China's highly unusual actions over the Libyan crisis have raised questions over its international diplomatic strategy as it flexes its growing economic and military muscle.
First it raised eyebrows by voting for a U.S. resolution imposing sanctions on the dictator Moammar Gadhafi-led Libyan government for its violent crackdown on pro-democracy protesters and by referring the regime to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for investigations of crimes against humanity.
Then, Beijing caught the world's attention by dispatching its most modern warships to waters near Libya to support and protect the evacuation of Chinese citizens.
It was the first operational deployment by the Chinese military to Africa and the Mediterranean, as well as its largest noncombatant evacuation operation to date, with virtually all 35,000 Chinese citizens in Libya evacuated by the first week of March, analysts said.
Finally, China decided last week at the U.N. Security Council not to stand in the way of Western powers wanting to launch military strikes to establish a defensive no-fly zone over Libya.
To the surprise of many, Beijing did not wield its veto power in the vote on Security Council resolution 1973 authorizing the use of “all necessary measures” to protect civilians under threat of attack by forces loyal to Colonel Gadhafi.
The decision particularly to abstain from the Security Council vote on the Libya resolution raised various speculations: Is China moving away from its nonintervention policy? Is it reviewing its diplomatic strategy to give greater consideration to global interests as it becomes a military and economic power?
By opting not to block military action in the wake of the Gadhafi regime's merciless actions against its own people, is China setting a precedent for multilateral interventions in domestic conflicts and human rights issues?
If, for example, pro-democracy protesters in China face a massive crackdown and appeal for international help, will the international community respond?
"I think China worries consistently about the precedent," Mike Green, a former top Asian strategist at the White House, said in an interview.
"I have no doubt the Chinese government and think tanks worry that if they extend in the direction of right to protect—away from the principle of noninterference—it could come back to hurt them," he said.
Chinese official criticism
China's state-run media have harshly criticized the United States and its allies over the military campaign against the Libyan government, suggesting Beijing wants to make it clear that it does not see the Security Council’s moves on Libya as a precedent.
Some reports and commentaries depict the strikes as an attempt to grab that country’s oil resources and expand American influence in the region.
"I think the Chinese see a slippery slope, and they want to keep the international norm as close to noninterference in internal affairs as possible for their own reasons—partly because it could boomerang on them, partly because they worry increased pressure will be put on neighbors like North Korea and Burma," Green said.
The Chinese use their veto "to protect authoritarian states because it makes these countries indebted to them and gives them access to energy and other needs," said Green, now a senior adviser at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
China has often used its veto power to dampen Security Council actions against countries such as North Korea, Burma, Sudan, and Zimbabwe over human rights and other issues.
In the Security Council, the Chinese are now blocking the adoption of a report condemning North Korea's establishment of a uranium enrichment program that could serve as a second way of making nuclear weapons aside from its plutonium-based program.
China is also blocking efforts to establish an international Commission of Inquiry into alleged crimes against humanity and war crimes in Burma. The commission was urged by the U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in Burma, Tomás Ojea Quintana.
"So, if you look at the aggregate of Chinese behavior on the U.N. Security Council on these kinds of issues, it is the same or worse," Green said.
But in the case of Libya, it was probably the first time China had allowed the Security Council to pass a resolution based on humanitarian concerns alone, noted Randy Shriver, a former senior State Department official in charge of East Asian affairs.
"They certainly abstained from some previous Security Council resolutions on security matters, including some in the Middle East, but if you describe this [Libya's case] as purely humanitarian, I think this is the only instance I can think of," he said in an interview.
He felt China took the unprecedented action because it did not want to be seen to be isolated, even though Russia, India, Germany, and Brazil also abstained together with Beijing.
"Maybe they saw there might be a risk of being isolated," said Shriver, now chief executive of the Washington-based Project 2049 Institute, focused on public policy in the Asia-Pacific region. "You know the beauty of abstaining is, of course, they can be on every side."
Other analysts said that Beijing might have been embarrassed by Gadhafi's defense of China's actions during the Tiananmen Square massacre as the defiant Libyan leader last month sent his own tanks into the streets of his capital Tripoli and ordered planes to drop bombs on protesters as they tried to end his four-decade rule.
"When Tiananmen Square happened, tanks were sent in to deal with them. It's not a joke. Do whatever it takes to stay united ... People in front of tanks were crushed. The unity of China is more important than those people in Tiananmen Square," Gadhafi told his people in a broadcast.
A week after the Security Council's decision authorizing the allied airstrikes against Gadhafi's forces, Chinese officials are now having second thoughts over Beijing's unexpected decision to abstain rather then use its veto.
"We believe that the objective of enforcing the U.N. Security Council resolution is to protect humanitarian [objectives] and not to create an even bigger humanitarian disaster," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told a regular news briefing in Beijing on Thursday.
Beijing is pressing for an immediate ceasefire in Libya and a resolution of the crisis through dialogue, in the wake of large-scale U.S., British, and French ground and air attacks.
China and several other nations see the strikes as disproportionate, careless of civilian lives, and extending beyond the agreed plan to impose a defensive no-fly zone.
"Libya's sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity should be respected. We also urge all sides to immediately cease fire and avoid the conflict escalating, which would worsen the situation region-wide," Jiang Yu said.