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China's Balancing Act in Libya

Sandy Alkoutami , Frederic Wehrey
Sunday, May 10, 2020, 10:00 AM

While other countries have intervened with force, China has taken a cautious approach to preserve its options.

Chinese officials meet with the Libyan Higher Council of State in April 2018. Photo Credit: Libyan Higher Council of State Facebook Page via Libyan Express

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Editor’s Note: Libya is in flux, with the civil war and outside interventions constantly changing the country’s power balance. The United States has chosen to retreat from Libya, but China continues to play an important role. Sandy Alkoutami and Frederic Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment explain China's shifting approach to Libya and how it might evolve in the years to come.

Daniel Byman


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 Moammar 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.

How China Navigates a Fractured Libya

Throughout Tripoli’s passage of power from the NTC to the General National Congress (GNC) to, finally, the GNA, China focused its diplomatic attention on the mostly formal, mostly centralized government structures in Libya. But when the eastern-based renegade general Khalifa Haftar launched an unsanctioned military operation in eastern Libya in May 2014, the country entered a second civil war. The fighting split the country into two opposing and loosely construed political camps: an eastern administration aligned with Haftar and one in Tripoli representing his opponents. Once again, a disrupted and destabilized Libya complicated China’s approach to the country.

In late 2015, the GNA emerged as the new political authority, the product of negotiations brokered by the United Nations and backed by China. Although the GNA was supposed to bridge political divisions, it left key economic and security issues unresolved. The result was a reconfiguration of the conflict that went through several iterations in various parts of the country. The most severe and internationalized phase began on April 4, 2019, when Haftar launched a surprise attack on the GNA in Tripoli. Since then, foreign powers—namely the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Turkey and Russia—have shifted from working through local proxies to intervening directly with their own airstrikes and mercenaries.

Observing how Libya’s fractured landscape has thwarted outside attempts to pick sides, and learning from its experience in 2011, China has pursued a policy of cautious neutrality and diplomatic and economic diversification. Officially, it backs the GNA, and Chinese diplomats have met with GNA officials nine times between 2016 and 2020. The most significant meeting occurred in mid-2018, when GNA Minister for Foreign Affairs Mohamed Taha Siala attended the eighth ministerial meeting of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in China and met with State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi. The two signed a memorandum of understanding, committing to work together to bring to Libya China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), President Xi Jinping’s flagship foreign policy initiative that demonstrates China’s ambitions to play a larger role in the global order and deepen economic linkages through infrastructure, development, and other investments. Pulling this off, of course, will require China to secure reconstruction bids in the Middle East and North Africa, making Libya a fitting target for Beijing. Along with Libya’s induction into the BRI, the GNA welcomed Chinese businesses back to Libya in 2018. By the following year, bilateral trade between the two countries amounted to $6.21 billion, reflecting a 160.1 percent year-on-year increase, primarily due to rebounding Libyan oil exports to China.

For China, the GNA is an attractive partner, even if just for the time being. The GNA still controls the Central Bank of Libya, giving it the ability to deploy funds, sign contracts, and distribute capital to partners, all of which are necessary for any viable partner for Beijing. For its part, the GNA has welcomed Chinese engagement, especially on areas like the upgrading and rebuilding of Libya’s infrastructure—an essential long-term concern for the GNA, evidenced by its embrace of China’s telecommunications companies, including Huawei and ZTE.

Should the Haftar-aligned government in the east establish its own hard-currency accounts or prevail over the GNA in financial capacity, China would likely bolster its relationship with the eastern-based government as well. China has already begun eyeing deals with Haftar and has been keeping economic channels open. Chinese state-owned companies’ agreement to fund eastern-based Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni’s development projects in 2016 reflects Beijing’s inclination to adapt to changing realities on the ground. Unlike Russia, which has provided substantial, frontline military aid to the Haftar camp, China’s direct relationship with the east is strictly economic—though Chinese-made Wing Loong drones, purchased and piloted by the United Arab Emirates, have been an important part of Haftar’s multiple military campaigns. China is also uninterested in leading conflict mediation efforts, a role that has been of growing interest to Russia.

