The Chinese Communist Party National Congress in October 2022 offered an intriguing hint that Beijing’s management of its foreign affairs was undergoing a change of direction.
In his major speech, President Xi Jinping abandoned any mention of a ‘new type of great power relations’, a concept he had used repeatedly in his past two congressional updates when referring to his preferred approach to relations with the American-led West. The omission shows that Beijing has decided its fraught relationship with developed nations is here to stay, with little prospect of improvement.
Worsening Sino-US relations and the tightening of access to American and European markets for Chinese companies have prompted China’s leaders to reconfigure their approach to foreign affairs and look elsewhere for sources of economic growth. As a result, Beijing has speeded up its diplomatic charm offensive in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East.
The three Gs
Xi has stressed that China should further develop its ties with the Global South through the Global Development Initiative, the Global Security Initiative together with the most recent addition, the Global Civilization Initiative.
The three complementary ‘Gs’ combine in the Community of Common Destiny which Xi is proffering as an alternative to the West’s rules-based international order. The aim is to reshape the global governance agenda in multilateral forums and to project Beijing’s influence on to the developing world. Yet, large parts of the globe are still trying to work out what China’s latest moves entail.
The international community was taken by surprise when Beijing managed to broker peaceful relations between long-term diplomatic rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia. But while China has traditionally focused on economic engagement in the Middle East, more recently it has shown a greater willingness to engage in regional conflict mediation.
The normalization agreement reached between Riyadh and Tehran in March 2023 reflects China’s growing involvement in regional politics, which is enhanced by the perception in the Middle East that China is neutral and a large enough power to hold Iran and Saudi Arabia to account if they fail to honour the agreement. As China’s engagement with the Middle East increases, US involvement is seen to be pulling back.
Beijing already wielded considerable influence in Iran as a major investor and an indispensable economic partner. In 2021, Iran and China signed a 25-year Cooperation Programme under which China is scheduled to invest up to $400 billion in the Iranian economy in return for a guaranteed supply of oil. This came at a time when Iran was feeling the effects of western sanctions. With Riyadh, too, experiencing a febrile relationship with Washington over its human rights record and refusal to stabilize oil prices, China took the opportunity to consolidate its position in the region.
But the task of peacemaker is onerous and will require diplomatic finesse, real regional expertise and greater responsibility if Beijing is to sustain such an ‘uneasy peace’. Whether China can become a substantive regional player in the longer term remains to seen.