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The Russia-Ukraine Jeddah meeting reflects a changing global order

Conference underscores Saudi Arabia's growing role as mediator on world stage.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

Over the first weekend of August 2023, Saudi Arabia convened an international summit on the war in Ukraine. Held in Jeddah and attended by representatives from 40 countries  As was widely expected, the meeting did not produce any breakthroughs. Still, it provided a golden opportunity for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (MBS) to position himself as a leader of what might be called a second “Non-Aligned Movement.” This movement’s growing influence owes much to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. For while Moscow’s assault had the unintended effect of revitalizing—and expanding—NATO, it also created an opening for many countries to leverage a multipolar international system in ways that have limited Washington’s global power, not to mention its regional clout in the Middle East. 

But these “balancing” efforts come with a high cost, as rising grain prices have threatened the stability of many of the very states that have thus far refused to condemn Russia’s invasion, much less support Ukraine. For these states, the status quo is increasingly precarious, hence the wider logic of inviting China and the United States to sit a few short whispers away from their Saudi hosts at a meeting to which Russia was not invited. 

China’s Multi-Faceted Foreign Policy

From the outset, China has tried to advance a position of “neutrality” while echoing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s justification for his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. Beyond rhetoric, Beijing has provided economic support via its purchase of price-discounted Russian oil and, some experts argue, limited military assistance as well (a claim Beijing denies). 

China’s efforts to maintain these two tracks reflect structural tensions at the heart of China’s global engagement. On the one hand, China is closely tied to a global economic order that is dominated by Western states and multilateral institutions. On the other hand, President Xi Jinping is seeking to counter U.S. military, economic, and even cultural power, and has done so in multiple ways, thus inviting conflict with the United States even as Beijing needs to cooperate with Washington and its Western allies. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which reportedly took Chinese leaders by surprise, created opportunities for China to flex its “counter-hegemonic” muscles, but also opened the door to economic and strategic threats that were likely to intensify absent a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine conflict.

The tension between China’s ideological and global economic interests extends well beyond the China-West arena. Many middle-sized regional powers such as India, Brazil, and South Africa share Beijing’s desire to counter U.S. global dominance. But their policies are also rooted in the principle of state sovereignty and the rejection of the use of force to solve international conflicts. Beijing has long advocated these very norms and has given them pride of place in the charter of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, not to mention China’s 12-point Ukraine peace proposal

Thus its support for Russia has raised legitimate questions from many leaders about the rising humanitarian and economic costs of the war and Beijing’s readiness to take credible steps to show that its Ukraine plan is not a mere diplomatic feint. The most important of these steps would be for Beijing to reduce its diplomatic support for Moscow. 

Beijing’s Jeddah Dance

From the outset of the Jeddah meeting China’s delegate avoided suggesting that Beijing would endorse any particular proposal other than its own. Indeed, Special Representative Li Hui seemed to emphasize the limited goals of the meeting—and the conflicts animating its leading participants—when he declared, “We have many disagreements and we have heard different positions, but it is important that our principles be shared.” 

Putting a more positive spin, a spokesperson for the Chinese government noted that, “China is willing to work with the international community to continue to play a constructive role in promoting a political solution to the crisis in Ukraine.” 

But what kind of solution? The outcome that China has outlined in its own 12-point proposal calls for respecting “the independence and territorial integrity of all countries” but also for a negotiated “political settlement” that could fudge or violate these principles. Thus, China is not ready to accept Ukraine’s 10-point peace plan, which would require Russia’s total withdrawal from all Ukrainian lands, including Crimea. 

That Moscow has totally rejected this idea is not surprising; any hint by Putin that he might accept Ukraine’s terms could undermine his rule. Moreover, as one expert has noted, “Ukraine’s best-case scenario for the end of this war is also China’s worst-case scenario,” because Beijing wants Putin to remain in power while sustaining Russia’s occupation until it is Ukraine that makes the key compromises. 

It is inconceivable that China’s envoy came to the Jeddah meeting believing that these various circles could be squared. Still, with the Ukraine conflict settling into what could be a prolonged war of attrition, and with Russia’s suspension of its grain deal and its attacks on shipping in the Black Sea, China had to demonstrate concern for those states suffering from Moscow’s policy of global blackmail. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy exploited China’s unease when he noted that, “On issues such as food security, the fate of millions of people in Africa, Asia and other parts of the world directly depends on how fast the world moves to implement the peace formula.” He was, of course, talking about Ukraine’s own proposal, which China certainly did not back. Still, China’s active presence in Jeddah presumably showed that it was ready to assume its responsibilities as a major global power that, in the words of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, had helped “to consolidate international consensus” on Ukraine.

