Libya: Asia's Ambivalence

Apr 04, 2011
*Special to asia!
-A +A

China and India abstained from the UN vote, then other Asian countries kept quiet or issued statements that stopped short of supporting the resolution to intervene in Libya. Why?


558 Pro-US intervention in Libya: Supporters gather outside the White House. (Photo credit: Marisseay on Flickr)


China, as a permanent member of the Security Council, has a right to veto any United Nations resolutions and thus prevent it from being passed. India, now serving a two-year-term as one of the Council's non-permanent members, can vote on any resolution.

When the Council voted on Resolution 1973, which authorised a no-fly zone over Libya, the two Asian countries, along with Russia, Brazil and Germany, abstained rather than cast their vote. As a result, the resolution was passed 10-0 by the rest of the council.

France, Britain and the United States then began to launch hundreds of missiles aimed at paralyzing the Libyan air force. As the skies lit up over Libya, China and India roundly condemned the strikes.

New Delhi issued a statement: “India regrets the air strikes that are taking place.”

The Chinese state-run Xinhua news agency: “China regrets the military strike against Libya.”

It was as if the two countries had not been complicit in allowing the air strikes to take place.

Long before the vote, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates had stated plainly that “a no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses." Yet China and India chose not to vote against Resolution 1973 which included the clause on the no-fly zone, and therefore implied the use of strikes against the Libyan air force.

What made all this even less coherent was that immediately after the vote, India's deputy representative to the UN said:

“The resolution that the council has adopted today authorises far reaching measures under Chapter VII of the UN Charter with relatively little credible information on the situation on the ground in Libya.”

If that's the case, why not vote no? Ditto in China's case.

Its representative said Beijing had “serious difficulty with part of the resolution”.

Yet, for all their misgivings, they abstained from the vote, which in effect is as good as giving silent consent.

The abstention reflects poorly on India's ability and willingness to shoulder key global responsibilities and duties.

Discussing the Indian abstention, Sumit Ganguly in the Deccan Herald said it “reflects poorly on its [India's] ability and willingness to shoulder key global responsibilities and duties”. He added that it showed India “singularly incapable of making tough decisions and instead is willing to resort to various verbal smoke screens to justify its inability to act.”

He summed it up as “cowardice.”

The same could perhaps be said of China, who after the fact, went on to label the implementation of the no-fly-zone as “Western airstrikes” (See Xinhua news agency's report: “Libya hit by first round of Western military attacks.”


A greater Asian view

Few would have expected China to vote yes, given its voting record in the UN which indicates a consistent refusal to support what it perceives to be foreign interference in domestic conflicts. Indeed, across the Asian continent in general, for different reasons, there appeared to be a similar reluctance to express full backing for Resolution 1973.

Indonesia's Foreign Minister cautioned after the vote, “The implementation of the UN resolution about Libya must be in line with the spirit of protecting civilians and not create new problems.”

Thailand backed down from its initial support of the resolution. Its cabinet was concerned that this could jeopardise Thai migrant workers in Muslim nations, as well as exacerbate the situation in its own restive Muslim-dominated south.

The Philippines declined the US's request for open support as well. According to its Foreign Affairs Secretary, “while the government's sentiments were with the UNSC, it could not speak publicly because it continued to have citizens in Libya.”

South Korea too was focusing on its nationals still remaining in the country, and refrained from an official statement on the resolution.

dan-chyi chua

Dan-Chyi Chua was a broadcast journalist, before forsaking Goggle Box Glitz for the Open Road. A three-year foray led her through the Middle East, China, SE Asia, Latin America and Cuba, and she's now grounded herself as a writer for, content with spending her days in Jerusalem.

Contact Dan-Chyi