Understanding China's Diplomatic Initiatives

Understanding China's Diplomatic Initiatives
In the first half of 2023, China embarked on three diplomatic and peace initiatives by offering a Ukrainian peace plan, mediating between Saudi Arabia and Iran with the aim of normalizing their diplomatic relations and offered the visiting Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas peace talks with Israel. In all three initiatives, China acted like a rising hegemon, by projecting its soft power for mending fences in three conflict zones of Middle East and Europe.

According to reports, Chinese President Xi Jinping, while welcoming the Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in the Great Hall of Peoples in Beijing on June 14 offered reconciliation within Palestinian factions, and the promotion of peace with Israel. He also supported the full membership of the State of Palestine in the United Nations and establishing an independent Palestinian state composed of the pre-June 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital. In March this year, China unveiled its peace plan to end the war in Ukraine. Also in March, China arranged Iranian-Saudi reconciliation, whereby the two rival states announced they were reestablishing diplomatic relations. All three strategic and diplomatic initiatives of Beijing in the international arena will have far reaching implications in a polarized world order.

It seems like China is entering the Middle East with big ambitions, and the scale of those ambitions was reflected in the first China-Arab summit which was held in Riyadh in December last year. In that summit, which was attended by 21 Arab states, the Chinese president Xi delivered a keynote speech entitled “Carrying Forward the Spirit of China-Arab Friendship and Jointly Building a China-Arab Community with a Shared Future in the New Era,” in which he announced that China and Arab States were in agreement on deepening ties.

Xi, in his keynote speech, asserted that “China and Arab states should focus on economic development and promote win-win cooperation. The two sides should strengthen synergy between their development strategies and promote high-quality Belt and Road cooperation. They should consolidate cooperation in traditional areas including economy and trade, energy and infrastructure development. In the meantime, the two sides should strengthen new sources of growth such as green and low-carbon development, health and medical services, and investment and finance, and expand new frontiers including aviation and aerospace, digital economy and peaceful use of nuclear energy. China and Arab states should also tackle major challenges like food security and energy security. China will work with the Arab side to implement the Global Development Initiative (GDI) and drive sustainable development of South-South cooperation.” It means a paradigm shift in China and the Arab Middle East, whereby the focus would be on economic cooperation, development, environmental protection and South-South cooperation.

The China-Arab summit can no doubt be termed as a landmark and game changer, because Xi called “to advance eight major cooperation initiatives in areas including development support, food security, public health, green innovation, energy security, inter-civilizational dialogue, youth development, and security and stability, and will strive for early harvest.” China as a major buyer of Gulf oil and a foremost investor in Arab infrastructure under its Built and Road Initiative (BRI) will surely be at par with an age-old player in the Middle East, the United States.

It was not only the China-Arab states summit which augmented Beijing’s influence in the Middle East. On June 11, the first Arab-China business conference was held in Riyadh, in which Saudi Arabia announced billions of dollars of investment deals between China and Arab countries. More than 3,500 government and business officials from China and Arab countries participated in that conference, in which a $5.6-billion memorandum of understanding was signed between the Saudi investment ministry and Human Horizons, a Chinese maker of electric and self-driving cars. Focusing on promoting economic and commercial ties - reflecting the reality of geoeconomics and soft power - China is reaching out to the Middle East and other parts of the world with each passing day.

The visit of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to Beijing and Chinese president Xi Jinping’s offer for peace in the Middle East indicates how vibrant China seeks to be in the realm of mediation and diplomacy. China and Palestine signed several bilateral agreements for economic and technological cooperation, a deal on mutual visa exemption for diplomatic passports, and a friendship between the Chinese city of Wuhan and Ramallah, the capital of Palestinian authority in the occupied West Bank.

On March 13, 2023, the announcement by Beijing of having facilitated the normalization of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the two rival states in the Persian Gulf, reflected how China had played a significant role in mending fences by using ‘quiet’ diplomacy in the region. Beijing certainly took advantage of American-Saudi cleavages and launched mediation for reconciliation between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Since the last seven years, the two countries had severed diplomatic relations when Iran protested against the hanging of a Shia cleric in Saudi Arabia. According to the AP, “an agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia to re-establish diplomatic relations has cast China in a leading role in Middle East politics, a part previously reserved for long time global heavyweights like the US and Russia. It’s another sign that China’s diplomatic clout is growing to match its economic footprint.”

