By Chris Buckley
BEIJING (Reuters) - China urged a "stable transition of power" in Libya and said on Wednesday it is in contact with the rebel National Transitional Council, the clearest sign that Beijing has effectively shifted recognition to forces poised to defeat Muammar Gaddafi.
"(China) respects the choice of the Libyan people and hopes for a stable transition of power," Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said in a statement issued on the ministry's website (www.mfa.gov.cn).
"We have always attached significance to the important role of the National Transitional Council in solving Libya's problems, and maintain contact with it," Ma said, referring to the main Libyan rebel group fighting Gaddafi's shrinking forces in the capital Tripoli.
"We hope that the future new government will adopt effective measures, draw together the forces of different factions, and restore social order as quickly as possible," he said, referring to Libya.
Beijing has yet to formally recognize the rebel forces as Libya's new leaders. But Ma's comments and a flurry of other official remarks indicated Beijing has decisively abandoned Gaddafi and turned to the rebels likely to take full control of Tripoli soon.
"We hope to play an active role in rebuilding Libya in the future, together with the international community," the spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, Shen Danyang, told a news conference in Beijing on Wednesday.
China and Russia have a tradition of opposing intervention in sovereign states, even when Western governments favor military action on humanitarian grounds.
But Beijing had been stepping up engagement with Libyan rebel leaders in recent months, even as it said those meetings were part of an effort to encourage a negotiated end to the six-month old war.
China is the world's second-biggest oil consumer, and last year obtained 3 percent of its imported crude from Libya.
China's official Xinhua news agency cautioned in a commentary against too much optimism.
"Gaddafi's era is over, no matter what his personal end game is. But don't be optimistic too soon," it wrote. "The power games are only just beginning."
BACKING A UNITED NATIONS ROLE
China did not use its U.N. Security Council veto power in March to block a resolution that authorized the NATO bombing campaign against Gaddafi's forces, but it then condemned the strikes and urged compromise between his government and rebels.
The United Nations should now lead post-war efforts in Libya, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told the U.N. chief, adding that Beijing was willing to help rebuild the north African country.
In a phone call with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Yang suggested Beijing wants bodies such as the U.N., rather than Western governments alone, to coordinate international involvement in post-war Libya.
This would give China a say in decisions, despite the leading role Western powers played in defeating the forces of long-time leader Muammar Gaddafi.
"The United Nations should play a leading role in post-war arrangements for Libya, and China encourages the United Nations to strengthen coordination and cooperation with the African Union and Arab League," Yang said, according to the ministry website late on Tuesday (www.mfa.gov.cn).
China is "willing to work alongside the United Nations to promote a rapid stabilisation in Libya and a swift course toward reconciliation and reconstruction," said Yang.
In a phone call on Wednesday to Brazil's foreign minister Antonio Patriota, Yang said the BRICS group of emerging powers should coordinate policy over Libya and "exert an active influence," the Chinese foreign ministry said.
The BRICS bloc brings together Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, all of whom voiced worry about the expanding NATO air campaign over Libya.
On Tuesday, China urged Libya to protect Chinese investments and said their oil trade benefited both countries, after a Libyan rebel warned that Chinese oil companies could lose out after the ousting of Gaddafi because Beijing did not offer enough support to the rebels.
But Ahmed Jehani, a senior rebel representative for reconstruction, told Reuters in an interview that a Libyan rebel government would honor all the oil contracts granted during the Gaddafi era, including those of Chinese companies.
China shipped in roughly 150,000 barrels per day of crude oil from Libya last year through Unipec, the trading arm of Asia's top refiner Sinopec Corp, holder of the long-term supply contract. That amounted to about one tenth of Libya's crude exports.
(Additional reporting by Langi Chiang and Ben Blanchard, Editing by Jonathan Thatcher)