x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Is China becoming a more responsible giant?

China's stance towards Libya in the United Nations marks a dramatic change in policy and suggests that its global responsibilities.

Maybe Zheng Bijian had it right. Six years ago, the former Communist Party official predicted his country's growth would prove beneficial to its citizens, and a boon to the world. Sceptics of this "peaceful rise" were dubious. But last week, Beijing hinted at Mr Zheng's wisdom.

China's vote at the UN Security Council to sanction Libya and refer the ruling regime to the International Criminal Court, marks a dramatic turning point in China's relationship with the region. It also suggests that its understanding of its global responsibilities is maturing.

True, with roughly 30,000 oil workers in the country, Beijing may have had no other choice but to condemn Col Muammar Qaddafi for domestic reasons. And yet, it's hard not to see how the vote breaks with decades of Chinese decisions on foreign policy, where a hands-off approach was favoured over assertive action.

In 2007, Beijing refused to intervene in violence against pro-democracy marches in Myanmar. In Sudan, the calculus has been even starker. Though Beijing did send troops for humanitarian missions, it refused to back sanctions of Sudanese officials over atrocities in Darfur. Sudan's oil, it was assumed, trumped humanitarian concerns.

In the post-Cold War era, China has largely pursued a policy of nonintervention, arguing that a multipolar world does not require powers to meddle in the affairs of others. With Libya, China has changed course. Not only are diplomatic manoeuvres being exercised, so too is Chinese military power. One Chinese language newspaper in Beijing defended the deployment of a warship and air cover as a sign that China is becoming a "responsible great power".

There are many reasons to hope it is. China's investment in Africa and the Middle East, especially in the energy sector, means China will likely find itself in the middle of many more political hotspots. Sitting idly by would only inspire other brutal regimes to use force against their own people. China's calculation on Libya may be more about mollifying domestic calls for intervention. But while much work is still needed to address issues within its borders - from human rights violations to restrictions on personal freedoms - China's vote at the UN last week should be seen as a positive sign that the country understandings its expanding role.

The great Chinese reformer, Deng Xiaoping, argued that a strong country must "hide brightness, cherish obscurity". As China's power grows, it can not hide from its global responsibilities.