The protests and revolutions that are sweeping across North Africa since the beginning of 2011 pose a serious test for Chinese diplomacy. The circumstances forced Chinese diplomats to adapt quickly to the unfolding situation, a measure Beijing has been adept at doing elsewhere in Africa when the government in power is threatened or toppled. Yet, the stakes are higher in North Africa than they are in all but a few Sub-Saharan African states. Indeed, China has important commercial and trade ties with all of the North African countries except for Tunisia. In 2009, total trade with Egypt was $5.9 billion, Libya $5.2 billion, Algeria $4.2 billion and Morocco $2.5 billion (International Monetary Fund, Direction of Trade Statistics Yearbook 2010). More than 1,000 Chinese companies have invested an estimated $800 million in Egypt (Bikya Masr [Egypt], August 10, 2010). China has major construction contracts throughout North Africa, especially in Libya. China also has long-standing security assistance relationships with Algeria and Egypt. The extent and seriousness of the opposition to existing North African governments even caused concern in Beijing given that these movements might encourage dissent within China. As a result, Chinese authorities carefully restricted media coverage of the protests in North Africa and the Middle East (See “Beijing Wary of ‘Color Revolutions’ Sweeping Middle East/North Africa,” China Brief, February 10). These developments resulted in a quick visit by a high-level Chinese envoy to several of the North African countries and an effort by Beijing to link Chinese policy to positions taken by the African Union and Arab League.
Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria
The Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, which forced President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee the country, led to subsequent serious protests in Algeria, Egypt and Libya as well as milder ones in Morocco. The fact that the protests in Morocco have not seriously threatened the government may explain Beijing’s near silence on developments there. The cordial China-Morocco relationship continues unchanged. The revolution in Tunisia presented a dilemma for China, which initially reacted by saying almost nothing about the protests. Even in the case of Algeria, where its interests are considerable, China has avoided comment on the protests and only discusses continuing cooperation. As compared to western reaction during an early stage of the different protests, especially in the case of Tunisia, China essentially absented itself.
After Ben Ali left Tunisia, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei said that “Tunisia is China’s friend. China is concerned with what is happening in Tunisia and hopes stability in the country is restored as early as possible” (BBC, January 15). China subsequently dispatched Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun to Tunis to reinforce close ties with the new government. Zhai Jun said China respects the choice of the Tunisian people and wants to develop its traditional friendship with Tunisia. He also announced a donation of $6 million for a development project to be defined later (Xinhua News Agency, March 7; Tunisia Online, March 8). China seems to have made a successful transition from the Ben Ali government to the new one. This demonstrates again that China is able to move quickly and usually successfully when regime change occurs in Africa.
Zhai Jun combined his visit to Tunis with one to Algiers where he met with President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. He emphasized that China is willing to strengthen political exchanges with Algeria, expand mutual cooperation and enhance coordination on international and regional issues so as to protect the common interests of developing countries. Bouteflika responded that China is Algeria’s reliable friend and serves as a model for cooperation between developing countries (Xinhua News Agency, March 6). So long as Bouteflika remains in power, China-Algeria relations are likely to remain strong.
The situation in Egypt, a strategic ally of China and a country where Beijing has far more important interests, posed a more difficult challenge for Chinese diplomacy. China was also concerned about the safety of some 2,000 Chinese nationals living there. Initially quiet about the Egyptian protests, spokesperson Hong Lei at the end of January finally said that China hoped Egypt could restore stability and order at an early date (Reuters, January 31). While the Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV network broadcast live from Cairo without interference, news reports on Chinese Internet portals were largely restricted to Xinhua, which provided neutral stories. Sina.com and Netease.com, two of the largest online portals in China, blocked the keyword search for “Egypt.” State-controlled media framed the Egyptian protests as chaotic, implying there are pitfalls for countries that try to democratize before they are ready (CSMonitor.com, February 1; International Herald Tribune, February 1; Opendemocracy.net, March 2).
As the protests expanded, China said it supported Egypt’s efforts to maintain “social stability and restore normal order,” adding that it expected relations with Egypt to develop unaffected. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Ma Zhou added that Egypt’s affairs should be determined without any foreign interference (Xinhua News Agency, February 10). Zhai Jun arrived in Cairo after visiting Tunis and Algiers. Following a meeting with Arab League Secretary-General, Amr Moussa, he called on all Arab countries to return to peace and stability. He also met with Egyptian Deputy Prime Minister Yahiya Jamal and Foreign Minister Nabil Elaraby with whom he emphasized the long friendship between China and Egypt. He called for stability and development in the country, stating that China wanted to enhance its strategic relationship with Egypt. Jamal and Elaraby said Egypt’s ties with China will not change (Xinhua News Agency, March 11). Although China did evacuate several hundred Chinese nationals from Egypt, the relationship between the two countries remains solid. There was apparently a lot of discussion behind the scenes concerning the evacuation of Chinese nationals from Egypt and those who arrived in Egypt from Libya, but no indication of major discussions on other issues except for those that took place during the Zhai Jun visit.
Libya posed and continues to present by far the greatest test for Chinese diplomacy in North Africa. Although Libya under Mu’ammar Qaddafi was the last North African leader to recognize Beijing and since then his government has periodically engaged politically with Taiwan, much to the consternation of Beijing, the commercial relationship has become enormous in recent years. Libya provides three percent of China’s imported oil. This constitutes 10 percent of Libya’s oil exports. When violence broke out in Libya, there were 36,000 Chinese nationals with 75 companies working on 50 projects primarily in the oil, railroad and telecommunications sectors. The value of Chinese contracts, mostly construction projects, had reached an estimated value of $18 billion. The China Railway Construction Corporation, for example, has three projects worth more than $4 billion (Los Angeles Times, March 9; WantChinaTimes.com, March 8). Saif Al Islam Qaddafi , heir apparent to his father, visited China in October 2010 when he described Libya-China relations as the best in history. Wu Bangguo, chairman of the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress, responded that China is ready to increase cooperation on large scale infrastructure, energy, mining and telecommunications projects (AfriqueAvenir.org, October 3, 2010).
