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China may play crucial negotiator role in Libya

BEIJING - Much has been said of the Obama administration's vow to pursue "smart power" diplomacy in global affairs, but when it comes to the Libyan crisis, China appears to be showing the way on how to exert influence while protecting its own interests at minimal cost.

A top leader of Libya's opposition forces has begun a two-day trip to Beijing following a visit by Libya's foreign minister, making China the only great power so far that both warring parties in the nation's civil war have been willing to visit. This gives China a potentially central role in brokering any possible political negotiation. And with most observers and scholars - including those in China -predicting that the beleaguered Gadhafi regime may not last much longer, China's hosting of Mahmoud Jibril, the diplomatic chief of Libya's National Transitional Council, may be seen as part of China's positioning in a post-Gadhafi Libya. Iraq and Afghanistan show that China is adept at reaping benefits with minimum sacrifices, as msnbc.com reported with regards to one large copper mine in eastern Afghanistan.  

But a top Chinese expert has dismissed as baseless any suspicion of Chinese ulterior motives in a post-Gadhafi Libya. In an interview with NBC News, the expert He Wenping has acknowledged that China has adopted "a more assertive approach ... to promote diplomatic dialogue" between the warring parties in Libya. "We hope to contribute to conflict resolution. If we can talk to both sides, why not? Building a bridge between the two sides is a constructive thing," said Dr. He, who is the top African Studies specialist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government think-tank. She described three potential areas of interest during Jibril's talks with Chinese officials, namely "how to guarantee the safety of Chinese investments, how to push for ceasefire and political solution, and how China can assist with the humanitarian crisis." 

Oil interests?
"Is there any message they want to us to convey to the Gadhafi regime, can China serve as a bridge for bringing the two together so they can find a solution to the impasse?" she asked. She denied that China has any vested interests in Libya's oil industry, saying that most of China's investments and workers were in construction, infrastructure and transport and "actually, most of Libya's oil industry has been taken away by Western oil companies."

"I don't agree with reports that in the case of Afghanistan or Iraq, China did not sacrifice any single soldier's life but ended up as the winner in economic deals," she said.  "In both countries, the decisions taken by the local government were based on the competitive advantages of companies and the bidding was an open process." 

For some Chinese foreign policy scholars, the Libyan crisis and China's response mark a departure from China's traditional approach of laying low. "In Chinaļ¼Œthere's a debate between those who want China to continue lying low in world affairs, and those who want China to assume a greater, more assertive role in the world and I belong to the latter school," international affairs expert Yan Xuetong told NBC News. In his recently published book Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power, Professor Yan, dean of the Institute of Modern International Relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing, argued that China can play a greater political role in the world based on moral norms, not on sheer military or economic power.  Citing China's support for sanctions against the Gadhafi regime and decisions to mobilize warships and military aircraft in a high-profile rescue operations that improved China's international image, Yan said that "China's policy on Libya is clearly a break from the principle of keeping a low profile."

Others take a different standpoint.

"I don't think I belong to any of the two schools. There may be schools in between, or maybe I belong to the case-by-case school," said Dr. He Wenping. "Whether it is appropriate for China to take action or remain quiet really depends on the case at hand. If it involves China's important interests or China has a lot of leverage, then China can take responsible action, but in other cases it may not be good for China's image to become too assertive," she said. In Libya and the Middle East, there doesn't seem to be a debate on the important Chinese stakes involved: Even if Libya only supplies 3 percent of China's imported oil, China has some US$18.8 billion contracted projects in Libya and nearly half of China's oil imports come from North Africa and the Middle East. 

LisAurel Winfree contributed research to this report.