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Xi’s whirlwind European tour, playing mediator to mixed reviews

Xi’s whirlwind European tour, playing mediator to mixed reviews

The question is, will the US see this as a benefit or continue to play critic?

Reporting | Asia-Pacific

When Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in France this week, the world’s conflicts were top of mind. Press reports tended to fixate on whether French President Emmanuel Macron could press Xi to distance himself from Russia. But ultimately, the leaders’ focus drifted farther south.

In a wide-ranging joint statement, Xi and Macron “expressed their opposition to an Israeli offensive on Rafah,” called for an “immediate and sustainable ceasefire,” railed against the possibility of regional escalation, and even endorsed the idea of a worldwide truce to coincide with this summer’s Olympic Games in Paris.

The statement reflected a remarkable shift in China’s diplomatic approach to the world — or, perhaps more precisely, a remarkable shift in how powerful states now treat Beijing. After decades of playing a secondary role in world politics, China is now getting used to the great power treatment, making itself visible wherever diplomacy is happening.

Examples abound: Last year, China sent shockwaves through Washington when it oversaw the normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, a major step in reducing tensions between two of the most hostile powers in the Middle East. And, as the war in Ukraine drags on, China has dispatched a special envoy to push for negotiations, securing high-level meetings with officials on both sides of the conflict.

Beijing has even taken on a larger role in that most sensitive of issues: the Israel-Palestine conflict. China hosted Fatah and Hamas — the leading Palestinian factions — for reconciliation talks last week, and observers expect that this mediation role could continue in the coming months and years.

From Washington, this can all look a bit frightening. After three decades of unipolarity, many U.S. policymakers still cling to the idea that America and its allies are the sole guarantors of international peace. A rising China, in the minds of many, must mean a falling U.S.

But experts say that a deep breath is in order. Despite these latest moves, Beijing still has a ways to go before it surpasses Washington in its ability to shape geopolitics. As China grows into its new role, there are no shortage of opportunities for cooperation on issues that matter deeply to each country, especially in places where the U.S. is no longer seen as a credible go-between.

There may even be openings to influence Beijing’s approach to the world in ways that gel better with U.S. interests.

China’s growing role in diplomacy is thus not a threat but an opportunity. The question remains: Will the U.S. seize it?

Three cheers for stability

Above all, China and the U.S. share one essential goal in the Middle East: stability. Students of contemporary politics will note that neither side has done a particularly good job of securing that goal in recent years. But limited cooperation could help provide a path forward for the region.

China has long professed support for the liberation of Palestine through a two-state solution, a goal that it sees as crucial to solving the problems that plague the Middle East. In the early days of the war between Israel and Hamas, Chinese officials walked a tightrope by maintaining trade ties with Israel while refusing to condemn Hamas. But it carefully avoided any direct involvement in the conflict.

Now, China appears to be taking a more active role, expanding its criticism of Israel’s actions in Gaza in what many experts view as an attempt to curry favor with the Global South through a topic in which the U.S. has taken a distinctly unpopular stance.

The Beijing talks, however, signal more room for cooperation. Hamas and Fatah have for years failed to bridge the rupture created by their brief civil war that lasted between 2006 and 2007. After convening in Beijing last month, the groups thanked China for its efforts “to help strengthen Palestinian internal unity and reached an agreement on ideas for future dialogue,” according to China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lin Jian.

The direct impact of China bringing the factions to the negotiating table should not be overstated, according to Dawn Murphy, a professor at the U.S. National War College. When Beijing mediates, it prefers to act as more of a convener than a direct party to the talks, Murphy told RS. Think Qatar, but a lot bigger.

“The way in which [China] sees itself as contributing is by bringing the parties together, providing a platform for discussion and serving as a more neutral actor that has legitimacy in the eyes of all of the actors involved,” Murphy said.

In this sense, China is very much unlike the U.S. Washington has long made clear that it supports Fatah over Hamas, which much of the West views as a terrorist group. But Beijing’s stubborn neutrality gives it the legitimacy to host credible talks that could promote reconciliation and help pave the way for a two-state solution in the longer term.

China’s commitment to neutrality is a reflection of its broader diplomatic strategy of maintaining balanced relations without getting directly involved in its partners’ domestic politics. China is very averse to risking its own credibility, preferring to avoid siding with any particular state in a conflict, as Murphy noted.

