OSLO Most of the 18 states joining China in shunning Friday's Nobel Peace Prize ceremony for Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo have strong commercial interests at stake or share its hostility to Western human rights pressure.
The secretary of the Norwegian Nobel Committee which awards the prize says China has mounted an unprecedented campaign to persuade other countries to boycott Friday's award gala, but two-thirds of invited nations will attend.
Joining China in staying away are: Russia, Kazakhstan, Colombia, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Serbia, Iraq, Iran, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Venezuela, the Philippines, Egypt, Sudan, Ukraine, Cuba and Morocco.
"Most of them see China as a very important supporter and protector against Western pressure," said Nils Butenschoen, director of the Norwegian Center for Human Rights.
With Russia the absentee group includes half of the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) states that have gained global influence, especially since the 2008 global economic crisis that weakened developed western nations led by the United States.
With Saudi Arabia, the group has three members of the G20.
According to the democracy index, a rating system compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit, none of the countries that plan to skip the Nobel gala are "fully fledged" democracies.
Ukraine, Colombia, the Philippines and Serbia are "flawed democracies" and the rest are either "hybrid regimes" or "authoritarian" states -- such as China, which ranks in 136th place out of 167 countries covered in the 2010 democracy index.
Elizabeth Stephens, who assesses political risk for insurance broker Jardine Lloyd Thompson, said many Nobel no-shows look to China for future prosperity.
"Several countries on the list have U.S. sanctions against them, like Sudan, Cuba and Iran," she said. "These countries depend to some extent on China for trade."
"All (of the absentee states) would object to the Nobel Prize being awarded to one of their own citizens who was imprisoned for activities perceived to undermine the state."
Embassies are not required to explain why they accept or decline a Nobel invitation, but a senior Filipino diplomat spoke candidly, underlining China's growing power, especially in Asia.
"We do not want to further annoy China," he said.
The Nobel committee's executive secretary, Geir Lundestad, said all 65 embassies in Norway were invited to attend the ceremony, and that 44 accepted, including pivotal emerging markets Brazil, South Korea, Indonesia and South Africa.
Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, said the list of no-shows doesn't suggest "China had to twist any arms."
"Cuba, Venezuela, Russia, and Kazakhstan can sympathize with the dissident issue. Countries like Pakistan and Iraq have commercial and political reasons to curry favor with Beijing."
Nikolas Gvosdev, a professor at the Naval War College in the United States, said China's campaign to erode attendance at the Nobel ceremony shows the country's expanding "soft power."
The fact that 18 nations fell into line, he said, showed some sympathy for so-called "Beijing rules" in how the world ought to operate, chiefly that "sovereignty is absolute."
"These rules appeal especially to developing and non-Western countries... because they push back against the idea that the Euro-Atlantic community, through claiming to uphold 'universal values', can justify intervention in their domestic affairs," Gvosdev wrote in an email to Reuters.
(Additional reporting by Peter Apps in London, editing by Mark Trevelyan)