, though, China wavered.

It could have done as it did in earlier Arab uprisings: wait on the sidelines and recognise the legitimacy of opposition movements only after dictators had fallen. But Libya presented an unusual combination of challenges for China. These included demand at home for prompt action to ensure the safety of more than 35,000 Chinese working in the country; widespread support among (China-friendly) Arab countries for tough action against Muammar Qaddafi; and economic interests in Libya that might be threatened by supporting the wrong side.

China’s response at the start of the year to the upheaval in Egypt was typical of the old style. The state-owned media were quick to portray Cairo’s anti-government demonstrators as lawless troublemakers and played down their impact. The Communist Party did not want citizens at home to get any ideas. After President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation in February, and with calls for a Chinese “jasmine revolution” circulating on the internet, many police were deployed in the centres of big cities to prevent any copycat unrest. China appeared defensive and insecure.

But its approach to the Libyan unrest proved somewhat different. First came its decision to vote in favour of UN sanctions against Colonel Qaddafi. Then it mounted a big operation to fly out its citizens on chartered flights and four military aircraft (China also sent a frigate from its duties off the Horn of Africa to provide protection for vessels transporting refugees across the Mediterranean). The official media called this the largest such operation China had mounted abroad since the Communist takeover in 1949. In a recent paper, the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank, said these moves seemed to reflect China’s realisation that a posture of non-interference was “increasingly at odds with its global economic presence”. Read more…

As published in www.economist.com on September 10, 2011 (Print Edition).


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