April 12, 2023

IntelBrief: China Cultivating Image as a Peace Promoter

Iranian Foreign Ministry via AP

Bottom Line Up Front

  • The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has made serious diplomatic efforts over the past several months to promote itself as a responsible global power advancing peace through dialogue, mediation, and negotiation.
  • Without tangible solutions, the PRC’s recent position paper on Ukraine is less about resolving the war in Ukraine and more about crafting the PRC’s image on the global stage.
  • The Saudi-Iran-China deal signals that Middle Eastern states reliant on U.S. security guarantees may be looking to diversify diplomatic relations.
  • Recent diplomatic efforts by Beijing should also be considered within the broader foreign policy strategy of the CCP and Xi Jinping himself, and a key aspect of that strategy is the Global Security Initiative.

Over the past several months, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has made serious diplomatic efforts to promote an image of itself as a responsible global power advancing peace through dialogue, mediation, and negotiation. On the one-year anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the PRC released a twelve-point position paper calling for a political settlement of the conflict, though many believed the terms to be far more favorable for Moscow. In early March, the PRC brokered a rapprochement normalizing relations between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Iran, hailed as an important step for regional stability since relations between the two countries were formally severed in 2016. While the United States and European allies have expressed doubt regarding the intent and efficacy of China’s role as a peace negotiator, these recent events signal the seriousness of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ambitions and the scope of influence of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in some quarters. Importantly, the CCP is carefully crafting a narrative on the international stage that depicts China as an honest broker promoting peace, prosperity, and stability in complex regions. To this end, China aims to contrast itself with the United States, which the CCP blames for practicing “hegemony” and adopting a “Cold War mentality.”

PRC foreign policy has always been strongly emphasized the three principles of non-interference, sovereignty, and territorial integrity, principles reflected in PRC diplomacy. As China’s economic and political role on the international stage has grown, so have its foreign policy interests in local and regional issues abroad. PRC conflict mediation efforts have focused on the Israel-Palestine issue, the Syrian civil war, the Gulf Cooperation Council crisis, and Gulf-Iranian tensions, among other issues. The PRC has also voiced support for the ASEAN peace plan in Myanmar, in line with China’s preference for a regional, Asian-driven solution over wider international engagement or intervention. While critics have often dismissed China’s efforts at mediation in conflict as lacking tangible steps for implementation and meaningful results, China has successfully shielded Myanmar from rebuke in the UN Security Council for years. In addition, despite widespread criticism of its documented human rights abuses targeting Muslim and other minorities in Xinjiang, China has largely eluded international censure, illustrated by its acceptability as a mediator to two important Muslim-majority states — Saudi Arabia and Iran.

On the Ukraine position paper, PRC Foreign Minister Wang Yi explicitly refrained from calling the conflict a war, in line with official Russian policy, instead referring to it as a “crisis.” Still, the document has been incorrectly interpreted as a “peace plan” when it offers no tangible solutions in how to get the two parties to cease hostilities and restart dialogue, turning instead to platitudes like respecting sovereignty, “ceasing hostilities,” and “resuming peace talks.” However, the position paper offers three primary strategic opportunities for China. First, it allows the CCP to continue championing non-interference, sovereignty, and territorial integrity, all of which are important to CCP messaging regarding Taiwan. Second, and perhaps somewhat contradicting the first point, the paper allows Beijing to continue balancing its relationship with Russia without alienating the European market. Third, even before the start of the war in Ukraine, the PRC has utilized censorship, propaganda, and disinformation to paint the United States and NATO as the belligerent parties to the conflict. With the position paper, the PRC publicly suggests China is the entity pushing for peace while the West risks eroding peace by “strengthening or expanding military blocs” like NATO. And while this likely did not convince European and other Western countries, states outside of the West have likely perceived it the way the PRC intends.

Likewise, recent PRC-aided diplomatic developments in the Middle East are significant. For Beijing, the normalization of Saudi-Iranian relations, and China’s role brokering the deal, have strategic value. Stability in the Persian Gulf will ensure China’s energy security, as Beijing is a major importer of Saudi and Iranian oil. Moreover, the deal may open more opportunities for using the Chinese yuan to pay for petroleum — primarily traded in U.S. dollars today — which would be critical to blunt the negative effect of U.S.-led sanctions. Lastly, the deal signals that regional states like Saudi Arabia that have long counted on U.S. security cooperation may be looking to diversify diplomatic relations. This signal was bolstered when Saudi Arabia joined the PRC-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a dialogue partner on March 28. Yet although the United States is not in a position to broker a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, it will likely benefit from de-escalated tensions in the Persian Gulf if the deal holds.

Beijing’s recent diplomatic efforts should also be considered within the broader foreign policy strategy of the CCP and Xi Jinping himself. A key aspect of that strategy is the Global Security Initiative (GSI). A GSI concept paper released by the PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs this February delineates the PRC’s ambitions to take up an increasingly global role in politics and security, while promoting concepts and principles like non-interference and non-proliferation that it hopes will set it apart from the United States and the West. The GSI indirectly takes aim at the United States, criticizing practices of “hegemonism” and its “Cold War mentality.” It is evident, at this point, that the PRC is seeking to establish a multilateral world order that is not Western-led and that serves Beijing’s ambitions and priorities. While both the United States and the European Union have voiced concerns about the PRC’s global ambitions, not all states in the international system have the luxury to pick sides. Beijing’s recent peace promotion efforts should be seen as largely posturing for these current and potential international partners. It is in the interest of the United States to promote public diplomacy and adopt a foreign policy that illustrates to fence-sitting countries that it is a more reliable long-term partner.