What does China really want? Maybe we could try asking
On March 10, surprising news made the headlines. Saudi Arabia and Iran have reached an agreement to restore diplomatic relations. The news itself was unexpected after decades of bitter rivalry between the two countries.
Iran and Saudi Arabia have clashed in proxy wars in Yemen and Syria and tried to destabilize each other’s country by any means possible. Therefore, the very fact that the two reached an agreement to normalize their relationship was big news.
Perhaps even more surprising to the West was the fact that the deal was brokered not by the United States or the European Union, but by the People’s Republic of China. Since when does China negotiate peace agreements, many have wondered? Why did no one notice that representatives of the two Middle Eastern powers were actually in Beijing?
It is true that no Western country would have been able to negotiate this agreement. The United States is still a sworn enemy of Iran. On top of that, former US President Donald Trump killed the nuclear deal that the US, EU, Russia, China and the UN had with Iran. While the negotiations on a new nuclear agreement are not going very well, despite many efforts by the EU, the Europeans are not even thinking of trying to help mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The Saudi side is also losing faith in the West. Saudi Arabia noticed that the United States was unwilling to react when Iranian rockets hit Saudi oil facilities in September 2019 and March 2022. Saudi confidence in US President Joe Biden also hit rock bottom when Biden announced in January 2023 that the U.S.-Saudi relationship needs to be reassessed.
China has jumped into the void left by the United States and Europe in the heart of the Middle East.
Xi in Russia
When Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Moscow on April 20, 2023, no one knew what to expect. Would Xi support Russian President Vladimir Putin? Did he promise to deliver arms? In other words, how strongly would China side with Russia?
Most analysts were puzzled. Xi certainly did not condemn the invasion of Russia, and he definitely emphasized his friendship with Putin. However, across all diplomatic lines, Xi clearly did not take sides in the dispute.
On the contrary, China came with a sort of peace plan, or rather a plan for a path to peace. Many Westerners reacted cynically to the plan – mainly because it did not ask Russia in clear terms to leave Ukraine.
The question is whether, in this conflict in Ukraine, China could in fact be the best placed to mediate the peace? Russia cannot afford to lose the partnership with China. The Kremlin will have to accept whatever China offers, at least up to a certain level. The West, on the other hand, cannot negotiate peace either because it is deeply involved on the Ukrainian side.
This leaves us with the question, what does China really want? Does he want to show that the United States is no longer in charge? Does China want to emphasize its peaceful character to avoid a conflict with the West over Taiwan? Or has Beijing decided that the time has come to finally play its role as a political superpower?
talk with china
A senior European diplomat told me a few months ago that Europe talks a lot about China, but talks little with China.
There is European distrust of Chinese companies like Huawei and TikTok. Few Europeans thought China’s Belt and Road Initiative was a genuine effort to reinstall the ancient Silk Road and reconnect the world. It is, instead, seen as a way for China to get more resources, faster, to its country – while making other countries dependent.
On the Chinese side, there is also a historical distrust of Europe. The era of the First Opium War in 1839 until the founding in 1949 of the People’s Republic of China by Mao Zedong is called the “century of humiliation”. When one reads the history of this century, the Chinese have reason to be irritated by the West’s efforts to weaken and divide the country.
Whatever the reasons for the mutual mistrust between China and Europe, there is one thing Europeans can agree on: we don’t know what China wants.
Of course, China is not a liberal democracy and what the country is doing to the Uyghurs is unacceptable.
Nevertheless, in today’s tribal, fragile and polarized world, it seems best to try harder to find out what China wants. To find out, it might be best to start talking to China, instead of just discussing it.