The neutrality of China in the Iran-Saudi schism provides enough justification for Beijing’s role in mending fences between the two adversaries. Certainly, Saudi-Iranian normalization is a major setback for Israel and the United States, as the two had followed a policy of projecting Iran as an enemy state, not only for Saudi Arabia but for the entire Arab world. Iran’s nuclear program and the implications of Iranian revolution of February 1979 in promoting anti-monarchy sentiments in the Gulf States led to American and Israeli augmentation (read manipulation) of Arab threat perception against Tehran. Now, Chinese diplomacy has created new opportunities for peace and cooperation in the Middle East. Yet, if China has succeeded in mending fences between Iran and Saudi Arabia, it will be an uphill task for Beijing to continue to play a meaningful role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process because Tal Aviv will not take a back foot on its illegal occupation of the West Bank or agree to the full implementation of the Oslo Accords signed between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization on September 13, 1993 in the lawns of the White House and mediated by the then American President Bill Clinton.

The war in Ukraine, which has negatively impacted food and fuel supply chains globally, and led to the fragility of the world order provided China a unique opportunity to step in and present its own peace plan. Regardless of China’s close ties with Russia, the Chinese peace plan got a cautious response from the West and somewhat of a silent endorsement by Moscow. Since Russia’s attack on Ukraine began on February 24, 2022, colossal material and physical losses suffered by both Ukraine and Russia have prompted African countries, Indonesia, Brazil, Turkey and China to present peace plans for ceasefire and to end deadly war.

The Chinese peace plan to end the war in Ukraine calls for respecting the sovereignty of all countries, abandoning the Cold War mentality and ceasing hostilities. The plan calls for a resumption in peace talks, a resolution of the humanitarian crisis, protecting civilians and prisoners of war (POWs), keeping nuclear power plants safe, reducing strategic risks and facilitating grain exports. The crux of the Chinese peace plan is not to resolve conflicts between Ukraine and Russia, but to create conditions for a ceasefire, the resumption of peace talks, to create space to deal with the humanitarian crisis and the stabilization of the food and fuel supply chains, which faced disruption because of the war. However, neither Ukraine, nor its principal backer NATO, gave a positive response to the Chinese peace plan.

Three fundamental realities have led to China seeking to play a growing role for the sake of peace and cooperation in the world today. First, China has largely adhered to using its soft power as its preferred diplomatic tool, which has meant conducting relations on the basis of trade, aid, diplomacy and technology. Since January 1979, China has not gone to war with any country, as its military intervention in Vietnam was its last act of invasion and occupation. The focus of Chinese leadership since Deng Xiaoping’s ‘open door policy’ launched in 1979 centered on economic development, trade, technology and poverty alleviation. When China emerged as the world’s second largest economy, Beijing decided to play a leadership role in global affairs by facilitating constructive engagement to manage conflicts in the Middle East and Ukraine.

Second, China’s positive image has been bolstered because neutrality and not the application of hard power is the fundamental component of its foreign policy. With confidence, trust and credibility, which China was able to establish in global affairs, Beijing has continued to take initiatives to promote peace and cooperation in conflict ridden areas of the world. China’s policy of providing investment, helping developing countries modernize infrastructure, and refraining from deploying hard power has certainly made things easier for Beijing. Third, the use of ‘smart power’ and ‘proactive diplomacy’ by China provided an edge vis-à-vis the United States, which has a long history of manipulating local conflicts in order to create conditions for military intervention. The same is the case with Russia, which like the US, is known for relying on hard rather than soft power.

Much like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, China will not be able to play a conclusive role for peace in Indo-Pakistan relations. China’s tilt towards Pakistan and its age-old unresolved territorial issues with India will not provide Beijing a comfortable ground for peace diplomacy in South Asia. Nonetheless, it is safe to assume that China’s strategy for driving peace initiatives in other parts of the world will continue in the years to come.

The author is the former Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Karachi, and can be reached at amoonis@hotmail.com.