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China Enters Riskier Space by Positioning Itself as Diplomatic Alternative to US

Beijing this week displaced New York and the UN as the diplomatic capital of the world, hosting two meetings that have the potential to unblock two of the deepest conflicts plaguing the globe – the nine-year-old conflict between Ukraine and Russia, and the 30-year standoff between Riyadh and Tehran.

For Beijing, often described as neuralgic towards interventionist foreign policy, it marks a step into the biggest of diplomatic leagues, and a sign of the country’s return to the global stage post-Covid.

Certainly the sight of the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and Iran, regional rivals since the 1960s, meeting under Chinese auspices for the first time in eight years is striking enough. But so too is the European encouragement of China as a mediator in Ukraine, symbolised by the visits of the French president, Emmanuel Macron, alongside the EU commission president, Ursula von der Leyen.

At a minimum, the contrast between the seriousness of the exchanges in Beijing and the reemergence of the Donald Trump comic opera in the US is enough to remind diplomats of the fragile underpinnings of American institutions.

The emergence of China into the diplomatic limelight of course can be overdone. The image of the country as a blushing diplomatic wallflower died years ago. According to the Mercator Research Institute, in 2017 alone Beijing was mediating in nine conflicts, a visible increase compared with only three in 2012, the year when Xi Jinping took power as general secretary of the Chinese Communist party.

The increase in Chinese mediation activities can be traced back to 2013, the year that the belt and road initiative was launched. The key objective then was to preserve stability along the key trade route, allowing for the smooth flow of trade and investment through unstable regions and to improve the security conditions for Chinese citizens and companies living and operating along the route. China has also long been a primary contributor to UN peacekeeping forces.

China is now self-consciously offering itself as a diplomatic alternative to the US. “China’s diplomatic approach of non-interference in other country’s internal affairs, not filling power vacuums or seeking hegemony while promoting dialogue and consultation to address issues is being well-received across the region,” Zhu Weilie, the director of the Middle East Studies Institute at Shanghai International Studies University, recently told Global Times.

Brokering deals in Ukraine, or in the Middle East, has the potential to take China into a different and riskier space.

Macron, at least on the surface, is giving credibility to Beijing’s role as a neutral peacemaker and probably more than his Atlanticist travel companion Von der Leyen. He may be flattering Chinese diplomats – he is accompanied by a large French business delegation – but he reckons there is little to lose.

After abandoning his own fruitless personal efforts to persuade Vladimir Putin to end the invasion of Ukraine, Macron logically sees China as the only country left with influence on Moscow. “I know I can count on you to bring Russia to its senses and everyone back to the negotiating table ,” the French head of state cooed to Xi on Thursday.

With so few levers at the west’s disposal, save more war, Macron may be in effect testing China’s diplomatic intentions, trying to work out whether there are any limits to “the relationship without limits” between Russia and China. There is also a simple warning to Xi: if China feels it cannot afford to see Russia lose this war, it is best to extricate Moscow before military reverses worsen.

At a minimum, taking China’s 12-point plan for peace announced in March at face value is also a useful way of heading off any Russian hope that China will supply Moscow with significant military weaponry, it is argued. China can hardly brandish an olive branch with one hand and a flame thrower in the other.

Macron’s words certainly appear to be designed to lock Beijing down as a peacemaker.

Macron’s aides argue that the French president has the chance to press Beijing to add substance to its self-appointed role as mediator and call Xi’s bluff: by asking if he believes in the territorial integrity of nation states and how that principle can be upheld with the Ukraine situation.

As Wang Huiyao, the influential founder of the Chinese non-governmental thinktank the Center for Chinai and Globalization, said: “If Beijing really wants to promote peace, it must resolve doubts about its willingness and ability to mediate fairly.” That requires Beijing to appear more evenhanded and to put pressure on Putin.

Yet when Xi travelled to Moscow for a three-day visit last month he did nothing to challenge Putin in public. The lengthy joint statement endorsed the UN security council as the only body equipped to authorise war-related sanctions. Superficially, this narrative might seem appealing, but in reality it gives one combatant, Russia, a veto as it is a member, and leaves the other, Ukraine, on the outside.

Not surprisingly, two days after Xi’s visit, Putin announced he was stationing tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus; hardly the act of a man fearing Chinese retribution for fanning the flames. His aides now say politely there is no need or prospect for Chinese mediation.

The suspicion is that this Chinese diplomatic activism is about tapping into the belief in the global south that the current order is an illegitimate and cast only to further the interests of the US.

On this basis, it does not matter that China’s peace plan is shorn of any true content; it exists and the global south can project on to it whatever instincts it harbours about US aggression. Similarly in the case of Iran and Saudi Arabia, China has not been required to get its hands dirty but may reap rich rewards. Most of the diplomatic heavy lifting had already been done by other countries, notably Iraq and Oman in 2021 and 2022.

Certainly Chinese officials did more than officiate at the signing ceremony, overseeing four days of tense talks. But by then both sides were wanting to let China take them over the finishing line, partly because Riyadh believed Beijing was the best guarantor available to keep Iran in line. It was also a chance for Riyadh to assert its independence from Washington and reflect the reality that China not the US, is now its largest trading partner.

But the more China offers itself as a genuine mediator in the years ahead, the more acute the scrutiny and the choices will become.

Source : TheGuardian