FOR a fast rising power, China remains unusually shy about military deployment beyond its shores. But its decision to dispatch four military transport aircraft to Libya and a guided-missile frigate to waters nearby suggests that it might be rethinking its posture.
The Ilyushin-76 aircraft took off from the far western region of Xinjiang on February 28 bound for the Libyan city of Sabha. The ship, Xuzhou, which had been engaged in anti-piracy duties in the Gulf of Aden, set sail for the north African coast on February 24.
The assignments could prove little more than symbolic. Of the 30 000 Chinese estimated to have been in Libya when the unrest began there, some 29 000 are said to have already left the country.
The deployments are a sign that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which includes the air force and navy, is gaining a bit in confidence following its dispatch of a small flotilla in December 2008 to join international operations in the Gulf of Aden. That was a turning point in China’s military history: the PLA navy’s first active-duty deployment beyond East Asia. China had long been diffident about long-range engagements, fearing they might stir anxiety about China’s military ambitions while at the same time revealing frailties to its potential enemies (America being the biggest concern).
Western powers have long been trying to cajole the PLA into playing a more dynamic role, both in UN peacekeeping (China is a big contributor of troops, but not of front-line ones) and disaster relief (the PLA did not send forces to help out after the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004). The PLA’s decision to get involved this time, however, is likely far more to do with domestic considerations than a desire to show solidarity with the West. A perceived failure by the PLA to show concern for Chinese lives in Libya would not have gone down well with the country’s fiery online nationalists (to whom the country’s leaders appear to pay considerable attention).
In 1998, when riots targeting ethnic Chinese broke out in Indonesia, nationalists in China accused the government of a limp-wristed response. The Communist Party does not want a repeat of that, especially at a time when it is already worried about possible contagion from the pro-democracy movements in North Africa and the Middle East. Nationalism and anti-government sentiment can be a powerful cocktail in China. An attempt by unidentified microblog users to whip up a “jasmine revolution” in China has produced little visible response so far except for police jitters and a revived official antagonism toward the foreign media. It has also created friction between China and America’s outgoing ambassador, Jon Huntsman, who was seen on February 20 near a McDonald’s outlet in Wangfujing, in downtown Beijing, where messages circulated on the internet had called on people to congregrate. Huntsman said it was a coincidence.)
The ambassador has now issued a statement strongly condemning the detention and harassment by police of several foreign journalists who tried to cover the response to another call for protest, this time on February 27. One of the journalists was punched and kicked, by people who appeared to be plainclothes police, and then detained for several hours. Several reporters had their cameras and video equipment confiscated. China’s propaganda machinery has been playing up the significance of the deployments. What the state-run media call the biggest operation in China’s history— which includes the dispatch of civilian aircraft—to rescue Chinese overseas is being touted as a sign of the country’s emergence as a “responsible great power”. The term echoes the appeal made in 2005 by Robert Zoellick, then America’s deputy secretary of state, for China to play its part as a “responsible stakeholder”. It is one aimed at pleasing nationalists at home while trying to show the outside world that China is merely doing what is expected of it.
China’s vote on February 26 in favour of a UN resolution imposing sanctions on Muammar Gaddafi and calling for an international war-crimes investigation will certainly be looked at with favour by the West. It too appeared to mark a shift, China having usually avoided punishing countries for behaviour within their borders (sanctions imposed on North Korea for its testing of nuclear devices being a notable recent exception). Again, the reasons for China’s actions are likely to be domestic. Gaddafi’s political control appears tenuous and Chinese lives are at risk. The Communist Party does not want to appear to be propping up the man endangering them.
China has long condemned what it describes as “interfering in other countries’ internal affairs”. Since 1989 it has been particularly fearful of setting a precedent for international action against itself should it stage another bloody crackdown on dissent such as on the Tiananmen Square protests that year. But China sees the situation in Libya as very different from that in China after Tiananmen—when the Chinese leadership, despite its squabbles, maintained a firm grip on power and largely kept the armed forces on side.
A blog entry published on February 27 on the website of Caijing, a Beijing magazine, suggested that it was time to give up the non-interference policy in the case of Libya. The article, boldly titled “Support the dispatch of American troops to Libya”, argued that “human rights come before sovereignty”. Its author, a Chinese journalist, said that when “a tyrant enslaves his country and tyrannises and massacres his citizens” talk of non-interference is “dog farts”. That, very probably, is going further than the party would like. –– Economist.