China and countries in the Middle East have significant economic relations that have only deepened over time through partnerships in energy, security and technology. Beijing is the biggest purchaser of Saudi Arabian oil and is also one of Israel’s primary trading partners. It is also willing to engage with the Middle East in ways the U.S. won’t: China sells military technology to Saudi Arabia that the U.S. heavily restricts, and provides heavily-sanctioned Iran with much-needed capital and trade partnerships, according to veteran journalist James Dorsey.

Dorsey, who has written a book about China’s role in the Middle East, notes that these partnerships help ensure that states in the region won't act against Chinese interests. Most Middle Eastern states have stayed out of the Taiwan issue and have not condemned the ongoing human rights abuses occurring in China’s Xinjiang region. “That’s one Chinese objective, and they’ve been very successful in that,” Dorsey told RS.

But that doesn’t mean that China is all-powerful. For all of Beijing’s rhetoric, it has not been able to alter the course of the current conflict wracking Gaza, Dorsey noted. When you look at negotiation processes for a ceasefire today between Israel and Hamas, as well as discussions about what the post-war world will look like, “China is not in the room.”

Murphy says it’s in the U.S. interest to not dismiss China’s desire to resolve these conflicts, citing the Iran-Saudi normalization deal that China helped broker. While negotiations were well underway before China got involved, the outcome of the talks was one that all parties, including the U.S., benefited from.

China is in a unique position to seek further detente in the region, Murphy says. Because it has positive relations with every country in the Middle East, as well as legitimacy in the eyes of their rulers, Beijing could theoretically facilitate negotiations between most of the region’s states.

Indeed, the Biden administration has acknowledged this in limited ways, as Ali Wyne of the International Crisis Group told RS. “Growing instability in the Middle East benefits neither the United States nor China, so U.S. and Chinese efforts in the region need not be zero-sum,” Wyne said. “[I]n recent months, the Biden administration has stated that it would welcome China's help in preventing the conflict between Israel and Hamas from metastasizing into a regional conflagration.”

Dorsey, for his part, warns that China’s facilitation has not yielded concrete results thus far. China has also failed to show a willingness to take risks by taking more tangible action, Christopher Chivvis of the Carnegie Endowment told RS.

“China has demonstrated that its willingness to make sacrifices to try to bring peace and stability to the region is pretty limited,” Chivvis said. For example, China doesn't encourage restraint from Iran despite the leverage its relationship with the country provides.

If China could match its actions more with its rhetoric, it would serve both Beijing and Washington, Chivvis said. “It would be in China's interest to try to demonstrate that it's willing to actually pay some costs in order to deal with some of the global challenges that are out there,” he argued.

The Ukraine problem

In Europe, China has had less room to maneuver. Despite its efforts to push for peace negotiations, Beijing has faced strong criticism from the West in recent months for allegedly supplying tech that supports Russia's military invasion in Ukraine.

As Chivvis told RS, China has tried to walk a fine line between its close ties with Russia and its need to maintain access to European markets and capital. Close trade ties with Europe allow China’s domestic economy to grow at a pace that promotes stability at home, Chivvis noted.

This careful balance has been hard to maintain amid China’s indirect support for Russia’s war. Relations with Europe have been further strained as Chinese goods flood EU markets and price out European producers.

But some steps in the right direction are being taken. This week, during Xi’s multi-stop visit to Europe, he and Macron surprised observers when they agreed to back a worldwide truce during this year’s Olympics — a pause that could serve as a jumping off point for peace talks in Ukraine.

“French officials hope Xi's endorsement is a sign that he could use his influence to persuade Russia to reach a truce when President Vladimir Putin travels to China later this month,” Reuters reported. The French also said Xi made clear that “Beijing did not intend to supply weapons to Moscow and that it was ready to look into the issue of dual-use materials that enabled Russia's war effort.”

As China’s military and economic partnerships grow, the wars in Ukraine and Gaza have provided China with an opening to increase its diplomatic efforts, according to Wyne of ICG. Nonetheless, Beijing “does not presently seem positioned to make breakthroughs.” Chivvis agrees, saying that significant cooperation between the U.S and China is a long way off given the contentious state of relations between the two powers.

But there's no denying one obvious truth: It would be far easier to solve the Ukraine war with China's help than without it. It’s now up to the U.S. to decide whether it’s willing to face that fact.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron review the troops before Xi Jinping's departure, as he visits France, at the Tarbes airport, France, May 7, 2024. Aurelien Morissard/Pool via REUTERS

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