Mediation With Chinese Characteristics: Navigating China’s Rise As A New Mediator – OpEd

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“China is a sleeping giant, let her sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world,” French Emperor Napoleon predicted about China in the early 19th century. Two centuries later, his prediction has come true, although it may not have occurred in the way the Empereur des Français had imagined at that time. In the opening decades of the 21st century, China has indeed shaken the world, not through Napoleonic grand military conquests, but through meteoric geo-economic rise and diplomatic coups.

China’s Meteoric Rise and Increased Diplomatic Power

The politico-economic rise of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the late 20th and early 21st centuries has been truly phenomenal. Between 1979 and 2018, Chinese gross domestic product (GDP) grew at an average rate of 9.5% annually, a process that has been termed by the World Bank as ‘the rapidest sustained expansion of a major economy in human history.’

Currently, the Chinese economy is the largest in the world in terms of purchasing power parity (PPP) and the second largest in terms of nominal GDP. It is currently the world’s topmost manufacturer, merchandise trader and holder of foreign exchange reserves. This colossal economic base has enabled China to lift more than 800 million people out of poverty, to undertake massive infrastructure programs on its territory, to unveil great international geo-economic initiatives such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), to build the world’s largest army and navy, to launch a large-scale program for the expansion of its nuclear arsenal and to become a technological superpower. In addition, China is now the top trading partner of 128 states of the world.

“It’s the economy, stupid,” just as United States (US) President Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign motto had framed it, economic power is essential to the growth of military, economic, and diplomatic potential. As China’s economic power has continued to increase, its political and diplomatic influence over the rest of the world have increased proportionally. While China is often framed as a ‘potential superpower’ or the ‘next superpower’, China has so far largely avoided the path that rising powers usually pursue, that is, the path of military conflict. For instance, Britain’s rise as the most powerful global actor in the 18th and 19th centuries was accompanied by numerous wars. The rise of the US and the Soviet Union as superpowers in the 20th century stemmed from their victories in the Second World War. On the other hand, since its participation in the Sino–Vietnamese War in February–March 1979, China has not fought any full-scale war against any country.

While China has not completely abstained from using coercion as a tool of foreign policy, its preference for diplomacy has been repeatedly demonstrated. Since 1979, China has peacefully resolved border disputes with Laos, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan. With regard to the states with which China has ongoing border disputes, Beijing has compartmentalized these issues while expanding ties with those states in other sectors. In addition, China has so far refrained from creating or participating in military alliances. China’s ‘no limits’ partnership with Russia, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the BRICS — none of these constitute a full-fledged military alliance. Instead, China uses political, economic, and diplomatic means to exert its influence on the international stage, and this process includes Chinese mediation in conflicts/disputes around the world.

Chinese Involvement in Conflict Mediation

Chinese involvement in conflict/dispute mediation has increased only in recent years. In the first decade of the 21st century, China acted as a mediator in some domestic political conflicts (for instance, in Nepal and Zimbabwe) as well as some international conflicts (for example, between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda), their activities were relatively limited in scope, and in a number of cases, they maintained a low profile. By 2012, China acted as mediator in only three conflicts.

This scenario began to change after Xi Jinping assumed power in November 2012. Under Xi, China has started to act comparatively more assertively in the international arena, and China’s increased participation in conflict mediation across the world has been an important component of the project. By 2017, China was mediating, both unilaterally and multilaterally, nine conflicts/crises across the world, including the Syrian Civil War, the Israeli–Palestinian conflict and the Bangladesh–Myanmar dispute about the Rohingya refugees. Through these efforts, China has sought to portray itself as a responsible member of the international community committed to peace and diplomacy in order to improve its image across the world and obtain politico-diplomatic dividends.

Chinese Peace Plan for Russia and Ukraine

Chinese efforts at mediation have attracted particular attention in 2023, because Beijing has undertaken several significant diplomatic initiatives for conflict resolution in this year. In February 2023, China unveiled a 12-point peace plan for bringing an end to the Russian–Ukrainian War, which called for the cessation of hostilities, the resumption of peace talks, the resolution of the humanitarian crisis, the protection of civilians and prisoners of war (POWs) and the promotion of post-conflict reconstruction. In addition, by calling for the abandonment of Cold War mentality (which implies the eastward expansion of NATO), the removal of unilateral sanctions, the demonstration of respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity of states, the end to the disruptions in the global supply chain and the unhindered supply of grains and fertilizers from the war-affected areas, the Chinese proposal seeks to safeguard Russian, Ukrainian, Chinese and global interests.

Taking into account the extreme positions taken by Russian, Ukrainian and Western officials on the war, the Chinese proposal is comparatively rational, balanced and pragmatic. Some have criticized the Chinese peace plan on geopolitical grounds, accusing China of favouring Russia and promoting its own interests through the proposal. However, with the war having metamorphosed into an unending war of attrition, it would be beneficial for all sides if they took the proposal more seriously and acted on it.

Chinese Mediation between Iran and Saudi Arabia

In March 2023, China achieved a diplomatic breakthrough by mediating a peace deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia which have been locked into a proxy war for decades. According to the deal, Tehran and Riyadh agreed to restore diplomatic relations, reopen embassies on each other’s territory, respect each other’s sovereignty, refrain from interfering in each other’s internal affairs, reactivate a 2001 security cooperation agreement and bolster economic and cultural cooperation.

While the deal has not brought a complete end to the bitter Saudi–Iranian rivalry that has negatively affected the Middle East for decades, it has at least succeeded in bringing about a ceasefire between the two opponents. Among the great powers and interested actors, only China possessed the politico-diplomatic capital to foster such a deal. In this context, it should be taken into account that China is the largest trading partner for both Iran and Saudi Arabia, and Beijing has formulated ‘strategic partnerships’ with both Tehran and Riyadh.

China’s Rise as a Mediator: Global and Regional Ramifications

China’s rise as a new mediator on the international stage has important geopolitical implications. It signifies China’s growing power, image, credibility and acceptance, and demonstrates China’s ability to navigate competently between widely divergent agendas and interests. It can contribute significantly to the promotion of international peace and security through the possible termination of the Russian–Ukrainian War, the Saudi–Iranian proxy war and similar conflicts.

If Chinese military, economic and political power continue to grow and China simultaneously continues to proactively mediate conflicts in future instead of stoking them, the changing world order might change for the better. Obviously, China is motivated by its own national interests in undertaking these peace initiatives. However, these initiatives also have the potential to make the world comparatively more secure and peaceful. After all, as former Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko had argued, “it is better to have ten years of negotiations than one day of war.”

Last but not the least, China’s rise as a new mediator has also important implications for Bangladesh. Since 2017, China has been mediating between Bangladesh and Myanmar to resolve the protracted Rohingya refugee crisis. In March 2023, through Chinese mediation, Myanmar agreed to undertake a pilot projectfor the repatriation of a small number of Rohingya refugees. If the process is successfully implemented, it can trigger larger-scale repatriation of the refugees, and end a massive humanitarian crisis as well as eliminate a major source of socio-economic problems for Bangladesh simultaneously.

China’s rise as a conflict mediator has been almost as meteoric as its economic rise had been. If the People’s Republic continues to act similarly in future, its capacity for mediation can turn into a global public good and serve as a catalyst for a more peaceful and harmonious world order.

Md. Himel Rahman

Md. Himel Rahman is a Dhaka-based freelance analyst on international and strategic affairs. His articles have been published on a number of platforms, including The Interpreter, The Diplomat, South Asian Voices, Eurasia Review, The Daily Star, and The Daily Observer.

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