As in the case of the other North African protests, China was reluctant to speak out about the situation. Once security in Libya began to disintegrate, China’s highest priority was the evacuation of its nationals. It first called on Libya to ensure the safety of its nationals following attacks on them at work sites. More than 1,000 Chinese construction workers fled their compound in eastern Libya when gun-wielding robbers stormed and looted the facility. China’s Commerce Ministry reported that 27 Chinese construction sites and camps had been attacked and looted, resulting in some injuries and a monetary loss as of late February of almost $230 million. The China Railway Construction Corporation and China National Petroleum Corporation also independently acknowledged attacks (Terradaily.com, February 22; Straits Times [Indonesia], February 26; South China Morning Post, February 27; Xinhua News Agency, February 28; WantChinaTimes.com, March 8).
In an impressive military/civilian operation, China evacuated 35,860 Chinese nationals from Libya by March 3 without any loss of life. This was the largest and most complicated overseas evacuation ever conducted by the Chinese government since it took power in 1949. The People’s Liberation Air Force (PLAAF) sent four IL-76 transport aircraft to Libya. As of March 2, they evacuated 1,700 Chinese to Khartoum. The PLA Navy (PLAN) dispatched the frigate Xuzhou to waters off Libya to support and protect the evacuation of Chinese via commercial ferries and ships. Some Chinese made it to the Egyptian border by land. This operation was China’s first operational deployment to the Mediterranean and the first to Africa other than its engagement in the anti-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden. Its success has important implications for future Chinese security policy (See “Implications of China’s Military Evacuation of Citizens from Libya,” China Brief, March 19; Xinhua News Agency, March 3 and 4).
As Libya became a critical issue before the UN Security Council, China experienced increasing pressure to join other countries to put pressure on Qaddafi . China voted on February 26 with all other members of the Security Council in support of Resolution 1970 that imposed an arms embargo , a travel ban and an asset freeze on Libya . China indicated that it did not, however, favor a resolution in support of a no fly zone (Reuters, March 10). According to Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu: “We oppose the use of force in international relations and have some serious reservations with part of the resolution” (Xinhua News Agency, March 18). China’s position became more nuanced after the Arab League urged such action. These measures put China in a difficult position as it tried to balance its traditional opposition to sanctions and the views of the Arab League that pressed for more action against the Qaddafi government. In addition, its Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Li Baodong, was Security Council President for the month of March.
On March 15, Baodong said stability is essential in Libya and called for full implementation of Resolution 1970 (UN Security Council website, March 15). On March 17, the Security Council passed Resolution 1973 that called for an immediate cease fire, authorized member states to “take all necessary measures” to protect civilians, authorized a no fly zone and strengthened the arms embargo . China and four other countries (Russia, Germany, Brazil and India) abstained). In his remarks after the vote, Baodong said the Security Council must follow the UN Charter, international law and respect the concept of sovereignty as well as territorial integrity. He added that China is against the use of force but attaches importance to the views of the Arab League and African countries (UN Security Council website, March 18). China’s willingness to abstain on a resolution that called for the use of force may signal a new approach driven partly by its growing global economic and political role. On the other hand, since the passage of Resolution 1973, China has protested constantly about the air strikes, emphasized the need for an immediate cease fire and warned against imperiling civilian lives (Xinhua News Agency, March 25). President Hu Jintao took President Nicolas Sarkozy to task during a meeting in Beijing when he argued that “if the military action brings disaster to innocent civilians, resulting in an even greater humanitarian crisis, then that is contrary to the original intention of the Security Council resolution” (The Associated Press, March 30).
Libya’s Foreign Minister until he defected at the end of March, Moussa Koussa, commented on March 19 that his country is prepared to grant oil blocs to China and India in appreciation for their abstention on Resolution 1973 (Aljazeera, March 19). This is the same Moussa Koussa who said in 2009 that “China’s presence in Africa is neo-colonialism and aims to rule over the continent” (Asharq Al Awsat, November 10, 2009; See “Libya Cautions China: Economics Is No Substitute to Politics,” China Brief, December 3, 2009). Since the protests began, Beijing has neither supported nor criticized Qaddafi . China’s future in Libya is not clear, especially if rebel forces depose Qaddafi. It is certain, however, that Chinese companies have taken significant financial losses. Should it wish to reengage in Libya, it probably has enough financial leverage to tempt even a new government.
With the possible exception of Libya, China’s relations with the countries of North Africa have not been harmed following the political upheavals. Chinese diplomacy worked quietly behind the scenes to insure that it maintained its interests. China was notably silent in the early stages of all the uprisings and fell back on its traditional public support for stability, national sovereignty and non-interference. At the same time, it supported mild UN Security Council sanctions against Libya and abstained—when it could have vetoeds—strong collective military action favoring rebel forces.
China has significant economic and political leverage in North Africa. In the case of Libya, China rationalized its abstention on Resolution 1973 by emphasizing Arab League support for it. Once coalition forces began bombing Libya and some Arab League and African Union member countries began objecting, China did not hold back its criticism of the way the coalition carried out the military campaign.