Libya: are the BRICs wasting a good crisis?

My post earlier today about whether or not rising powers like Brazil, India and China might help mount a UN peace operation in post-Gaddafi Libya has drawn some interesting, if robustly negative, responses.  “Pragmatic Desi”, an Indian expert who had dismissed my idea out-of-hand, argued that I overestimate the readiness of the BRICs: “India (& even China) still consider themselves to be consumers of geo-political stability, not providers of it.”  David Bosco of FP concurs:

I very much doubt that BRIC countries do feel the obligation [to push for peace in Libya] that [Gowan] describes; after all, the Security Council calls on people to do all sorts of things all the time without asking or expecting Council members to provide resources to ensure that they happen (though I do agree that Council members should feel a much greater sense of obligation to give meaning to the body’s entreaties). More broadly, my sense is that the BRICs view the entire response to Libya (including Resolution 1970, which they supported) as Western-driven and are not particularly invested in a particular outcome.

But let’s say the BRICS were willing to provide military observers to police a political transition. Would the West feel comfortable handing off what was essentially a war for human rights to countries that have a very different take on that concept?

David has consistently argued – since at least 25 February – that the emerging powers have decided to take a “you bomb if you want to, we’ll just watch” sort of approach to the Libyan crisis.  After the BRICs abstained on Security Council Resolution 1973 – the basis for bombing – he offered this explanation for their ambivalence:

First, they didn’t care all that much and they didn’t want to use up diplomatic capital resisting strong Western pressure for intervention. Second, and more deviously, they may have liked the idea of the West spending time and resources in Libya. They knew the West wouldn’t intervene absent a Council resolution and so they abstained in order to induce an intervention they calculated would drain resources and open up the West to the very kind of criticism they’re now happily dishing out.

I suspect there’s more than a grain of truth in this analysis. But if so, I’d suggest that politicians and planners in Delhi and Beijing in particular are failing to grasp the full meaning of events in the Middle East for them. Back in early March I made the following argument in a piece for Abu Dhabi’s The National:

China and India are both significant customers for Libyan oil and gas, and roughly 30,000 Chinese citizens and 20,000 Indians lived in Libya before the troubles began. Last month, New Delhi ordered warships to the Mediterranean to rescue its nationals, while Beijing organised similar evacuations.

Historians may come to see the Libyan crisis as a pivotal moment in China and India’s rise as global powers. There has recently been copious commentary about the new Asian economic superpowers’ investments in Africa and the Middle East – and criticism of their ties to unstable leaders such as Sudan’s Omar al Bashir and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. They have rarely paid a political price for these risky relationships.

Yet Libya’s implosion has shown how India and China’s expanding economic presence makes them vulnerable to the fall-out from far-away events. Ten years ago, a conflict in the southern Mediterranean would have been dismissed as something for the US and Europeans to resolve. But as the fighting in Libya threatens economic recovery elsewhere, it quickly became a global problem. The Asian powers’ reliance on Middle Eastern oil meant that they had to be involved in stemming the crisis.

David may be right that China and India (not to mention Brazil and Russia) are failing to address the Libyan crises on these terms. But even if this may keep them out of trouble for the time being, it may be a strategic mistake in the longer term. By failing to get involved in crisis resolution at this stage, the BRICS are arguably missing the chance to gain a stronger strategic foothold in the Middle East. My guess is that, if China and India had rushed forward to help out over Libya, cash-strapped Western powers would have welcomed their support.  Are the BRICS wasting a good crisis?