Whatever the veracity of this claim, it is worth noting that on the second day of the Jeddah conference, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov insisted that the meeting was “a reflection of the West’s attempt to continue futile, doomed efforts,” but added that China could nevertheless “convey common sense to the Western patrons of Kyiv.” 

China did its best to avoid taking on the role of Moscow’s messenger. Still, days after the Jeddah summit, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, in a phone call with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, reassured him that Beijing was committed to being an “objective and rational voice.” That the week before the summit China had joined Russia in a naval exercise off the coast of Alaska that prompted the deployment of four U.S. Navy destroyers underscored the risky juggling act that is at the heart of Beijing’s foreign policy.

A Win for MBS and Zelenskyy

The key participants in the Jeddah conference made good use of the multiple balls that Beijing has thus far kept in the air. Ukrainian officials declared that the meeting “completely destroys the narrative of Russia” that Ukraine was only backed by “countries of the collective West.” Such hyperbole was as necessary as they were predictable. Indeed, while in the lead up to the meeting Ukrainian officials insisted that “our goal in Saudi Arabia is to develop a unified vision” ahead of a future global peace summit, the fact that no such vision emerged in Jeddah was almost irrelevant. What counted most was that the summit was held and that it ended, as the Ukrainian ambassador to Saudi Arabia pitched it, with “constructive” talks and “a broad vision.” Jeddah was thus a win for Zelenskyy.

The same, of course, can be said for MBS. He may have not fully agreed when the Ukrainian ambassador thanked Saudi Arabia “for being so committed and hospitable to Ukraine in moving forward our peace formula plan.” But the meeting signaled that the crown prince is on his way to rehabilitating his international reputation.

More broadly, as one leading Saudi journalist noted, the conference underscored Saudi Arabia’s growing clout as a “neutral” mediator in a diverse group of states that constitute a kind of second Non-Aligned Movement whose members are leveraging the US-Russia-China triangle of conflict to advance their interests while maintaining good relations with all three countries. 

For Riyadh, a key element in this juggling act is its unhappiness with being replaced by Russia as China’s chief supplier of crude oil. This represents a real economic and political cost for MBS, who to the frustration of the Biden White House, has sustained the oil production cuts he initiated in Spring 2023. 

In short, the Jeddah meeting gave Riyadh a practically risk-free opportunity to direct multiple signals in multiple directions. Thus, while the conference ended without any final declaration, Saudi officials held that the meeting contributed to “building common grounds that pave the way for peace.” As for China, it has signaled its readiness to attend a follow-up meeting.

The Biden Administration (and China) Navigate Choppy Waters

While U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan went to the Jeddah conference, the administration’s best bet was to let other participants, most importantly Ukraine’s president, make their case and test China’s intentions. That in the words of one unnamed U.S. official, the administration was “glad” that China attended and participated in the meeting “in a constructive way”— highlights the challenges that the administration faces as it navigates choppy diplomatic waters.

Those waters got a little rougher as the BRICS countries — Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa — held a summit on summit on August 22 during which Egypt, Iran, Ethiopia, the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia were invited to join. If the decision shows that Russia and China are advancing their efforts to create an alternative to the International Monetary Fund and other Western dominated multi-lateral financial powerhouses, the expanded BRICS club includes not a few members who have concerns about the agenda of Moscow and China on a host of issues, including the Ukraine war. 

That Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov stated that Moscow looked forward to “an exchange of views” with the BRICS countries that attended the Jeddah meeting could suggest some unease in the Kremlin. For however determined to foster a multi-polar global system, major regional players such as Brazil and South Africa have no interest letting Moscow or China become the new arbiters of a counter hegemonic agenda. Speaking to the point, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has warned, “We have resisted pressure to align ourselves with any one of the global powers or with influential blocs of nations.” 

Vladimir Putin might ignore such sentiments, but Beijing’s leaders cannot. Afterall, precisely because China is a real world economic and military power in ways that Russia will never be, it needs to find a path to engaging across the global spectrum. This balancing act has become harder with a struggling domestic economy, not to mention the efforts of the Biden White House to foster greater security cooperation in Asia — amply demonstrated by the recent US/South Korea/Japan Camp David summit. 

Biden wisely insisted that the meeting was not “anti-China.” Still, it is far from clear that this statement shows that the White House has forged a policy that fully takes into account the tensions that are at the heart of China’s foreign relations — and that brought Beijing’s emissary to Jeddah in the first place.

A version of this piece was published by Arab Center Washington DC. The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Deputy Emir of Mecca Prince Badr bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz (R) welcoming Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky in Jeddah where he arrived on May 19, 2023 to participate in the Arab League Summit. Photo by Ukrainian Presidency via ABACAPRESS.COM
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