Chinese co-operation on Libya allowed the EU to get a UN mandate to take military action against Muammar Gaddafi. But by the time the Syrian crisis emerged, China’s opposition to Western-led sanctions and intervention had hardened.
The EU and its member states sought to co-operate with China in responding to the uprisings in Libya and Syria – two staunch allies of China in the UNHRC. China’s aim was above all to stop popular revolt spreading to China and it even appeared concerned about images of Egyptian soldiers fraternising with demonstrators. China also wanted to protect its own workers and investments in the two countries. In February, after the Arab League had distanced itself from Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, China voted in favour of UNSC Resolution 1970, which imposed UN sanctions and even, at the initiative of France and the UK, a possible referral to the ICJ, which neither China nor the US recognises. In March, China abstained on UNSC Resolution 1973, which authorised military intervention to impose a “no-fly zone” to protect civilians. But after the military operation began, China declared that NATO had overstepped the UN mandate and turned a “no-fly zone” into a fully-fledged intervention whose real aim was regime change.
By the time a crisis had emerged in Syria in June, China’s opposition to Western-led sanctions and intervention had hardened. As a result, although Europeans were more united on Syria than on Libya, they actually made less progress with China there. Although it was heavily lobbied by the EU and by large member states such as the UK, China rejected a UNSC resolution on the Syrian crackdown in October, which it portrayed as an internal matter. The EU jointly drafted the resolution and France, Germany, Portugal and the UK unsuccessfully tried to influence China’s position. In early December, however, China did warn the Syrian government against the use of force. China’s response to Libya and Syria shows how pragmatic it can be about its principle of non-interference when its own interests are at stake or when other non-Western actors such as the Arab League lobby it. The lesson for Europe may be to try to influence China through the diplomatic efforts of other regional partners.