LONDON - China’s historically nonpartisan approach to international diplomacy has taken a dramatic turn as the country has sought to recast itself as a global peacemaker, writes Arion McNicoll in The Week.
In a major diplomatic coup last week, Beijing was centrally involved in brokering a rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia – a development that “has the world doing metaphorical double takes”, said The New York Times (NYT), considering it could well “transform the Middle East”.
Amy Hawthorne, from the Washington-based Project on Middle East Democracy, said the accomplishment puts China into a new league diplomatically. “There is no way around it – this is a big deal,” she told the NYT.
What is Xi up to?
Following his success in helping thaw relations between Tehran and Riyadh, Xi Jinping “struck a triumphant note”, said the Financial Times.
China should “actively participate” in “global governance” and “add more stability and positive energy to world peace”, the Chinese president said in a speech to the country’s legislature on Monday.
Yet Xi’s new-found role as global peacemaker is not wholly altruistic, said Bloomberg. Rather than helping solve some of the world’s most intractable diplomatic problems, the Chinese president is simply “looking to bolster his credibility as a responsible global actor”, the news site said.
And while China’s mediation received a huge amount of media attention “the Chinese don’t appear to have committed themselves to playing the role of referee or monitor”, said Middle East analyst Aaron David Miller on Foreign Policy. Consequently “they have taken on little risk”.
Beijing “may come to experience what the United States has in this region so many times”, Miller added, with promises going unfulfilled or broken.
For now, though, the benefits probably outweigh the risks. “China has poked the United States, broken out of its Covid-19 isolation, extended its reach politically in a region where US diplomacy has traditionally prevailed, and perhaps eased tensions in an area vital to China’s economic interests,” Miller wrote.
What about Ukraine?
Xi isn’t content simply resolving long-standing tensions in the Middle East. In the coming months, the Chinese leader will travel to Moscow to meet Vladimir Putin to discuss his recently unveiled “peace plan” and he has also committed to a first call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Xi “might even put in another call to Joe Biden to help ease spiraling tensions with the US”, Bloomberg said.
Yet China’s intervention in Ukraine is far from neutral, according to the United States Institute for Peace (USIP). Beijing’s plan for a political settlement to the war, which it unveiled on the anniversary of Russia’s invasion in February, called for a “community of shared security for mankind”.
This proposal “echoes China’s campaign to reshape prevailing modes of global governance”, said USIP. And “notably prioritizes regional groupings in which China plays a leading role or exercises influence, including a number forged by China itself, like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization or the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation”.
Indeed, while China supports peace in principle, many analysts and diplomats believe it does not want to find an end to the Ukraine war that endangers Putin or his regime.
“For Beijing, the key question isn’t whether the war should end; it’s how it should end,” Benjamin Herscovitch, a research fellow at Australian National University told Reuters. “China still sees Russia as a central element of its overarching strategy to weaken US power and influence and build a multipolar world.”
Is it the start of a new trend?
The Iran-Saudi pact and Beijing’s proposals for peace in Ukraine are only the beginning for China, said The Atlantic’s Michael Schuman.
The moves herald “a trend in Chinese foreign policy, in which Beijing pursues more active diplomacy in regions where it has wielded limited power”.
However, it is not yet clear what kind of peace Beijing is hoping to build through its new-found diplomacy.
Beijing’s ties to Russia, Iran and North Korea make it “a major patron of the world’s three most destabilizing states”, Schuman said. And leaving aside the Iran-Saudi deal, “there have been few indications that Beijing intends to use its influence to rein in these countries’ most dangerous designs.
“Until it does,” the Beijing-based Schuman concluded, “China’s new order will be anything but peaceful.”