“In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity”
Ever since its independence in 1949, China has been successfully following the policy of non-interventionism; but things started to shift right after the current Chinese President Xi Jingping took control of the regins in 2013. Xi wants China to be a constructive player in the international arena. A clear shift was been observed in Beijing’s historic policy of maintaining a lower profile when China introduced its multibillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013. The post BRI outlook of China`s foreign policy has completely altered from an introvert state to an extrovert one at the global arena, and the country is engaging more proactively in and around the world by exerting its soft power influence.
The BRI project is a combination of both land and sea corridors aimed at connecting three continents – Asia, Africa and Europe – through economic integration. However, the biggest hurdle in achieving the full potential of this economic agenda is the ongoing conflicts in Africa, the Middle East and the Eurasian region. In such a situation, China is left with limited options either to weigh in its support for one conflicting party or act as a responsible state and diplomatically intervene to resolve the whole conflict.
China opted for the latter strategy of conflict resolution through diplomacy. Prior to 2013, Chinese diplomatic efforts were observed only in Africa, but since the BRI’s commencement, more proactive diplomatic efforts have been recorded in regions such as South Asia, the Middle East and East Africa. In 2012, China was mediating in just three conflicts, but a significant increase was observed in 2017 when it was involved in nine of such efforts. The patterns of these mediating efforts revealed that they were more specifically in and around the BRI states.
China’s name as a potential mediator came into the forefront of the global media outlets late February when it published the twelve point peace proposal for the peaceful resolution of Ukraine conflict. The language of the peace proposal is nondiscriminatory and flexible for both the belligerents. The document also urges all other parties to the conflict to sit together and convince both Russia and Ukraine to resolve their conflict through a direct dialogue. China, having devised the proposal, also offered its constructive role in the process.
However, western scholars and officials are skeptical of China’s mediatory efforts. Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center said that economics and politics are two primary goals in Russia-China relations which cannot be ignored. Both have a common international goal of countering the US and want to align their position. Similarly, the United States also put forward its concerns on China’s mediatory role in the Ukraine crisis. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken termed the Chinese peace proposal as stalling tactics to help Russian ground troops and stated it would not be acceptable to freeze the war on Russian terms. Moreover, the White House National Security Council Spokesperson John Kirby accused China of not being an impartial mediator.
The credibility of Chinese diplomatic efforts for resolving long standing bilateral issues among the states is enhanced with its successful mediation towards restoration of Saudi-Iran ties last month, where China played a very vital role in bringing both rival states on the negotiating table after a long eight years of their strained diplomatic relations. China, being the chief mediator, has cemented its position of deliberate peacemaker in the Middle East. It is also seen as an honest peace broker as it does not carry the same burden of religious, political and historical colonial baggage as the US and European states.
The US has been on the path to counter Iran with its strong regional ally Israel, but the current opening of Iran to the Arab world not only damages US-Israel joint efforts, it also taints US influence in the region. Also, Russian economic investment in Iran for transit corridor is seen as beneficial for China too. Relations between Riyadh and Washington are at a historic low and the Biden administration has been very slow in their approach to mend ties with Saudi Arabia. However, the major flaw in Washington’s policy circle is that it fails to realize that Saudi Arabia is not a security guarantor of the US in the region; instead, it sees itself capable of playing an independent role in the world and in regional politics. For achieving these aims, the Saudis do not want any sort of war or confrontation with any state at the expense of US interests. China, being an emerging economic power, sees diminishing US influence as an opportunity to cement its influence in the Middle East by exploiting the unfolding ground realities.
Technical flaws have, however, been identified in Chinese mediating efforts. First, it is being analyzed that China keeps only the high-level stakeholders in the loop for the talks and ignores the other stakeholders beyond government officials. Therefore, China is being criticized for its narrowed scope. Second, there are economic interests that sometimes raise questions on the credibility of Chinese efforts. For instance, in the case of Saudi-Iran mediation, China sees both states as pivots in the region that can become indispensable economic and strategic partners for Beijing and therefore, granted both Tehran and Riyadh the status of Comprehensive Strategic partners. Finally, China’s approach is also being criticized for not attempting to resolve the conflict, rather only helping to manage it.
The risk is always there for China with the outcome of these mediation endeavors; if it fails, this could signal to the rest of the world that China has limited leverage over its partners. The BRI’s success is also associated with peace in the conflict prone regions of the Middle East and Africa, but if China fails to pacify the conflicting parties, the BRI’s success would likely be uncertain.
Consequently, mediation diplomacy is now the central pillar of the country’s foreign policy under Xi Jinping’s leadership. Mediation policy also suits China’s historic notion of non-interventionism; moreover, these global peaceful activities enhance both its domestic and international images. Shaping resolution of international conflicts is central to President Xi’s vision of an assertive China under which China will be taking more proactive international responsibilities and project itself as a responsible great power.
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