As Western initiatives fail, Beijing remains the most important anchor for stability
On November 19, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a press conference that “China hopes that relevant parties in Libya will earnestly implement the ceasefire agreement and resume the political settlement process at an early date. This not only conforms to the fundamental interests of Libya, but also is conducive to peace and stability to the neighboring region.”
The PRC representative’s statement was made against the background of reports about the end of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) in Tunisia. And although the organizers of the forum – the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) reported success, many observers both in Libya and abroad question the outcome of the forum.
The LPDF’s initial mission was to form a new transitional government in Libya and a transitional council, thus preparing the ground for elections and overcoming the division between the parties to the conflict: the UN recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli and the Interim Government in Tobruk and the loyal to it Libyan National Army of Khalifa Haftar. At the end of a week-long meeting, a decision was made to hold elections in December 2021. There were several declarations that were not of serious importance to Libyans. No document on the future government of the Presidential Council was signed.
The Libyan Political Dialogue Forum was accompanied by scandals: numerous leaks, attempts to disrupt negotiations and reports of bribery of its participants. The Libyans themselves did not express much confidence in it. The reason was that the current head of UNSMIL, former US Charge d’Affaires in Libya Stephanie Williams, had organized it in such a way that the forum looked like an attempt to manipulate Libya.
For example, more than half of the 75 participants were appointed personally by Williams, and the candidacy of Fathi Bashagha, the GNA’s Interior Minister, as the country’s new Prime Minister was actively discussed. Bashagha is considered to be Williams’ favorite: he proposed to deploy the US military base in Libya. At the same time, the candidate is associated with radical Islamists, and is accused of personal involvement in torture. In August he was suspended for shooting a peaceful demonstration in Tripoli. According to Libyan media reports, his representatives tried to bribe and intimidate participants at a forum in Tunisia. (https://aljabhaalshaabiya.org/single-blog/895-99).
However, Stephanie Williams’ attempt to impose the will of external actors on the Libyans has not achieved much success. The environment in which the LPDF took place (against the background of accusations of foreign interference and corruption) seriously affected the image of the UN as an important international institution.
The results of the LPDF are the best evidence that UNSMIL needs to be reformed and that Stephanie Williams needs to give the place of UN representative to someone else. It is desirable that this representative not be another protégé of the US such as the Bulgarian diplomat Nickolay Mladenov, whom the US promotes, ignoring the voices of African countries.
“Strategic Neutrality” against Western intervention
The current civil war in Libya is the result of the NATO invasion in 2011. The overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, with direct Western support, has wreaked havoc in Libya, making it a bulwark of Islamist groups that threaten the security of Europe and Africa.
Both then and now, the West’s role in Libya remains largely destructive. At the same time, a multipolar world order is forming on the globe, where other centers of power are playing an increasingly important role, with China taking a special place.
Unlike many other world powers, China refrains from direct military intervention in Libya’s affairs or pressure on the country in its own interests, holding the position of “strategic neutrality”.
In 2011, China opposed the intervention of Western countries in Libya. Later, China was one of the first to promote political dialogue between the parties to the new conflict. China has supported all peace initiatives in Libya, primarily those conducted under the auspices of the UN.
China established ties with the UN recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) as the legitimate government of Libya. The latter in turn takes part in Chinese initiatives, for example, in 2018 at the Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in Beijing, the GNA supported the idea to include Libya in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) plans.
China is interested in developing telecommunications and infrastructure projects in Libya. However, China also maintains economic ties with the government in Tobruk that opposes the GNA.
China’s interests in Libya
The peculiarity of China’s position is that it does not support either side of the conflict. It aims exclusively at the peaceful development of Libya.
The main Chinese interest in Libya is stability. If the US achieves its goals at the cost of destroying entire countries and regions, trying to take advantage of their destabilization (as was the case in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Syria), China’s aim is sustainable development and expansion of technological and infrastructural interaction.
Besides, stability in the energy market, including oil, is important for China. Libya, being the largest oil power in Africa, plays an important role in the world balance of oil prices. From the political point of view, Beijing is interested in reducing the role of radical Islamists in Libya. This is a threat to its interests in other parts of Africa and to China’s own security: in a globalized world, the growing terrorist threat in Africa or Syria may spur their like-minded people in Xinjiang and vice versa.
China’s investment in BRI is steadily growing in the Middle East and North Africa. By 2019, the region had become the second-largest recipient, second only to Europe. This further strengthens China’s interests in the peaceful development of this country.
China is the largest exporter of goods to Libya. In 2019, China’s exports to this country was $1.9 billion. Libyan exports to China (mainly oil) was – $3.9 billion. China is the second most important export market for Libya after Italy.
If the situation in Libya stabilizes, Chinese investments in amounts comparable to the level of 2011 may return to the country. At that time “Beijing had 75 companies that developed $18.8 billion in business in Libya through 36,000 employees working on about 50 projects in sectors including housing construction, railways, telecommunications and hydroelectric power.”
China’s peaceful economic advancement in the Middle East region is of concern to the United States. In June 2020, the US Central Command’s Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr. described the region as a “Wild West” arena of competition in which China is principally using its economic power.
However, the US’ position is not shared by other powers. China’s interests in Libya, which are especially important, are not opposed to Turkish interests. The Turkish geopolitical concept Mavi Vatan (Blue Homeland) forms the foundations for the Turkish policy in Libya and is aimed at countering the interests of the United States and imperialist powers like France. Turkey does not pose a threat to China, and both Ankara and Beijing challenge the US hegemony.
In the interest of peace
China is probably the only world player who is interested in peace in Libya – not the triumph of one of the rivaling forces.
On the other hand, all the opposing forces in Libya understand that in the current circumstances, only China can provide the necessary investment and technology to restore the country.
China’s special position makes it an extremely important power for the development of the peace process in Libya. Libya needs to strengthen China’s political position as a strategically neutral country in the political dialogue process. It seems that only China, with its commitment to the principle of win-win, can offer an alternative to the idle initiatives of Western powers and promote a decision that is acceptable to all parties.
It is time for the West to move forward in Libya, and for non-Western countries and Libyans themselves to start convincing China to take a more active position in the political settlement process.
The US, represented by its protégé Stephanie Williams, is now trying to fulfill its interests under the guise of a peaceful political process, even if that would harm real reconciliation. The place of compromised UN bureaucrats should be taken by effective and neutral managers. China has such diplomats, and their participation can help the UN to regain the trust of the Libyans.
On the other hand, all external actors of the Libyan conflict should take a closer look at China. The wind of history blows into the Chinese sails. According to IMF forecasts, by 2025 China will reach GDP per capita of $25,307, overtaking 56 countries in 5 years.
Those who will be able to establish close relations with China in advance can expect that their interests in Libya will be treated more carefully.