Four months into the conflict and while the battle for Libya is still going strong, various conspiracy theories have by now emerged. After Gaddafi's own theory of Al-Qaeda putting drugs in the people's Nescafe flopped, the idea that Libya could in fact be the theatre for a new cold war attracted quite a lot of attention.
In the last decade China has gained a lot of influence in Africa and has come to inscribe itself as one of the main contractual competitors of the West on the continent and share flourishing diplomatic ties with many of African countries.
As the conflict between the rebel fighters, Nato and Gaddafi went on, a lot of people started to wonder why the US and Nato were so determined to engineer a regime change in Libya. The answer of course was that the U.S, which has also been trying in the last years to reinforce its presence and influence on the continent with however far less success than China, would use Libya to refrain the Asian giant's influence.
Despite setting up AFRICOM in 2008 in response to the growing strategic interests of the U.S. on the African continent, the organisation is far from making the unanimity as the only country that was willing to host its headquarters, which to date are still in Germany, was Liberia.
Founded under US President George Bush Jr, AFRICOM is a subset of the larger neo-conservative Project for a new American Century (PNAC).
Many think that behind the cover of an African centred organisation, Africom's main strategic goal is indeed to confront the increasing Chinese influence on the continent.
However leaders on the continent have remained extremely cautious vis a vis the US as they fear the hegemon will use its influence to try and control resources. Throughout the cold War, the US interest in Africa was notoriously low, so the sudden regain of concern rapidly worried many of the leaders. Also, when Al Qaeda branches started to surface in the continent, it seems that both African leaders and analysts feared the US would use it as an excuse to become military more preponderant on the continent and try to install more bases.
The Sino-African relationship on the other hand is much older. Modern diplomatic ties became however stronger during the cold war and through the communist ideology. While China originally had close ties with the anti-apartheid and liberation movement, African National Congress (ANC), in South Africa, it also shifted away from the ANC towards the Pan-Africanist Congress.
China adopted several principles, among them supporting the independence of African countries while investing in infrastructure projects. During the Cold War a few smaller nations entered in alliances with China, such as Burundi under Michel Micombero. While in the last 20 to ten years the Sino-African relationship has taken a much more important economic turn, it is not a new one.
According to Bejing's Ministry of Commerce, China's contracts in Libya, prior to the conflict, numbered no less than 50 large projects involving contracts in excess of 18 billion USD.
However since the beginning of the Arab spring, China's influence in Northern Africa appear to have dropped significantly as it has been reported that its foreign contracted projects dropped down 53.2%.
Among them, the amount of new contracts in Libya, are said to be down by 45.3%, with 13.9% less turnover while in Algeria, the amount of the contract fell by 97.1%, and the turnover decreased by 10.7% within the first 2 months of this year.
Theorists believing that the Libya will bring about a new cold war think that the West has intentionally supported instability in the region in order to legitimise sending ground troops and benefit from a strong military presence in Libya.
Patrick Henningsen for example thinks that "what we are witnessing here is the dawn of a New Cold War between the US-EURO powers and China. This new cold war will feature many of the same elements of the long and protracted US-USSR face-off we saw in the second half of the 20th century. It will take place off shore, in places like Africa, South America, and Central Asia and through old flashpoints like Korea and the Middle East.
What makes this new cold warmuch deeper and more subtle than the previous one, is that it will not be cloaked in a popular ideology like 'Capitalism vs Communism'. This new war centres around one single issue- natural resources."
The problem with this theory however is that it sees the struggle for natural resources as a 21 century preoccupation, a modern novelty, which in itself is quite western centred. The fight for natural resources in Africa for example started well before the European arrived on the continent. While the idea that states can be purely benevolent actors and are willing to spend millions to defend human rights is very naïve, restricting the Libyan conflict to a US-China undercover war is far too restrictive.
Yes, the Libyan National Transitional Council has, in a short amount of time, created solid ties with the West and its allies, but China and Russia made sure they would not be left out. Both countries are in direct contacts with the rebel movement and the US backed Nato operation has backfired on the coalition forces as the rebels are disappointed with the Alliance. In four months of conflicts they have made little progresses on the ground, and Nato has mistakenly killed both civilians and rebels. The latter are now facing serious medicines, food and material shortages and keep on asking for more funds as they are also running out of money.
Countries like China and Russia on the other hand are now on a full scale diplomatic offensive while they try to find a political solution to the conflict. Their less aggressive stand, coupled with their anti-western imperialism dialectic is set to win them many friends on the continent.
Also, while the idea of a new cold war between China and the US is interesting,as it bring us back to a time were tensions and suspicions ruled the international arena, rivalries between the EU, the US and Russia are completely brushed aside. Russia has certainly been the most vocal on its opposition to the Nato aerial bombing campaign and has used the conflict to reinstate itself as an important global international player. If confrontation there is, it seems unlikely it would only involve two participants.