Asia Time Online - Daily News
Asia Times Chinese
AT Chinese

    Middle East
     Mar 8, 2011

Libya puts China in world stage spotlight
By M K Bhadrakumar

Launcelot Gobbo told his elderly father in a poignant moment in William Shakespeare's play Merchant of Venice, "Truth will come to light; murder cannot be hid long." But the tragedy of life is often that by the time "truth is out", Gobbo would have become sand-blind and would no more be able to see his son.

For the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who perished since 2003, it is no consolation that the "truth is out" - that the war was a phony one bred by greed and imperial arrogance. Which is why it becomes important that the United States' proposed intervention in Libya shouldn't turn out to be another sojourn in yet another unknown land of killings.

A report in the London Sunday Times that a British special forces unit had been captured in the east of Libya underscores that

"truth" is once again at a premium. Anyone who follows events in Libya would know that Muammar Gaddafi's hold over the eastern provinces of his country, especially Benghazi, was tenuous at the best of times. Libya is a complex tribal mosaic and Western intelligence exploited Gaddafi's Achilles' heel.

War option is the only option
British Defense Secretary Liam Fox wrote an article in the London Sunday Telegraph recently in which he argued that the impact of the Middle East uprising would be far-reaching and would resonate for many years and it raised the question of how British forces could respond to crisis situations. Fox actually pledged to strengthen Britain's special forces in response to the Arab revolt. These are excerpts:
The events over the recent days may produce a strategic shock and change in how we view the world. The speed of events in North Africa has shown how quickly circumstances can change and how quickly the UK can be drawn in. An island like Britain, with so many interests in so many parts of the world ... is inevitably affected by global stability ... If required, we could field a force of 30,000, including maritime and air assets for a one-off intervention. Although I cannot go into detail, our internationally respected and battle-tested Special Forces will receive significantly enhanced capabilities.
Clearly, the "intervention option" is propelling the Anglo-American juggernaut. A little behind, France tags along not to miss out on the "peace dividends" that follow the intervention - Libyan oil. The parallel with the Iraq war is striking, except that things are on a fast-forward mode.

United States senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman forcefully outlined the blueprint for President Barack Obama immediately after their return to Washington last week after consultations in Tel Aviv. They urged that Obama needed to take tougher action against Gaddafi. Lieberman demanded, "The fact is now is the time for action, not statements."

McCain spelt out specific steps: "Libyan pilots aren't going to fly if there is a no-fly zone and we could get air assets there to ensure it. Recognize some provisional government that they are trying to set up in the eastern part of Libya, help them with material assistance, make sure that every one of the mercenaries knows that ... they will find themselves in front a war crimes tribunal. Get tough."

Indeed, Obama got "tough". The chief military correspondent of Politics Daily, David Wood, reported from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, four days ago:
With orders from the White House to prepare "all options", military planners across the armed services are scrambling, from the XVIII Airborne Corps and 82nd Airborne Division headquartered here, to the U.S. Central Command and the U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa, Fla., down to the future operations cell of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, embarked on the USS Kearsarge, an ambitious assault carrier headed toward Libya from the Red Sea ... None of the US planners involved will talk on the record.

Privately, though, planners, strategists and analysts describe a range of potential missions from imposing "no-fly" and "no-drive" zones ... to launching limited and short-duration humanitarian and relief operations. And because operations planners must consider worst-case situations, some are also looking at larger-scale armed intervention.
Agence France-Presse reported from Athens on Friday that the USS Kearsarge and another warship, the USS Ponce, had already set anchor at the US naval base on the Greek island of Crete and that the amphibious ready group included 800 marines and a fleet of helicopters. The American aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (which has fighter jets that could enforce a "no-fly" zone) is also on call for the Libya crisis.

Defining a historical moment?
In short, the attempt by Washington to portray that its Libya plans are molded by events does not add up. Clearly, the US is defining a historical moment: if the Western world's vital economic interests come under threat, it is only the US that can salvage them, even when the theater is Europe's immediate neighborhood.

