China facing a new reality: it can't always remain neutral

Analysts say China appears to be abandoning it policy of remaining neutral in the domestic affairs of other countries as old regimes crumble in the Middle East and new leaders take control.

BEIJING // Analysts have said China's willingness to transfer allegiance from regimes in the Middle East that are crumbling, and its early interest in rebel groups in Libya, may represent a recalibration of Beijing's "non-intervention" foreign policy.

Experts have also predicted that should protests against President Bashar Al Assad's government in Syria intensify, China would readily embrace whatever new authority looked likely to take power, despite its close ties with Damascus.

Seo Jeong-min, a specialist in ties between the Middle East and East Asia at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, said Beijing was "very swift to change its approach to each regime" as power shifted.

"In Syria, China is very supportive of Bashar Al Assad. I definitely believe China will change its policy and attitude [if the regime falls] and China will support very quickly the new ruling power. The economy is more important for China," he said.

China this week emphasised its opposition to military intervention in Syria, which it supplies with arms.

The state-run newspaper China Daily said any action by Western powers in Syria would cause the region to "plunge deeper into the whirlwind of prolonged unrest".

However, across the Middle East and North Africa, Chinese companies have been active winning construction and energy contracts, and this has sometimes left China having to balance is policy of not interfering in other countries' internal affairs with the need to safeguard economic interests.

After months of discussions with Libyan rebels, China this week indicated it was backing the National Transitional Council, just as it forged links with rebels as the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes fell.

Also, China readily recognised the newly formed South Sudan, which has large oil reserves, despite Beijing's stated opposition to secessionist movements and its strong links with Khartoum.

In a report released this month by The Jamestown Foundation, the analyst Chris Zambelis said China's non-intervention foreign policy "was divorced from practice" in South Sudan and Libya.

"China showed a willingness to recalibrate its position to adapt to the emerging realities on the ground," Mr Zambelis wrote.

China does not however believe it has violated its non-intervention stance in Libya, said Jia Qingguo, a professor in Peking University's School of International Studies. He said Arab governments understood the position China has taken throughout the turmoil this year.

"As long as they can maintain domestic political stability, they should have China's support. But if they cannot ... they can't count on China's 100 per cent support, like in the case of Libya," he said.

He said China was "taking a stronger interest" in events as they unfolded than it has done during similar events in other parts of the world in previous years, when it just "waited until the outcome and then made necessary adaptations".

"It's a gradual process because China has accumulated more and more stakes overseas.

This has forced China to take a clear interest in domestic political situations," he said.

Libya represented a good case of "China's pragmatism in its foreign policy", believes Li Mingjiang, an assistant professor in the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore specialising in China's foreign relations.

He said Beijing's willingness to shift allegiance to new regimes "will concern the capitals of these authoritarian regimes" in the Middle East that China is close to.

While willing to develop links with rebels, China had held a consistent position, he said, perhaps amid concern over copycat protests at home, that "the uprising, the social revolution is not good".

"If you look at the mainstream [Chinese] media coverage, you see a persistent theme arguing that all these dramatic social uprisings and social interventions are not going to lead to democracy and are not going to lead to a better future for the countries involved," Mr Li said.

Within China, there were online attempts to organise protests inspired by those in the Middle East, although these came to nothing when the police turned out in large numbers at demonstration sites.

Human rights groups have said there has been one of the most severe crackdowns on activism for a decade, with hundreds detained.

Published: August 28, 2011 04:00 AM


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