China’s successful brokering of a rapprochement between Middle East rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran is a milestone in a far grander plan, both to counter what Beijing views as U.S.-led containment and to reshape the world order to better serve its interests.
In a bold departure from its trade-dominated policy in the oil-rich region, China entered the fray of Middle East peacemaking by mediating an accord – unveiled in Beijing on Friday – by which Iran and Saudi Arabia pledged to reestablish diplomatic ties and reopen embassies closed in 2016.
China has a strong interest in advancing stability and influence in the region that supplies most of its crude oil; its economic clout and solid relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia put Beijing in a position to clinch the deal that the two countries had been negotiating for two years.
But the diplomatic coup is also a concrete illustration of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s pursuit of a broader and more ambitious agenda – to free China from the isolation it believes the West is imposing, and to build a power base in the Global South from which to challenge U.S. hegemony, China experts say.
Mr. Xi launched a rare public attack on the United States in a speech last week, blaming Washington for economic setbacks. “Western countries – led by the U.S. – have implemented all-around containment, encirclement, and suppression against us, bringing unprecedentedly severe challenges to our country’s development,” said Mr. Xi, according to state media.
Facing U.S. pressure in Europe and Asia, “this is China pushing back … saying, ‘We have alternative theaters [where] we can promote our leadership and our credibility,’” says Yun Sun, a senior fellow and co-director of the East Asia Program and director of the China Program at the Stimson Center, in Washington.
China’s leaders are “pointing towards an alternative global security vision” – led by Beijing – that “has already borne fruit in the case of the Middle East,” and are suggesting that “if it can be successful there, it can be successful elsewhere,” says Ms. Sun.
Turning economic clout into political influence
China’s rise as the globe’s largest trading power has brought a surge in Chinese investment across the developing world. In the past decade, China invested an estimated $1 trillion in the Belt and Road Initiative, a massive program to build railways, highways, and energy pipelines in nearly 150 countries spanning Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America.
Now, Beijing is seeking to leverage its economic clout in the Global South to create a base from which to expand its political and diplomatic influence and gain greater sway in international institutions and world affairs, experts say.
“A great power does not just engage economically with its neighbors. It becomes more involved and more prominent in global affairs,” says Nadège Rolland, a senior fellow for political and security affairs at the National Bureau of Asian Research. China’s new outlook is a “paradigm shift,” she says.
“China’s engagement is not just about trade and the quest for natural resources and markets,” she adds. “There’s a growing sense from the Chinese political elites that they also need to deliver global public goods.”
In a recent speech in Beijing, the editor-in-chief of the influential Beijing Cultural Review, Yang Ping, argued that China should “build a new type of international relations and a new type of international system that has strategic depth and in which China and the countries of the Global South are jointly integrated.”
This would involve adapting the Belt and Road Initiative to make strategic investments in developing countries that might not be profitable, Mr. Yang said, according to a translation of his remarks on the blog “Sinification.”
The governments of many such countries are receptive to Beijing’s outreach, which presents China’s economic success under a state-led, authoritarian system as an alternative model to that of the West.
China also benefits from a long history of solidarity with the Third World as one of dozens of developing countries opposed to colonialism that attended the 1955 Bandung Conference, a precursor to the Non-Aligned Movement. During the Cold War, China sought to form a united front with the developing world to resist pressures from the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
“The parallels are very similar to what we are seeing today,” says Dr. Rolland, as Beijing seeks to work with the Global South to resist what it perceives as a Western campaign of isolation and encirclement.
A key facet of China’s strategy is to focus on areas where it thinks the U.S. is not paying enough attention, experts say.
“The uncertainties of U.S. power and influence … could allow Beijing to play an increasingly important role in regional politics, especially within the Global South,” said Michael Swaine, director of the East Asia Program of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft in Washington, in an online forum Tuesday.
Not everyone so keen …
China’s effort to elevate its stature as a great power, through diplomatic initiatives in the Middle East and elsewhere, won’t end with the Iran-Saudi Arabia deal. Plans are afoot for Beijing to host a high-level summit later this year between Iran and the Gulf Arab countries in the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council.
If that summit succeeds, illustrating China’s ability to bridge historic rivalries, “that would be a real [game] changer in terms of international relations in the region,” Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a fellow for the Middle East at the Baker Institute, told Tuesday’s online forum.
Yet experts say it is too early to say how far China-brokered agreements will be implemented and caution against overstating China’s role. “China was at the right place at the right time with the right relationships” to help strike the Iran-Saudi Arabia agreement, says Ms. Sun. “It was not because China has this amazing influence to be the peacemaker.”
Indeed, experts stress that China’s ability to forge unity and dampen conflicts in the developing world will often be curtailed by the calculations of the individual countries involved, many of which will seek to balance their ties with the U.S. and China.
While Beijing may view itself as making common cause with the developing world, as in the 1950s and 1960s, China’s superpower status has left many countries wary of its influence, says Ms. Sun.
China “is in a Cold War competition with the United States. It is dividing the world into two pieces in this competition and trying to get the Third World to align behind China,” she says. “The Chinese will say … China is just an innocent third party on the sidelines, but I’m sure a lot of countries will feel differently about that message.”
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