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Monday, March 20, 2023

The glaring paradox of Xi Jinping as peace mediator

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China’s mediation to bring about a rapprochement between two perennial foes in West Asia­ — Iran and Saudi Arabia — has raised its profile as a global diplomatic power to match or even upstage the United States (US). At a time when the US’s appetite and credibility to engage in international conflict resolution has waned, China is eager to prove its credentials as a neutral and honest broker which enjoys the trust of conflicting parties and can leverage its influence to stabilise volatile parts of the world. President Xi Jinping has vowed to “work hard to contribute China’s wisdom and solutions to the cause of peace and development for all humanity.” Grandiose-sounding concepts such as the “community of common destiny for mankind” and “global security initiative” have been promoted to present China as unbiased and non-interventionist compared to the US, and hence, a worthy contributor to international peace and stability. Chinese foreign minister Qin Gang has mentioned “seeking political settlement of hotspot issues through dialogue and consultation” as a key goal going forward. Facilitating the Iran-Saudi thaw is presumably the first achievement in what will be a sustained campaign of global peacemaking by Beijing as it aims to burnish its soft power.

Xi believes in establishing a Sino-centric regional system where there will be order under Chinese tutelage rather than a community of equal sovereign States. (AFP file)

Yet, it is ironic that the same China embarking on ambitious behind-the-scenes diplomacy to douse flames in distant geopolitical flashpoints is unwilling to peacefully resolve its conflicts with its neighbours. The “new model” of diplomacy and international relations, which China is brandishing as its civilisational gift to the world, seems to apply elsewhere but not in its surroundings.

In East Asia, South Asia and Oceania, the avatar of China we are witnessing in the Xi Jinping era is aggressive and intimidating. Far from striking pragmatic quid pro quo deals and arriving at compromises to amicably settle disputes and disagreements, China has adopted a pushy and stubborn strategy based on its inherent sense of hegemony over neighbours. By harassing and pressurising adversaries such as Australia, India, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Taiwan through coercive trade practices, gunboat diplomacy, provocative military actions, unilateral moves to alter the status quo, and routine violations of international law, China has grown alarmingly menacing in its extended neighbourhood. Far from being a peacemaker, it comes across as a crude neo-colonial power prepared to wage war to forcibly impose its ever-expanding claims.

While Beijing has no qualms in offering its good offices as a mediator in far-flung conflict-prone regions, it refuses any role for third parties in its disputes with neighbours. China’s default preference in its backyard is to deal bilaterally with countries and deny room for outsiders such as the US or international institutions. The Chinese vision of peace in its neighbourhood, derived from the ancient imperial idea of Tianxia (all under heaven), is hierarchical rather than deriving from the principles of justice and equity.

Xi believes in establishing a Sino-centric regional system where there will be order under Chinese tutelage rather than a community of equal sovereign States. The question of drawing conflicts to a close does not arise here because Beijing reasons that its neighbours are being manipulated by the US as pawns to “contain, encircle and suppress” China’s rise.

Blinded by its competition with the US and its obsession to become the #1 power in all spheres, China views independent neighbouring countries as lacking agency. As long as it sees its neighbours as puppets and “running dogs of Western imperialism” (a term coined by Mao Zedong), it has no reason to treat them with respect.

China has as many as 17 unresolved territorial disputes with its neighbours in different subregions of Asia. With India, the unending saga of round after round of military and diplomatic talks over border disputes and the boundary question bears testament to China’s core unwillingness to bury the hatchet and move forward in a cooperative direction.

The paradox of Xi donning the mantle of a global peace mediator while increasing Chinese military spending and urging his armed forces to “strengthen military training in preparation for war” is glaring. Ultimately, the world will judge China’s peaceful rise, not by its conflict resolution efforts in hotspots that are 5,000 kilometres away. Only by shedding its ideological prejudice and egotistic behaviour vis-à-vis its neighbours can China truly make itself liked and respected.

Sreeram Chaulia is dean, Jindal School of International Affairs

The views expressed are personal

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