Libyan rebels capture Colonel Qaddafi's compound (Source; EPA/The Daily Telegraph)
By James M. Dorsey
Significant advances by NATO-backed Libyan rebels seeking to oust Colonel Moammar Qaddafi pose a significant policy challenge for China and Russia that could prompt a rethinking of their support for autocratic leaders in the Middle East and North Africa.
As Russia and China scramble to improve strained relations with the rebels and salvage future commercial ties in the wake of the fall of Mr. Qaddafi’s compound in Tripoli, policymakers in Beijing and Moscow are likely to want to ensure that they do not end up on the wrong side of history elsewhere in the region, and most immediately in Syria.
Alarm bells went off on Tuesday in the Chinese and Russian capitals after Abdeljalil Mayouf, a manager of the rebel-controlled Arabian Gulf Oil Company (AGOCO) warned that China, Russia and Brazil in contrast to Western nations could face political obstacles in reverting back to business as usual once Mr. Qaddafi has been removed from power.
Libya’s rebel Transition National Council (TNC) has said that it would honor all existing contracts, but only after investigating whether corruption was involved in those deals. That gives the council considerable leeway given that members of Mr. Qaddafi’s family or close associates of the Libyan leader were part of virtually every deal concluded during his rule.
China, Russia and Brazil as well as India and South Africa have been critical of NATO airstrikes aimed at weakening Mr. Qaddafi’s grip on power and military aid to the rebels and have refrained from calling for the resignation of the Libyan leader. The five United Nations Security Council members were this week quick to note that they did not block the council’s endorsement in March of a no-fly zone in Libya enforced by NATO. China and Russia, in a bid to counter perceptions that they had failed to wholeheartedly support the rebels, point out that they have maintained contact with the rebels throughout the seven-month crisis and have held talks with the rebel leadership in Benghazi as well as in Beijing and Moscow.
Clearly concerned, Chinese officials Tuesday called on the rebel leadership to protect the country’s investments in Libya. Russian foreign minister Seirgey Lavrov sought to put a good face on his country’s position by insisting that Russia was ready to mediate even at this late hour a political solution to the crisis. Mr. Lavrov’s statement came as the Russian-Libyan Business Council said Russian energy firms are likely to be barred from resuming work in Libya.
The council’s statement was echoed by the chairman of the Russian parliament’s international affairs committee, Konstantin Kosachev. Mr. Kosachev cautioned that Russia would not be able to compete with companies from NATO member countries for Libyan oil projects because a rebel-controlled government "in distributing contracts to rebuild the Libyan economy will give priority to the NATO countries. Neither China, nor Russia nor South Africa or any other country, which did not participate in this ‘humanitarian operation,’ will be able to compete with the NATO countries on equal terms,” Mr. Kosachev told Russia’s RT.com
Embattled Syrian president Bashar al Assad is likely to hold on to power longer than Mr. Qaddafi but China, Russia, India, Brazil and South Africa know that they will face a similar dilemma once he too falls and are likely to want to ensure that they are better positioned than they are in Libya.
The five powers may however find it more difficult to recover ground in Syria if they fail to start preparing now for a change of regime. Unlike in the case of Libya, they cannot point to having done anything to stop the brutal Syrian crackdown on anti-government protesters nor can they point to any public contact with Mr. Assad’s opponents.
It took five months of bloodshed for them to endorse a Security Council condemnation of Mr. Assad’s crackdown and then only in the weakest possible form. Russia earlier this month criticized the crackdown for the first time while China has yet to comment. All five countries were quick to reject last week’s call on Mr Assad to step down by the United States and Europe.
Commentators have been quick to note that Asia and particularly China’s commercial interests in Libya are limited and are likely to in good time assert the same with regard to Syria. China relied last year on Libya for only three percent of its crude imports but had to evacuate from Libya 36,000 workers employed by 75 primarily state-owned Chinese companies earlier this year.
Yet, even if commercial ties with Libya and Syria are relatively miniscule, there is a lot more at stake for China, Russia, India, Brazil and South Africa not only in those two countries but across the Middle East and North Africa. Beyond chancing that their companies will be at a disadvantage in competing for lucrative post-revolution contracts, the five countries risk negative perceptions in a region in which millions are closely monitoring events in Libya and Syria and are likely to be inspired by the demise of Mr. Qaddafi, the third Arab leader to be toppled this year.
Mr. Qaddafi’s imminent fall was preceded by mass protests that forced the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt to resign earlier this year. The grievances that have propelled the rebellion in Libya and the protests in Syria, Tunisia and Egypt are shared with the population of a swath of land that stretches from the Atlantic coast of Africa to the Gulf. Change by hook or by crook is likely to be the name of the game for the next decade in the Middle East and North Africa.
All of this does not mean that China and Russia are not about to make a U-turn and from now on openly and wholeheartedly support revolts and the quest in the region for greater political freedom and economic opportunity. But they are less likely to effectively give Arab autocratic leaders license to brutally crack down on protesters like they did in the case of Syria by effectively blocking international consensus.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.