China’s neutrality and deep pockets make it an attractive prospect for both the GNA and the eastern administration. For now, it is unlikely that either side will push back on China’s nonalignment policy in Libya. And Libyans themselves, who have been roiled by the onslaught of foreign fighting and influence, may even view an impartial China as a partner for postconflict reconstruction. Indeed, China’s actions in 2011 have predisposed Libyans to negativity toward China, but the NTC has since left, and citizens are looking to see an end to the current phase of foreign military intervention. After all, China has consistently denounced foreign interference and repeatedly called for a political solution to the conflict, endorsing a cease-fire and settlement among warring parties under the auspices of the United Nations.

China Hedges Its Bets

Libya is not the first war-racked country in which China has pursued narrow economic gains instead of backing a particular faction or trying to end the conflict. In Iraq, Yemen, and Syria, China has avoided alignment with rival factions while maintaining its ability to compete for postconflict contracts. In more stable countries, China has also exerted its economic power, becoming the largest source of foreign investment in the Middle East and the region’s largest trading partner. While China’s BRI projects are declining worldwide, the Middle East and North Africa is the only region that is experiencing an increase in Chinese investment and construction projects. By 2019, the region had become the second-largest recipient, second only to Europe.

For the Chinese government, the BRI serves as the primary vehicle for fulfilling its objective of elevating its economic and geopolitical status worldwide. For many reasons—including opportunities in the realms of natural resources, energy, infrastructure and trade—China views the region as an obvious priority. To date, the BRI’s footprint is fairly extensive in the Arab world; 15 countries, including every country in North Africa, has signed either a partnership agreement or memoranda of understanding with China on the basis of mutually beneficial agreements. Central to these agreements are two vital considerations for China: stability and development. These tenets may not be the most compatible with countries engaged in conflict, but they reflect the circumstances that enable China to become involved in countries as they move toward postwar reconstruction. Libya, in particular, underscores how China is quite flexible in its engagement, adapting to local conditions rather than using the BRI to ruthlessly impose the “China model” on its countries of interest.

In Libya, China’s strategy reinforces its regional, and even global, approach. China has managed to avoid becoming entangled in the conflict and, instead, poised itself to reap benefits no matter the outcome. Recognizing a possible win-win situation, China has hedged its bets. As signatories of a BRI agreement, China and the GNA have ensured a future partnership when the conflict settles. At the same time, China’s CNPC and subsidiary oil corporations are poised to engage with an increasingly autonomous east, which comprises a large portion of the oil infrastructure in Libya. For other intervening states in Libya, such as Turkey and Russia, Libya is a vital gateway to sub-Saharan Africa. China, by contrast, has already contrived influence in the Horn, leaving Beijing in a far less desperate position than other external actors who are still trying to secure their position in Africa. Despite high levels of commercial risk in Libya, China can patiently strategize and prioritize gains there as Russia battles for influence.

China has also attempted to capitalize on global trends to elevate its superpower status worldwide. Against the backdrop of U.S. withdrawal from the international stage, China has stepped up its assistance, providing aid to 82 countries, including Libya, in response to the coronavirus pandemic. But this “mask diplomacy” has ignited criticism over China’s handling of its domestic pandemic response—including its reported cover-ups, bureaucratic mismanagement, disputed information and treatment of Africans in the southern city of Guangzhou. These grievances aside, China’s financial and technical capabilities in times of crisis are appealing to countries that need to procure medical equipment and other goods and services. For now, some countries in Africa, Latin America, Europe and Asia have been pragmatically engaging in limited transactions with China. But countries that have already been predisposed to distrust China—such as Ghana, Kenya, India and Indonesia—are not going to throw open their doors to broader Chinese influence or give preferential treatment to Beijing. Libya is no exception.

While China’s nonalignment in Libya was motivated by an attempt to protect interests in 2011, China’s hesitation to take sides in 2020 points instead to a desire to maximize its diplomatic and economic gains no matter the conflict’s outcome. Part of China’s strategy in Libya has remained consistent: When balancing competing interests, the path of least resistance is most appealing and fruitful—and, often, this is the path of neutrality. Despite several multilateral attempts to reach a solution, Libya’s conflict will likely continue unabated. Among the major international players in Libya, China is moving from the background to increasing prominence, poised to advance its interests regardless of which Libyan faction triumphs on the ground.

Sandy Alkoutami is a Gaither Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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.”

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