China’s strategy in Africa has drawn a lot of criticism in the West. Those critics are now having their day in the sun. First, China saw its alliance with Sudan’s Al Bashir rendered useless by the partition of that state. The new nation of South Sudan owes no particular debt to China, and in fact has some cause to resent Beijing’s unstinting support for the regime that once oppressed its people. But the attraction between oil and money is constant; South Sudan and China will manage to get along.
The mess in Libya, however, is of a slightly different magnitude. The experience in Sudan should have taught Beijing that power does change hands, and there’s a value to staying in with the outs. But even after a protracted Arab Spring that resulting in the high-profile toppling of Mubarak in Egypt, Beijing still seemed to be caught off balance by the Libyan civil war. It sat out on military intervention but endorsed sanctions: The former is consistent with its ideology of non-interference, the latter is contradictory.
In the early stages of the Libyan conflict, China made statements about “stability” that many interpreted as a coded call for Qaddafi to crack down. Worse, Beijing later admitted that Chinese weapons manufacturers had met with Qaddafi’s government in the midst of the insurrection. At best this meeting was bad judgment and atrociously timed; if it happened behind the government’s back, it demonstrates a serious shortage of civilian control over China’s weapons industry.
Finally, China waited until almost the bitter end to recognize the rebels, acknowledging the rebel leaders’ authority even while Qaddafi was still in the country. This may have been pure pragmatism on Beijing’s part – the writing was certainly on the wall, and rebels had already threatened to cut China out of future oil contracts – but the decision sabotages China’s claim that its non-interference policy is about more than self-interest.
Absolute non-interference is an impossible doctrine for countries that engage in global trade; money is influence, and influence interferes. But there’s plenty of room to “interfere” without sanctioning air strikes. China needs to reframe its diplomatic approach to reflect the reality of its wider interests. If it wants to claim the moral high ground, however, taking a position against weapons sales to developing economies would be an excellent place to start.