China’s Inconspicuous Mediation Diplomacy

By Shahed Ghoreishi  —

President Xi Jinping of China delivering a speech at United Nations offices in Geneva, Switzerland. Source; UN Geneva’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

China has most of the pieces of a major global power. Its economy, set to be the world’s largest by 2030, passes the test. Its diplomats remain active in the United Nations Security Council and in regional and international agreements like the Paris Climate Agreement. Developing countries are increasingly looking towards China for investment — China surpassed the United States as Africa’s largest trading partner in 2009. The People’s Liberation Army has seen increasing investments as well, including aircraft carriers that will allow it to project power to an increasing degree. With China’s preeminence on the global stage, including the Belt and Road Initiative and the Asian Infrastructure-Investment Bank (AIIB), it has a new challenge: ensuring stability to protect the long-term viability of its vulnerable investments.

To minimize the political risk to its investments China will be required to engage in one aspect of diplomacy it has largely avoided: conflict resolution where China is either the only or leading mediator. This mediation diplomacy is usually reserved for superpowers because they are the only ones with the reach and influence to resolve a large variety of conflicts – leveraging more than just their good offices. So far, China has kept its diplomatic influence focused primarily on economic relations unless it is an issue directly tied to its immediate periphery as Kim Jong Un’s recent visits show.

In contrast, the United States has taken an active approach to mediation efforts internationally since becoming a superpower in the last century. For example, the United States remains the default choice to solve the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine. This is because in its role as the world’s superpower, it was in position to lead successful mediation efforts in a long list of arenas, including between the IRA and the United Kingdom, Ukraine and Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, Egypt and the United Kingdom and France during the Suez crisis, and between Estonia and Russia. The examples are endless. Although the United States was largely viewing these scenarios through the purview of its own interests, the fact that the United States is the “go-to” country for mediation efforts is a testament to its role as a major global power.

The United States could continue to play this role. However, the Trump administration has failed to even sell a façade of being an honest broker in many current conflicts around the globe. Well known examples include President Trump moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and hiring John Bolton as National Security Adviser while selling billions of dollars of weapons to Saudi Arabia. This signals that in both the Israel-Palestine conflict and in the Saudi-Iranian rivalry the United States is far removed from being in a neutral position to mediate. Meanwhile, the State Department remains depleted.

This leaves a major diplomatic opening for China. On the global stage, China has invested heavily in its “One Belt One Road (OBOR)” initiative. In the same way the Marshall Plan established U.S. power and influence after World War II the OBOR has great potential with its promise of over $1 trillion in infrastructure investments. Whether these investments follow best practices and result in tangible benefits to China’s partners remains to be seen.

Moreover, China has yet to heavily invest in the mediation efforts necessary to decrease tensions to protect such an ambitious project. In a few of these arenas China has made initial efforts to mediate, but they are rare and often ignored. China has a lot to lose if Saudi-Iran tensions worsen, Russia’s conflict with Ukraine expands, or if the crisis in Syria does not stabilize soon. They all would create a distinct wall in China’s vision for an inner-connected and mutually beneficial network spanning Eurasia and Africa. China has already distinguished itself with its rhetoric of “openness” with the world in contrast to President Trump. It needs a stable security atmosphere to make it happen.

There are two main reasons why China is hesitant to heavily invest in conflict mediation efforts, despite China’s role in United Nations Security Council, Six Party Talks, UN peacekeeping operations and China’s major economic initiatives all indicating it has the capacity to do so.

First, respect for sovereignty and non-intervention remain important pillars to China’s foreign policy doctrine. This may be surprising to its neighbors in the South China Sea or even in the United States where Chinese security services hacked the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.  However, like Russia and other powers who prize their independence from outside influence, non-interference in internal affairs remains a matter of pride and legitimacy. China’s leadership wants to be viewed as a consistent in this regard abroad. Outside of this, China lacks an ideological thrust in its foreign relations like the Soviet Union had with communism or the United States has with the liberal international order and democracy promotion. This makes it more difficult for China’s leadership to jump into the midst of major issues facing other countries, especially unilaterally. Its concern is its own economic and security benefit, not the internal affairs of other countries.

Secondly, the United States is either already militarily or diplomatically entrenched in various conflicts that also fall under China’s strategic interests. For example, U.S. Central Command’s presence in the Persian Gulf makes China’s potential job of negotiating a deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia that much more complicated. The same goes for Turkey. Even though Turkey is a critical route for OBOR, it is still a NATO member and the United States could use its influence there to obviate any independent Chinese attempt at influence building through conflict resolution, whether it be between Turkey and the Kurdish sub-region (and by extension the Syria conflict) or Turkey and Greece (another NATO member).

However, changing priorities from the United States could provide China’s leadership with an opening to more easily pursue its interests and engage in mediating diplomacy.

In the Persian Gulf example, the shale revolution in the United States could, over time, decrease the region’s strategic interest in favor of China. After all, the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” was largely inspired by the need to realign away from the Middle East. It remains likely that over the long term that China will have greater security interests, through OBOR and its oil imports, in the Persian Gulf than the United States – despite current events dictating otherwise. The Chinese Navy has already made port visits and its aircraft carrier fleet is growing.

Now, there are areas where China’s influence could do the opposite of ensuring stability, For example, China built the Gwadar port in China not only for trade purposes, but as a backup to receive Saudi and Iranian (and African) energy imports if the Strait of Malacca were to close in the event of a conflict. This attracted an Indian response in Iran, where India countered by financing the Chabahar deep-water port. China is in no position to mediate between Pakistan and India when it has skin in the game and longstanding friction with India.

China may have limited maneuverability in South Asia, but it does have options to leverage its economic standing. Despite India’s counter-move in Iran, Tehran remains a strong partner in China’s OBOR efforts as China continues to back Iran diplomatically. Also, China’s trade with India hit a historic high of $84.44 billion in 2017 as leaders in both countries try to build rapport despite real friction. The same goes for China’s other historic rivals, like Japan. Japan’s trade with China is 50 percent greater than with the United States. They even held high-level trade talks recently.

China will not immediately become a mediating force everywhere, but by containing tensions and retaining its economic influence with its rivals, as it begins to mediate conflicts, it could set itself up with a strong strategy for years to come. It may begin exercising its diplomatic weight slowly, perhaps utilizing its economic influence in conjunction with established western diplomatic powers to resolve conflicts that would be in everyone’s interest. The Iran deal is a major example. However, it will eventually want a diplomatic voice to match its growing power on the global stage. After all, its main goal is to create a stable atmosphere for its geopolitically vulnerable OBOR initiative, which is foremost about advancing Chinese interests as its power and influence grows. A dual-strategy of attempting to slowly fill the America’s role of being an honest broker, while keeping tensions low in its immediate vicinity, would permit just that.

Now, the United States can still sustain its position. The diplomatic missteps of the Trump administration are not permanent features of U.S. foreign policy. U.S.-led initiatives like the Iran deal, the Paris Climate Agreement, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership are all examples of a more realist strategy that both sustains America’s role as the diplomatic hegemon and promotes its strategic interests. Otherwise, the real signal of a global power pivot will come when the next Camp David Accords is renamed for its new location in Beijing.

Mr. Shahed Ghoreishi is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He has been published in “The Atlantic,” “The World Post,” and “Lobe Log.”  Follow him on twitter @ShahedGhoreishi.

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