The government of China took a tentative but notable step away from established protocol this week by meeting with Mahmoud Jibril, the leader of the Libyan opposition forces currently battling Muammar al-Qaddafi for control of the country. Generally speaking, China opposes intervening in the sovereign affairs of foreign countries, and has vigorously opposed such international efforts in the past. Jibril’s talks in Beijing establish a new precedent for China, and one that will be increasingly relevant as the country grows into its role as an economic titan and political force. Its repercussions will play out on both fronts.
Economically, China needs to maintain its links to energy producers. Having established a pact with Russia for its natural gas, the Chinese still need massive and steady supplies of oil. Saudi Arabia currently sells more oil to China than it does to the United States. Libya, as a major exporter of oil, is another country whom China prefers to maintain regular trade with, whether Qaddafi or the rebels are in control. Realpolitik demands the Chinese government’s flexibility, even on matters of national sovereignty.
Moreover, as China settles into its position as a superpower, it will be increasingly required to weigh in in the political realm, picking sides and weighing the costs of international interventions like the one in Libya. China has grown tremedously in part by concentrating primarily on its economic health; now, perhaps, the time has begun for it to become a fully-vested player in the political sphere, too.