China intensifies condemnation of Libya air strikes

BEIJING Mon Mar 21, 2011 2:52am EDT

BEIJING (Reuters) - China's official newspapers on Monday stepped up Beijing's opposition to Western air attacks on Libya, accusing nations backing the strikes of breaking international rules and courting new turmoil in the Middle East.

China's strongest condemnation yet of assaults on the forces of Libya's leader Muammar Gaddafi appeared in the People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party, and showed how the conflict could become a fresh point of contention between Beijing and Washington.

The paper accused the United States and its allies of violating international rules, although China had refrained from blocking the United Nations Security Council decision last week that effectively authorized the air attacks.

The People's Daily likened the assault on Libyan sites to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and suggested it followed a pattern of Western overreaching in other countries' affairs.

"The blood-soaked tempests that Iraq has undergone for eight years and the unspeakable suffering of its people are a mirror and a warning," said the commentary in the People's Daily.

"The military attacks on Libya are, following on the Afghan and Iraq wars, the third time that some countries have launched armed action against sovereign countries," it said.

"It should be seen that every time military means are used to address crises, that is a blow to the United Nations Charter and the rules of international relations."

The commentary appeared under the penname of "Zhong Sheng," which in Chinese sounds like "Voice of the Center" or "Voice of China," suggesting it is reflecting high-level government views.

The Foreign Ministry has expressed "serious reservations" about military action. On Monday, the Ministry said its Middle East envoy would visit Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Qatar and Palestinian-controlled areas this week.

Although Beijing is unlikely to go beyond verbal sparring with Western governments over the strikes, its opposition could win points with Arab and other nations that may become more alarmed if the air attacks continue and bring more casualties.

"Criticizing the military interventions is largely meant to gain diplomatic points among the developing world," said Li Mingjiang of Singapore's Nanyang Technological University.

China's criticism was echoed in other official newspapers.

The overseas edition of the People's Daily, a small offshoot of the main edition, said Western nations used concern about Libyan civilians attacked by Gaddafi's forces as an "excuse," and said the attacks could open a "Pandora's Box" of chaos.

A GROWING STAKE, A GROWING VOICE

China's handling of Western pressure on Libya has laid bare the quandaries facing Beijing in the Middle East.

The Middle East is an important source of oil for China. On the weekend, Saudi Arabia's Aramco announced its latest proposal to supply crude to a refinery in the southwest of China, where Beijing is building an oil pipeline that slices through Myanmar.

About half of China's crude imports last year came from the Middle East and North Africa. China wants to diversify supplies, but Arab countries and Iran hold so much of global reserves that they are sure to remain major suppliers.

"China's influence in the Middle East has grown steadily, reflecting its economic growth, and that will oblige China to speak out more about regional affairs," said Guo Xian'gang, vice president of the China Institute of International Studies in Beijing.

On Saturday, Libya's top oil official said Tripoli was considering offering oil block contracts directly to China, India and other nations it sees as friends in its month-long conflict with rebels.

Yet Beijing has had relatively limited diplomatic sway in the Middle East, and no major military role. It has tended to bow, sometimes begrudgingly, to Western demands, while pursuing its commercial and energy interests.

China's handling of Libya reflects that awkward balance: both accommodating and criticizing Western demands.

In abstaining on the Security Council resolution, it cited calls of Arab countries for prompt U.N. action.

Beijing has rarely used its veto as a permanent Security Council member to block resolutions, but has sought to dilute Western proposals by using the threat of veto. It abstained from the resolution that preceded the 1991 Gulf War.

Russia, which also abstained on the resolution, called on Britain, France and the United States at the weekend to stop the air strikes, describing them as "non-selective use of force" against non-military targets.

(Additional reporting by Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Ken Wills and Ron Popeski)