x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

China scrambles to catch up with new regime in Libya

Belated recognition of Libya¿s new leaders leaves Beijing hurrying to ensure it is not left behind in efforts to do business with holder of Africa's largest oil reserves.

BEIJING // China's belated recognition of Libya's new leaders and attempts by Chinese companies to sell weapons to Colonel Muammar Qaddafi's regime have left Beijing scrambling to protect its interests in the country.

It was announced late on Monday that China was officially recognising the National Transitional Council (NTC), more than three months after Beijing officials first met NTC representatives and over six weeks after some western governments transferred diplomatic ties.

The NTC has insisted it will honour contracts already signed with Chinese interests, which state media says involves as many as 50 major projects together worth US$18.8 billion (Dh69bn).

Libya has Africa's largest oil reserves and is set to hand out lucrative reconstruction projects as the country rebuilds after the conflict.

Jiang Yu, a foreign ministry spokeswoman, said the NTC has promised to "concretely abide by the existing bilateral treaties and agreements".

"We would like to promote the stable transition and continuous development of China-Libya relations," she added.

But analysts believe China may have made its position in Libya more difficult because it was slow to recognise the NTC. Also, as was revealed earlier this month, Chinese state-owned firms offered to sell arms worth $200 million to representatives of Col Qaddafi who visited Beijing in mid-July.

China also criticised the Nato military action against Col Qaddafi.

The arms supply meetings, which the Chinese foreign ministry insisted did not lead to any actual sales of equipment, took place despite an arms embargo on Libya being passed by the United Nations Security Council in February.

"We have made judgments based on the policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of Libya and the principle of respecting the Libyan people's choice," Ms Jiang said.

Behzad Shahandeh, a specialist on relations between the Middle East and East Asia at Seoul's Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, said China "will learn a lesson from Libya".

"There will be a change in policy, not only in Libya, but all across Africa," he added. "If they are known as merchants, it will create trouble. They will tread carefully."

There may have been little Beijing could have done to have prevented the problems over attempted arms sales, with analysts pointing out the limits of civilian authority over military interests in China.

Ding Xueliang, a foreign affairs analyst at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said there have been many examples in the past 30 years in which the Chinese government "did not know clearly what is going on with the major arms sales companies in China".

"People like [the former Chinese leader] Deng Xiaoping had the authority to discipline the military companies," Mr Ding said. "After that, the civilian leaders from [Deng's successor] Jiang Zemin down have not obtained sufficient authority over the military system.

"The incident has made Beijing quite embarrassed. Perhaps the civilian leadership of China would call officials from the military and ask them to explain what's wrong.

"In one sense the foreign affairs ministry is a minor partner compared with the military in the Chinese state system."

China is now tasked with ensuring it is not cold-shouldered in terms of new oil and development contracts in a country where, along with Russia, it had been making economic inroads at the expense of the likes of Italy and France, which had longer-standing economic ties with Libya.

Last month, an official with Libya's Arabian Gulf Oil Company suggested preference would be given to interests from western nations that supported the military intervention that helped to topple Col Qaddafi.

Yet Steven Heydemann, senior vice president at the United States Institute of Peace, recently told The Diplomat, an online Asia-Pacific current affairs magazine, that "post-authoritarian governments tend to behave quite pragmatically when it comes to managing commercial and diplomatic relations with allies of the former regime".

He cited the example of Iraq, where a variety of countries secured oil contracts in the post-Saddam Hussein era, with the US not enjoying preferential treatment of the kind some expected.

It is a view echoed by Mr Shahandeh, who said China's late recognition of the NTC would probably only be "costly in the short term".

"In the medium to long term things will go back to normal," he added.

dbardsley@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by the Associated Press