China called for an immediate ceasefire in Libya yesterday, following a third round of air strikes by US and European allies on Monday night.
Meanwhile, China is also facing questions about its decision to abstain instead of vetoing UN resolution No 1973 last week, which virtually authorises military intervention to impose a no-fly zone.
Mainland analysts said China was stuck in a dilemma where it did not want a decision different from the United States and the African regions, while trying to stick to its long-standing non-interference policy.
The dilemma explained China's decision to abstain on the resolution that virtually authorises air strikes to impose a no-fly zone in Libya, weeks after it supported UN economic sanctions against the North African country.
In the past few days, Beijing has harshly criticised the bombings on Libyan air defences and government targets.
'[We understand] Libya has already requested its army to stop all military actions. We therefore urge all sides to immediately cease fire and resolve the problem through peaceful means,' Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said yesterday at a regular briefing, citing reports that the bombings had caused civilian casualties and could result in a 'humanitarian disaster'. Yu said: 'We support the continued diplomatic efforts by the UN special envoy on Libya, the African Union and the Arab League to reach for a peaceful solution on the current crisis.'
Since the bombings began on Saturday, the central government has, through its Foreign Ministry and the People's Daily, condemned the operation, comparing it to US-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and criticising the often so-called humanitarian interventions as masked attempts to topple regimes disliked by the West or simply to protect their own economic interests. Russian Prime Minister Vladamir Putin has called the attacks a 'crusade'. Splits are also appearing in the coalition, mainly comprising France, the United States and Britain, as domestic opposition increases in the latter two.
While US President Barack Obama is keen for America to step down from a leading role after the initial attacks, the European countries could not agree as to whether Nato should take over the co-ordination. France is reluctant, and two Nato members, Germany and Turkey, have already voiced concerns.
Three weeks ago, China voted in favour of UN resolution No1970 which authorised economic sanctions and a travel ban on key Libyan leaders, saying the decision was in line with the exceptional situation in Libya and the wishes of the African Union and Arab League. On Thursday, China abstained on the vote on a no-fly zone, with Germany, Brazil, India and Russia. 'We oppose the use of force in international relations and hold reservation towards some of the contents of the resolution,' Jiang, the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, said but explained that China abstained instead of using its veto after taking into consideration the wishes of the African Union and Arab League.
Professor Sun Zhe of Tsinghua University said China's decisions were consistent with its preference for resolving conflicts through dialogue and respecting regional opinion. In the past, China has also abstained from voting on similar military intervention decisions such as that during the first Gulf war and the 2004 Sudan conflict.
'China has its non-interference principle, but it also has to take into consideration wishes of the African Union and the Arab League, who changed their positions too as the situation evolved,' Sun said. Both regional groups supported the no-fly zone but condemned the military intervention after the bombings.
Nonetheless, China was in a somewhat embarrassing position - although it had huge interests in Libya, it could not intervene directly nor could it say no to the United States like Putin did, Sun said. Even if China wanted to continue to follow the decisions of the African Union and the Arab League, the two were also facing internal splits on views and might not reach consensus on what was next, he said.
The Ministry of Commerce says China had 75 companies doing US$18.8 billion worth of business in Libya before the evacuation of 36,000 Chinese residents this month. Some online postings on the mainland also queried what would happen to Chinese assets in Libya under the air strikes.
Professor Shen Dingli of Shanghai Fudan University said China did not veto the votes on resolutions covering the no-fly zone and economic sanctions in order not to displease the US, the Arab League and African Union.