China faces mounting challenges in its struggle to build favour and protect its business interests and infrastructure projects in Libya after being seen to be slow-moving in its support for the African oil-producing country's transitional government.
Analysts say Beijing has been subtly changing its tone and tactics since the death of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi last week, distancing itself from the deceased dictator to build an image that would be perceived as friendly to the National Transitional Council.
In an interview with a France-based publication, Lu Shaye, Director-General of the Department of African Affairs of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, hit back at criticism that Beijing supports authoritarian regimes in Africa, including Libya.
"The former African leaders who are now deemed as dictators by the West, including Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and [Zine el-Abidine] Ben Ali of Tunisia, were all firm allies of the West over the past two to three decades," Lu said, according to a transcript of the interview posted on the ministry's website two days after Gaddafi's death after being captured by rebels.
"Gaddafi had never been a friend of China. On the other hand, he was the guest of many Western leaders," he added.
John Lee, a China watcher at the University of Sydney's Centre for International Security Studies, said Lu's remarks - the first by a Chinese official openly denying ties between Gaddafi and Beijing - showed that Beijing is worried its moderately strained relations with the rebels might hurt its business interests in post-Gaddafi Libya.
"The first step is to distance itself from the Gaddafi regime, even though it is just a diplomatic move to convince the transitional regime that China supports its legitimacy. The second thing China wants is the continuation of the oil contracts it had with Libya."
Analysts generally agree that China was not particularly close to the dictator. In 2009, the Gaddafi regime said China's presence in Africa amounted to "neo-colonialism".
But Beijing was reluctant to condemn Gaddafi. China even opposed airstrikes led by Nato against the Gaddafi regime, though it chose not to exercise its veto power in the UN Security Council when a resolution authorising the strikes came up for a vote in March, instead abstaining.
Other sticking points between China and the new Libyan government include complaints from the NTC that China is blocking the release of Libyan funds frozen by the UN.
A report by Economic Information Daily, published by Xinhua, quoted a Libyan official as saying that Western companies may get priority over equally compatible Chinese firms because of the close ties between the NTC and the West.
But the official said Chinese enterprises should maintain business contacts with representatives of the old and new regimes.
Before the fighting began eight months ago, Chinese companies had about 50 infrastructure and investment projects in Libya worth about US$19 billion.
It is reasonable to think Beijing is concerned about possible Libyan discrimination against Chinese companies because it failed to support the rebels early on, analysts say. Last month, China asked the NTC to guarantee the interests of Chinese companies.
Some mainland experts dismissed fears of Beijing's fading influence as Libya needs China's help to rebuild.
“This is going to be similar to Iraq. The West was the main player behind the downfall of Saddam Hussein [of Iraq], but China still participates in some post-war projects," said Li Weijian director of Middle East studies at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies.
(Source: South China Morning Post)