China: Shooting itself in the foot in Libya?
Let's begin with a mea culpa.
Throughout the Libya war, I have rarely missed an opportunity to take Vladimir Putin's (yes, you read that correctly, Putin's, not Medvedev's) Russia to task for its craven failure to support last March's UN Security Resolution 1973 authorizing military action in Libya.
At the same time, I have often given short shrift to China's supporting role as Russia's co-Resolution-basher-in-arms.
I downplayed Beijing's aloof position as part of a broader policy of not getting mixed up in a far-away democratic revolution that could raise awkward questions about China's own repressive ways.
Russia is now engaged in a delicate diplomatic pas-de-deux with Libya's National Transitional Council. It's belatedly gone from snubbing the once-rebel leadership, to sounding them out, to formally recognising them as Libya's legitimate rulers.
China is laboring to follow suit - but it's making a hash of things, and perhaps digging itself a deeper hole in the process.
At a recent press conference, a foreign ministry official said China "respects the choice of the Libyan people and values the important status and role of the Libyan NTC in resolving the Libyan issue."
Documents in a trash bin
After hedging its bets until the eleventh hour - no scratch that, make that twelfth hour - China's sudden newfound respect for the democratic aspirations of Libya's once-silent majority smacks of craven (yes, that word again) hypocrisy.
For it turns out that China's "respect for the choice of the Libyan people and values" was no match for the opportunism of several state-controlled Chinese arms companies.
A reporter for the Toronto Globe and Mail unearthed documents in a trash bin in a Tripoli neighborhood indicating that Beijing offered to sell $200 million worth of rocket launchers, anti-tank missiles and portable surface-to-air missiles...to Gaddafi's government.
Libyan security officials reportedly made what's been described as a shopping trip to Beijing in mid-July. The Chinese companies are said to have proposed delivering the arms through third-party countries such as Algeria or South Africa, with whom China has done business in the past.
All of this at a time when Beijing had formally endorsed UN Resolution 1970 calling for an arms embargo, and vowed to uphold a policy of strict neutrality.
Of course, in China's sprawling bureaucracy, it's not unthinkable - actually, it's highly likely - that one part of the state apparatus (in this case, the arms manufacturers) could act with a mind of its own, in the absence of the state's approval or prior knowledge.
Russia, hardly a paragon of good ethical foreign policy, says its support of the Libyan weapons embargo cost a Russian state-run arms supplier $4 billion worth of lost contracts.
Moscow also suspended its military contacts with Libya - a stance it failed to take during NATO's 1999 campaign to halt an assault by Serbian forces on ethnic Abanians in Kosovo. (At the time, Russia, and China, reportedly offered the Serbian forces of then-President Slobodan Milosevic arms, fighters and tactical advice.)
But...France armed the rebels
China apologists may be tempted to ask what's so wrong with Beijing supplying arms to Gaddafi when NATO and its allies were ferrying arms to the rebel camp? France acknowledged that it had dropped weapons to rebel fighters in Libya's western mountains.
But this is to ignore the fact that UN Resolution 1970 - the one imposing the arms embargo - referred explicitly to the Libyan Republic (of Muammar Gaddafi), and not to the rebels.
So these arms drops were not, in strictly legal terms, in contravention of international law.
So what's the upshot of China's double-dealing in Libya? Should we even pretend to be indignant given that Beijing has made no bones about seeking lucrative business opportunities wherever they beckon in Africa and the Middle East or beyond - and putting political considerations second?
As my colleague, Eric Olander, tweeted on Monday, even Washington now seems to realise that its influence is being eclipsed in Africa by China.
Russia the nemesis
While this is a sign of fast-changing geopolitical times, China may find itself at a disadvantage in the short term as it jockeys for a share of Libya's potentially booming oil business.
Russia looms as a nemesis in this battle for petrodollars, and a possible beneficiary of greater good will on the part of Libya's new government given Moscow's just-in-time about-face.
Of course, China is a juggernaut in the new global economy that few can resist - or at least resist at their own peril. A major question going ahead is not whether China will insinuate its way back into a New Libya's good graces - but under what terms.
If Libya lives up to the democratic aspirations of its new (transitional) leadership, as outlined at last week's Friends of Libya conference in Paris, then the next generation of Libyans will want to work with the Chinese as equal partners - and under terms that ensure real jobs and opportunities for the Libyan people.