China generally hasn’t meddled in the internal affairs of other nations, and has criticized the U.S. and NATO’s expansion of an airstrike campaign in Libya, which killed several civilians over the weekend. But, in an apparent shift, China recently hosted Libya’s foreign minister in Beijing, and has invited the opposition National Transitional Council to visit this week. We look at what China’s stepped-up role means for this strategic region and for U.S. policy in the area.


  • John Pomfret Diplomatic Correspondent with the Washington Post and a Visiting Scholar with the Council on Foreign Relations
  • Jonas Parello-Plesner Senior Policy Fellow, European Council on Foreign Relations


  • 13:06:42

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, journalist Marvin Kalb and journalist Debra Kalb, his daughter, on their new book about how Vietnam continues to influence U.S. foreign policy.

  • 13:07:09

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut first, the U.S. and NATO are facing increasing criticism for air strikes in Libya, which killed nine people in Tripoli over the weekend. Many people are not aware that China has also been getting involved in the conflict in Libya. China's policy has generally been one of noninterference in the internal affairs of other nations.

  • 13:07:29

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut in an apparent shift, China has been meeting with both government officials and rebels in Libya and recently hosted Libya's foreign minister in Beijing and this week the leader of the opposition in Libya will visit China. This activity is raising questions as to whether China is looking to broker a deal and whether China's policy is shifting in this strategic area of the world.

  • 13:07:54

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us by telephone to have this conversation is John Pomfret, diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post and a visiting scholar with the Council on Foreign Relations. John Pomfret, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:08:07

    MR. JOHN POMFRETKojo, nice to be here.

  • 13:08:08

    NNAMDIAlso joining us by telephone from Germany is Jonas Parello-Plesner, senior policy fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations. Jonas Parello-Plesner, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:08:20


  • 13:08:21

    NNAMDIJonas, I'll start with you. Jonas, China has criticized the U.S. and NATO involvement in Libya, why?

  • 13:08:31

    PARELLO-PLESNERWell, they abstain on the second Security Council resolution that authorized the no-fly zone and after it they've been very sort of insistent that humanitarian civilian causalities have to be limited. So, of course, at the moment, like, what's happening now that you see sort of civilian causalities, I mean, this is something that for China sort of triggers the criticism. And they've been using that internally as well, inside China, as a way of criticizing it as more of an invasion than as a humanitarian response.

  • 13:09:08

    NNAMDIJohn Pomfret, China seems to have a vested interest in the issue of national sovereignty, why?

  • 13:09:17

    POMFRETWell, one of the main reasons is that China doesn't believe that its country has yet been united, right. There is the Taiwan question. And Taiwan, the Chinese view as a province of China or as a part of China and some people in Taiwan would disagree with that. They believe themselves, in some cases, to be an independent country.

  • 13:09:36

    POMFRETAnd then, China also has other minorities problems in Tibet and in Seng Jung province, which has been, over the course of the last 30 some odd years, often quite restive. And in Tibet, of course, there was an uprising in the late '50s, which precipitated the Dahlia Lama to flee China.

  • 13:09:53

    NNAMDIJonas, as we mentioned, a NATO air strike over the weekend killed civilians in a residential neighborhood in Tripoli. This is the second deadly error by collation forces in the past week. What's been reaction in Europe? Is this solidifying opposition to NATO and U.S. involvement in Libya?

  • 13:10:13

    PARELLO-PLESNERI'm not sure. I mean, every European country has a little bit their own debate on Libya. As you know, there is a disagreement between France and U.K. on one side that support Poland and Germany that abstain on it. The theme of debate is a little bit different in different countries. I think there's still mainly a sort of support in the countries, though with main initiators France and the U.K.

  • 13:10:39

    NNAMDIJohn Pomfret, we'll start with you on this one, back to China. China looks normally to government-to-government relations, but Libya's foreign minister visited Beijing earlier this month and the leader of Libya's opposition transitional national council arrives tomorrow for a two-day visit to China. Is China looking to broker an agreement here?

