China’s response to France’s decision to send troops to fight against Islamic extremists in Mali is at most tepid and reserved. In the official statement by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the government merely “noted” the dispatch of troops by “related countries and regional organizations” without any explicit commitment to support the mission at its current stage. This has raised wide-speculation in the West that China is “free-riding” again in a West-led mission to stabilize a country infested with terrorist threats. Amongst the debate, it is important for the international community to clarify and understand China’s perspectives.
China strongly opposes being described as a “free-rider”. First of all, in China’s experience, foreign intervention does not always lead to more stability or better protection of Chinese interests on the ground. In the case of Libya, China saw the United Kingdom and France “abuse” the United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1973 to launch military interventions beyond the original scope of its mandate. The intervention led to more chaos, which combined with the regime change cost China $20 billion of its investments in Libya. Since then, China has been particularly cautious in agreeing to any UN Security Council resolution that would authorize a military intervention. This is part of the fundamental reason China cast three vetos of Security Council draft resolutions to authorize military intervention in Syria.
The example of China’s “free-riding” that is most often cited is the war in Afghanistan. Many view China, as a major superpower, not pulling its weight and unfairly enjoying the benefits of security from terrorism, while the U.S. and other countries continue to fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan. However, China’s view is that the war in Afghanistan was hardly motivated by the U.S. intention to protect China and other countries in the region. Rather, Beijing sees the U.S. war in Afghanistan as an advancement of American geostrategic influence— one that created major instability both in Afghanistan and in the South Asian region. Furthermore, Beijing argues that China’s strengths in Afghanistan are in post-conflict reconstruction in areas such as infrastructure development and economic investment. And this role of China has been recognized and welcomed by the United States.
China’s tepid response to the French intervention in Mali also originates from its concern about a potential abuse of the UN mandate, like what happened in Libya. In Beijing’s view, any legitimate international intervention must be based on a UN mandate. In the case of Mali, although France obtained the support of the UN Security Council members for the intervention, its mission is invariably different from the African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA) stipulated by the UNSCR 2085 that China agreed to. Indeed, China hopes that France will pull out soon and hand over the military responsibility to the African-led mission.
China sees France’s motivation to intervene in Mali as hardly altruistic. Li Zhibiao, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, highlights a suspicion that France is exploiting the diminishing role of Washington in Africa to expand its own influence. Other Chinese analysts have further attributed France’s intervention to Hollande’s desire to boost his image and popularity at home given the failure of his domestic economic policies. Furthermore, China also sees a double standard in France’s decision to dispatch troops since it disregarded a similar request for military assistance from Central African Republic. As one famous Africa analyst argues, “France’s action in Africa is motivated by its own interests and preference” and hence is not as glorious as it seems.
China is not particularly optimistic about the outcome of the French intervention in Mali. Many Chinese policymakers and analysts believe Mali will turn into France’s “Afghanistan”, dragging France into a prolonged conflict. Equally worrying is the potential retaliation from jihadists against France and other neighboring countries as manifested in the hostage crisis in Algeria, where al-Qaeda-linked militants kidnapped almost 200 hostages to demand a halt of French attacks and release of militants. Although the hostage crisis has been resolved, the fear for future attacks grows dramatically.
What worries China most about the French intervention in Mali is that it may “provide a precedent to the legitimization of ‘neo-interventionism’ in Africa.” He Wenping, a leading Chinese expert on Africa, points it out that although France upholds the flag of “fighting terrorism” in its decision to intervene in Mali, not all of the local opposition groups in Mali are actually terrorists. China sees this as particularly alarming because it legitimizes “fighting terrorism” as justification for foreign intervention in a civil war of a sovereign country. For Beijing, the precedent is a dangerous challenge to its non-interference principle, the foundation of China’s foreign policy.
This article originally appeared in Brookings, on January 23, 2013.