China’s Two-Pronged Approach Around The World – OpEd
China’s diplomatic style on certain strategic issues and locations across the globe can be characterized as “two-pronged”, often offering both carrot and stick while deliberately masking its true colors. Below are three expositions as to how China engages in this behavior in three separate nodes.
The Ukraine Invasion
Despite its perceived rhetorical and political support towards Russia’s actions in Ukraine, China surprisingly submitted a 12-point peace proposal aimed at ending the conflict and accelerating recovery in February 2023. One of its most important points is that all parties should respect each country’s territorial sovereignty.
This proposal came after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused Chinese companies of supplying non-lethal support to Russia, a remark seemingly made to deter China’s involvement in the conflict. Blinken also stated that China might consider providing Russia with weapons and ammunition in the future. However, this assistance has not been provided because the two sides have yet to reach an agreement on price, and there are indications that high-ranking Chinese officials are still skeptical about this move.
Positioning itself as a neutral party, China is aware that overt support to Russia would only harm China’s national interest. This explains China’s rather ambiguous stance on the conflict since its beginning. China did support the invasion of Russia of Ukraine because they think this is caused by the expansion of influence by NATO to the east, and do not agree with the attitude of the West which imposes severe sanctions on Russia. However, at the UN general assembly session, China chose to abstain, and so far, China has rejected accusations of providing weapons assistance to Russia.
China is a strategic partner for Russia so far, the two countries have continued to build close diplomatic relations and provide open support for each other’s national interests. Russia supports China’s claims to Taiwan, Hong-kong, the South China Sea (SCS), Tibet, and the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. On the other hand, China is showing a reciprocal attitude by supporting military operations and annexationsRussia in Chechnya, Georgia, Crimea, Syria, the Kuril Islands, and Ukraine. The two countries even show the same vision to build a new world order for the sake of mutual prosperity.
China and Russia indeed have the same vision, but the two countries differ in seeing threats and long-term interests.
National interests are a top priority for China. Provide immediate support to Russia increasingly alienating China from Europe. The European Union (EU) is China’s main trade partner, then the US will put more pressure on China on the international stage. China is quite overwhelmed by the US and its allies in East Asia and the Indo-Pacific, plus efforts to recover the economy after the pandemic.
Embracing ASEAN, but also Posturing
During the pandemic, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was the largest trading partner for China, ASEAN is here to shift the European Union and the US which carry out strict economic restrictions. The two parties also work hand in hand to overcome the pandemic through the cooperation of the COVID-19 vaccine. This signifies the great position of ASEAN for China and vice versa.
China and ASEAN have even carried out close integration through economic agreements, namely the ASEAN-China Free Trade Area (ACFTA) in 2004, and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement in 2022.
However, China’s friendly attitude toward ASEAN in the economic sector was not followed in the defense sector. China makes claims on the SCS which is 2000 km from the mainland based on the document “Nine dash line.” China has systematically built artificial islands that are used as military bases in the South China Sea, then China regularly conducts patrols by sending coast guard ships and warships.
If you look at it more broadly, this aggressive attitude is in line with China’s military modernization efforts. Xi wants to modernize the PLA to be able to control the Asia Pacific region and specifically the South China Sea (SCS), the Taiwan straits, and the Senkaku Islands. PLA military modernization will target completion in 2027 which is called “‘fully modern military,” along with the centennial celebration of the founding of the PLA.
Yu Jie, a Senior Research Fellow on China, Asia-Pacific Program in Chatham House said “Unlike the collective West, China’s foreign policy has always been shaped by interests rather than by values.” This shows that as long as national interests can still be achieved, the consequences for the country and the world are not a problem.
It can be seen that China’s most pragmatic actions took place in the SCS, especially with ASEAN. It’s as if China is making ASEAN and SCS its backyard, just as the US is doing with Latin America. China ignores all demands and rulings of international courts and acts as if nothing happened by continuing to enhance economic ties.
Befriending Both the Saudis and Iranians
But China’s pronged attitude does not apply to all of its partners. China surprisingly became an important actor in the re-opening of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. This ended the tension between the two countries that had occurred in the last seven years.
China as the world’s largest energy importer has an interest in ensuring stability in the region. The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran will only lead to mutual destruction. China succeeded in embracing the two most important and strongest countries in the region through this agreement. However, looking back, China is playing with two legs against Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Such a warm welcome from Prince Muhammad Bin Salman (MBS) to Xi Jinping during a state visit to Saudi Arabia in December 2022, became a big question mark. MBS greeted Xi with four fighter jets, followed by artillery fire, then when he arrived at Xi’s airport he was immediately approached by high-ranking Saudi Arabian officials. This is a symbol of how important China is to Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia has an important position for China, Saudi is China’s main trading partner in the Middle East region, and a major supplier of China’s energy needs for the next 50 years. Both countries signed a strategic partnership worth $28.26 billion.
Geographically the Middle East region plays an important role in China’s BRI project, economic integration can only be realized if China succeeds in securing areas such as the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, the Suez Canal in Egypt, and Bab al-Mandab Strait in the Red Sea. The two countries also have an aligned vision to build a new stage through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project and Saudi’s 2030 vision.
In 2021, after carrying out lengthy negotiations for five years, China and Iran signed a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership worth $ 400 billion, within 25 years. This collaboration covers the oil, gas, petrochemical, transportation, and manufacturing sectors. Earlier in early 2021, Iran also officially got full membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
However, this cooperation has not been implemented optimally because Iran is still hampered by economic sanctions from the US. This follows the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement which has yet to reach a midpoint. China seems aware that the implementation of the JCPOA will not take place shortly, therefore strengthening relations with other partners is a must.
The three countries even openly stated that they would not criticize each other’s domestic problems. This is evidenced by the silent attitude of the Saudis and Iranians toward the condition of Uyghur Muslims in China. China is aware that Saudi Arabia and Iran understand their position based on a similar model of leadership that relies on authoritarianism. Therefore China wants to build a pragmatic relationship without having to think about identity issues.
This agreement also shows China’s efforts to fill the void left by the US. The US has gradually shifted its focus to the Indo-Pacific region through Pivot to Asia in 2012. China understands its position as an ordering power, they must be able to embrace smaller powers as partners.
Seeing that China’s attitude is so important for the current situation, China seems to be showing an attitude of sticking to its basic principles, but the opposite happened. China continues to be pragmatic. In the end, China, which is a “giant power” will lead to decisive situations in the future.
Gufron Gozali is a research assistant and graduate from the Islamic University of Indonesia. Gufron has a focus on China’s foreign policy, and political and security studies.