  • 13:11:00

    POMFRETI think that there's a potential that China wants to be a player in any solution. But I think -- I mean, Russia's also been involved in talks with the Libyan government as well. So -- and the Chinese and the Russians issued a joint statement on the bombing over the weekend.

  • 13:11:17

    POMFRETAnd so there is a sense that perhaps Beijing and Moscow are interested in getting involved in this, but I don't think it's out of -- so the motivation from China's perspective, I think, is more trying to ensure that they maintain good relations with whatever government comes to power in Libya, whether it's Gaddafi, whether it's a post-Gaddafi government, whether it's a revolutionary government run by the rebels. Because for the Chinese, the main issue there is to ensure that they have access to Libya's oil.

  • 13:11:50

    NNAMDIThe number, if you'd like to join this conversation, to call is 800-433-8850 or you can go to our website, what do you think of China's stepped-up role in Libya? You can also send e-mail to or send us a tweet at kojoshow.

  • 13:12:07

    NNAMDIJonas, since China's policy has been not to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries, does this latest move represent a shift?

  • 13:12:16

    PARELLO-PLESNERIt does. It's making a -- chipping, eroding away of (unintelligible) sort of noninterference policy of their pragmatic interests of -- as John was just saying, I mean, they want to hedge their bets. So -- in whatever future leader there will be in Libya, they will have the contacts. I think China has learned (unintelligible) from that.

  • 13:12:38

    PARELLO-PLESNERFrom -- a good Chinese friend described it like this, sort of in 1979, we hedged all our bets on the Shah in Iran. In '89, we did the same with Ceausescu in Romania. In '99, on Milosevic in Serbia so we've learned that only staying at government-to-government relations will mean that you're not ready for quick transitions. So I think China is coming up to that task and this is part of the changes we see in their foreign policy with regards to Libya.

  • 13:13:10

    NNAMDIJohn Pomfret, care to add anything to that?

  • 13:13:12

    POMFRETNo, I completely agree. You see them reaching. And I mean, look at the situation in Sudan. That's another...

  • 13:13:19

    NNAMDIThat's where I was about to get so go right ahead.

  • 13:13:21

    POMFRETSo you have the Chinese hosting the President of Sudan and an alleged war criminal, but you also have the Chinese, at the same time, reaching out to southern Sudan and looking at their oil resources. Again, it's a very pragmatic policy of being -- trying to be buddies with everybody.

  • 13:13:40

    POMFRETAt a certain point, they're going to have make some hard choices, but nonetheless, I think Jonas is quite right in that they had a somewhat simplistic policy in the past of fully backing horses around the world and now they're being a lot more subtle and backing many people at the same time.

  • 13:13:56

    NNAMDIJonas, John Pomfret mentioned Sudan. We've seen China's hand in Sudan. They've been pretty heavily invested in Sudanese oil, but they're now also reaching out to southern Sudan. What do you see as China's interest in that situation?

  • 13:14:12

    PARELLO-PLESNERNo, I would definitely -- you see that sort of shrewd assessment by China of moving the different partners. They also reach out to the (word?) rebels in Sudan and as they use -- the beauty of it was that Chinese actually sent election observers to the south Sudan for the referendum on independence.

  • 13:14:29

    PARELLO-PLESNERI mean, China country doesn't hold really its own elections. So getting engaged in this way of actually sending observers and that sense, they're really learning in different way, pragmatically to engage with different actors. And the main goal is, of course, maintaining their own investment and their own sort of clout with whoever is in power.

  • 13:14:50

    NNAMDIWell, how far is this pragmatism likely to go, Jonas? NATO and the U.S. are involved in a military campaign in Libya. China seems to be getting involved on the diplomatic side. Is there likely to be any coordination or is there already between China, NATO, the U.S. and maybe Russia on Libya?

