China’s forays in the Middle East and Europe to strike diplomatic deals is part of its agenda to emerge as a country that can provide an alternative security architecture, which has been the underlying feature of Washington’s current hegemony in the international order. What we are witnessing with the recent China-brokered Saudi-Iran diplomatic deal and President Xi Jinping’s upcoming meeting with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and chat with Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy is a vision to undercut US influence.
At the heart of China’s strategic mission to develop alternative security mechanisms and woo countries away from the US is its Global Security Initiative (GSI). Xi had first proposed GSI at the Boao Forum for Asia conference on 21 April 2022, but few details were offered for its rationale.
In February this year, Beijing released a white paper on the initiative. “The GSI aims to eliminate the root causes of international conflicts, improve global security governance, encourage joint international efforts to bring more stability and certainty to a volatile and changing era, and promote durable peace and development in the world,” it read.
While concluding the dialogue between Saudi Arabia and Iranian delegations, Wang Yi, director of China’s foreign affairs commission, said the talks have “become a successful practice for the strong implementation of the Global Security Initiative.”
The GSI white paper also mentioned hosting ‘the Middle East Security Forum’ as part of Beijing’s security architecture vision.
Even China’s expert community has linked the diplomatic détente between Riyadh and Tehran to GSI.
“The trust of Saudi Arabia and Iran in China, the friendly relations between China and the two sides, China’s influence and international reputation as a major power, and China’s global security initiatives have all laid the foundation for China to mediate relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran,” said Liu Zhongmin, professor at Middle East Studies Institute of Shanghai International Studies University.
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Alternative security architecture
When it comes to Beijing’s publicly stated position on foreign policy, it is important to remember that one can’t take everything at face value. But what’s clear is that the GSI seeks to present China as an alternative security guarantor and negotiator in international conflict and diplomatic disputes.
“Promote coordination and sound interaction among major countries and build a major country relationship featuring peaceful coexistence, overall stability and balanced development. Major countries shoulder particularly important responsibilities of maintaining international peace and security. Call on major countries to lead by example in honouring equality, good faith, cooperation and the rule of law, and in complying with the UN Charter and international law,” read the GSI white paper.
Beijing has spent years cultivating economic ties with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In fact, Beijing is Riyadh’s biggest trading partner, with their bilateral trade amounting to $87.3 billion in 2021. The economic entanglement has allowed Beijing to whisper in Riyadh’s ears which have been glued to the White House for decades.
Now, Riyadh appears to be comfortable talking seriously with Beijing about its security concerns.
“Middle Eastern countries are increasingly hoping that China can go beyond economic engagement and should help solve security problems,” said Fan Hongda, a professor at the Middle East Studies Institute in an interview with Financial Times.
Beijing is also paying attention to the details of how it conducts diplomacy. The documents and the negotiations in Beijing between Saudi, Iranian and Chinese teams were in Arabic, Farsi and Chinese. Beijing’s plans have minutia like using English — an extension of US power — in mind.
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A new world of fractured geopolitics
The success of Saudi-Iran talks has given an impression that Beijing can broker peace between Russia and Ukraine. But if we assume that Beijing intends to become peacemaker-in-chief, then we are flawed in our understanding of the GSI.
President Xi and President Putin have held multiple virtual and in-person exchanges since the war in Ukraine started a year ago. He will likely depart on a trip to Moscow next week, his first since the war started. But Xi has avoided talks with Zelenskyy despite repeated calls for dialogue by the Ukrainian president, until now. He is expected to speak to Zelenskyy virtually, according to a report by The Wall Street Journal. This may be an attempt by Beijing to negotiate an end to the current phase of hostilities in Ukraine.
China has presented itself as a country seeking to promote dialogue in the Russia-Ukraine war and portrayed the US as the weapons supplier.
Experts have said Beijing doesn’t want to be the ‘policeman of the world’.
“I think Sino-US competition is mostly confined to the Western Pacific, which is China’s doorstep. Apart from the South China Sea, there is no major competition between China and the United States on security issues, because China has no intention of becoming the world’s policeman,” said Zhou Bo, senior fellow of the Centre for International Security and Strategy at Tsinghua University.
Beijing is stepping into a new world of fractured geopolitics — part of which is its own creation — where it is willing to strike grand bargains with little moral qualms about the regime type. But China doesn’t want to be the ‘policeman of the world’ because assuming the title would come at a cost Beijing wants to avoid. The cost would include getting embroiled in counter-insurgency and local wars in a region like the Middle East.
Beijing will only bring peace where the interests of Zhongnanhai — headquarters for the Chinese Communist Party and the State Council of China — are best served. The so-called Chinese peace plan for the Russia-Ukraine war won’t be a grand bargain as we saw in the Saudi-Iran case.
The author is a columnist and a freelance journalist. He was previously a China media journalist at the BBC World Service. He is currently a MOFA Taiwan Fellow based in Taipei and tweets @aadilbrar. Views are personal.
(Edited by Theres Sudeep)