There are now reports that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has dispatched an airliner to Athens, to assist in any possible evacuation of Chinese, Hong Kong, and Taiwanese persons from Libya. This is in addition to the dispatch of Chinese merchant ships and even fishing boats. These efforts are consistent with Chinese President Hu Jintao’s instructions to “spare no efforts to ensure the safety of life and properties of Chinese citizens in Libya.”

Setting aside the fact that Taiwanese are not citizens of the PRC and the controversy bound to ensue over the Chinese declaring them such, there is a much broader issue at stake over how a rising China determines and pursues its interests abroad.

As China’s economy has extended globally, and becomes ever more dependent on imports to fuel and maintain it, Chinese foreign policy has generally been one of “non-interference,” turning a blind eye to some of the worst autocracies, so long as their access to raw materials was unhindered. That this approach might be alienating the local populations was downplayed in favor of the pragmatism of dealing with the ones who controlled the guns.

Recent events in the Middle East suggest that this approach, while successful in the short-term, may have run its course. Iranian protestors in 2009 were heard chanting “Death to China,” in protest of Chinese acceptance of Ahmadinejad’s thuggish behavior in that nation’s contested presidential elections. Coupled with the reaction of Libyans to Chinese workers, and one has to wonder how the Chinese will react. Will they continue to follow a policy of “non-interference,” especially as Chinese investments abroad expand? Or, like other major powers, will the Chinese seek to influence their partners more, and will that make them more or less cooperative with the United States, Europe, and Japan?