  • 13:15:12

    PARELLO-PLESNERThat's difficult to assess to what extent. I would actually see China's more on an initiative on their own terms. Also coming after that Russia's also been out. So I mean, they're actually the sort of latecomer to having both contacts with the Libyan's Transitional Council.

  • 13:15:30

    PARELLO-PLESNEROf course, it indicates that something would come up. They could sort of move into the sort of broker and mediator role, they would love that. But I don't see them yet playing such an active role. If we compare it to the six-party talks on North Korea, I mean, very often there it's just been a role of facilitating the talks. And I think China's quite comfortable with just staying in that role of not really being a genuine sort of conflict negotiator that has to (unintelligible) get them involved. It's a completely different level.

  • 13:16:03

    NNAMDIIndeed, John Pomfret, it's my understanding that you see China's interest as non-ideological.

  • 13:16:09

    POMFRETYes, I don't think they have any ideological dog in this fight. They're interested in oil and in energy security and that it is a direct national security consequences to their economy and to the strength of their regime. And I think that Jonas is absolutely right.

  • 13:16:25

    POMFRETYou don't really see sort of the Chinese puppet master sort of emerging from the shadows, trying to play the puppets of the North Africans. I mean, I think the Chinese have very limited goals in Libya. They want to stop the fighting. They want stability and if that involves a new government, fine, but they want to make sure that the oil continues to flow.

  • 13:16:46

    NNAMDIDo you see, John, U.S. and China competing for influence in this region or in Libya in particular?

  • 13:16:52

    POMFRETYou know, I think the competition between the United States and China is going to happen on all fronts, in all areas around the world, but that's basically okay. And I think in Libya there's not so much of a competition. I think, actually the Americans have both partially smaller, but nonetheless important economic interests in Libya, potentially in the future.

  • 13:17:11

    POMFRETBut the United States has more of an ideological interest in Libya, whereas the Chinese have a very, very clear economic interest there. And so I think that actually in the case of Northern Africa, the two sides could work together quite closely because there is not significant ideological competition and the Chinese want a piece of the oil. And the Americans want the oil to flow as well and so I think in that sense there's a confluence of interest, not so much competition.

  • 13:17:36

    NNAMDIJonas, are we seeing a new phase of Chinese involvement in strategic areas of the world?

  • 13:17:42

    PARELLO-PLESNERYes. Let me just actually answer that on John's comment. I think a lot of that with the U.S. and China in Libya also goes for Europe. Is that, Libya is of course, very much in Europe's neighborhood and that type of cooperation on -- pragmatic cooperation on Libya I think is also something that Europe and China could develop and because we're actually seeing for the first time where it's NATO operation, but primarily European.

  • 13:18:09

    PARELLO-PLESNERSo I think those are the expectations that Europe will also be the main partner to sort of sort out of a post-conflict phase in Libya. And in that connection, there's sort of good opportunities for pragmatic collaboration with China.

  • 13:18:24

    POMFRETThen could I add something to what Jonas just said?

  • 13:18:26


  • 13:18:26

    POMFRETI think that because this viewed as a European-led operation, it makes Chinese involvement as a positive thing, as perhaps a facilitator, less politically problematic for Beijing. Because Beijing has a lot of difficulty selling -- it's sort of selling a pro-American involvement. But if it's with the Europeans, it makes it much, much less politically sensitive for Beijing to get really actively involved in solving a conflict.

  • 13:18:56

    NNAMDIJohn Pomfret is the diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post and a visiting scholar with the Council on Foreign Relations. John, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:19:04

    POMFRETThank you for having me.

  • 13:19:05

    NNAMDIJonas Parello-Plesner is a senior policy fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations. Jonas, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:19:13

    PARELLO-PLESNERThanks a lot, Kojo, pleasure.

  • 13:19:14

    NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, journalist Marvin Kalb and journalist Debra Kalb, his daughter, they've got a new book about how Vietnam continues to influence U.S. policy. We'll talk with them next. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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