Unlike in the case of the Iraq war, Europe is solidly backing the US. There are no dissonant voices like France's Jacques Chirac or Germany's Gerhard Schroeder's mocking at the impending US intervention. Europe's vital economic and business interests are at stake in Libya.

But Obama's sail is also getting wind from two other quarters. First, Russia's "cooperative" stance. Russia is not opposing US plans, which makes things easy for Obama in the United Nations Security Council - and avoids the stigma of "unilateralism". Russian diplomats worked hard to push the unanimous Libya resolution through in New York, which was no mean contribution to US diplomacy.

Clearly, Obama's "reset" with Moscow is coming into play. Obama has successfully pandered to Russian demands to be treated as an "equal power". Now, there could even be more US-Russia tradeoffs in the coming months in the wake of the Middle East crisis. Iranians already voice disquiet that Moscow is again playing hide-and-seek on the commissioning of the Bushehr nuclear power plant.

Anyhow, coincidence or not, US Vice President Joseph Biden is visiting Moscow this week and Washington has held out missile defense and Russia's World Trade Organization membership as two priority areas in US policies in 2011.

In any case, all this business of democracy and "Arab awakening" never quite excited Russia. In Russia's "de-ideologized" world view, with 100% accent on self-interests, there is no requirement to promote democracy abroad. In fact, democracy can spread like a contagious disease and, after all, the Greater Middle East and the "Muslim world" also encompass the Caucasus and the Central Asian steppes.

For China, too, such uneasiness about the democracy virus probably exists. But that's a peripheral concern and probably a nuisance. But China is always a unique country and its behavior in New York was highly unusual in voting for the US resolution imposing sanctions on Libya and a referral of that country to the International Criminal Court.

Non-intervention has been a core principle for China. Over Myanmar, Zimbabwe or North Korea, China's stance has been consistent. Was it the specter of Gaddafi trampling on the holiest of Chinese principles - stability? Obviously, China has high stakes in the Middle East's stability and its economic interests happen to coincide with Eastern interests.

But that alone is insufficient to explain the novel Chinese stance on national sovereignty. One reason could be that China found itself on the defensive through much of last year by being pilloried (rightly or wrongly) as an "assertive" power and 2010 turned out to be China's annus horribilus in foreign policy. Libya presents an opportunity for China to be a "stakeholder" with Western countries.

The fashion in which China evacuated its nationals out of Libya is also relevant. A Chinese frigate was needlessly pressed into the mission and four Chinese military transport planes lifted off from Xinjiang and appeared in the Mediterranean skies in an unprecedented move. Besides, by not only evacuating its own nationals, but also lending a hand to rescue hundreds of Europeans, Bangladeshis and Vietnamese, China probably displayed its willingness to carry the burdens of a world power.

However, the big question still remains: Is this a one-off or has China's defining moment come as a collaborator of the US in securing the "global commons". We will know when and if the US presses the UN Security Council for the establishment of a "no-fly" zone over Libya.

From the fact that the US and its partners are discussing the "no-fly" zone option outside the UN if need arises to do so, it appears Obama isn't quite sure how far China is willing to go to concede its red lines.

A precedent of immense significance for international security is taking shape, and China has every reason to introspect. As Launcelot Gobbo posed to his blind father, "Do I look like a cudgel or a hovel-post, a staff or a prop? Do you know me, father?"

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

China: when the party is over
(Mar 4, '11)

Unrest rattles China's Africa policy (Mar 2, '11)


Public disgrace

2.Kurils: The great game in the Asia-Pacific

3. The lion wants his juice back

4. War porn is back in Libya

5. A major reshuffle in the Levant

6. China: When the party is over

7.The end of the end of history

8. To fly or not to fly?

9. Google purges the web

10. Tiger opportunity for Middle East

(Mar 4-6, 2011)


All material on this website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written permission.
© Copyright 1999 - 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings), Ltd.
Head Office: Unit B, 16/F, Li Dong Building, No. 9 Li Yuen Street East, Central, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110