The China-brokered agreement in March to restore diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran caught the entire planet by surprise – not only because of its implications for Middle Eastern realignments but also because of Beijing’s conspicuous midwife role, with states such as the US scarcely even aware of the magnitude of what was transpiring. It was an unmistakable signal that China had definitively emerged as a diplomatic world power, with clear ambitions to achieve much, much more.
Once upon a time, China scarcely seemed to have a foreign policy beyond vague pronouncements about non-interference in others’ domestic affairs. The Belt and Road initiative profoundly changed all this, through massive infrastructure investments in a multitude of Asian and African states. While many developing nations have benefited immensely from Chinese-engineered roads, ports, bridges and railways, the flipside can be seen in how heavily indebted states such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Angola have become locked in a straitjacket of Chinese domination.
In Afghanistan, Chinese diplomats have exploited the West’s withdrawal to become one of the few states systematically engaging with the Taliban. China has also agreed to invest $400 billion in Iran’s economy in exchange for heavily discounted Iranian oil – one of many factors that have caused the interests of Tehran, Moscow and Beijing to enmesh evermore closely. Economic and political cooperation between Beijing and Arab Gulf states has notably flourished, with China now Saudi Arabia’s largest export market.
China is an unparalleled economic powerhouse. In recent decades, Chinese leaders ruthlessly tended to prioritize rapid economic expansion over everything else, creating millions of jobs for immense new cohorts of young people emerging every year from schools and universities. In just a decade, Chinese average household income increased by 400 percent. But having scrapped constitutional presidential term limits and embarked on his third term, Xi Jinping’s authoritarian security-first predilections have unmistakably come to the fore. With policies that have had a chilling impact on international trade relations, such as punitive measures against certain foreign businesses, the risk for China’s leadership is that the resulting economic slowdown could fuel turbulent dissatisfaction among its population.
The Ukraine conflict was a wakeup call that major foreign invasions or global superpower confrontations weren’t just a relic of the 20th century. This realization has dramatically prompted NATO states to re-evaluate their collective security – particularly throwing into relief the challenges emerging from China, which has 10 times the GDP and 10 times the population of Russia. Indeed, with Beijing’s unique relationship to Vladimir Putin, we may yet see China again come to play the role of peacemaker before too long. It is entirely Xi Jinping’s choice whether he desires history to know him as a warmonger and autocrat, or a champion of global peace, stability and prosperity.
While American foreign policy under Donald Trump then Joe Biden has become inexorably more hostile toward China, European states have been more conflicted – wishing to prioritize trade but unable to wholly ignore glaring human rights violations and strategic challenges. Muslim states seeking closer alignment with Beijing have likewise struggled to address the systematic abuse of millions of Uyghurs. Is West-China armed confrontation inevitable? Everybody hopes not, but an extraordinary number of flashpoint issues have emerged between the two blocs, the most inflammatory of which is Taiwan. If Beijing is hellbent on armed invasion to reabsorb Taiwan back into China, as many of its public pronouncements indicate, and if Washington is serious about military action to prevent this, then it simply becomes a question of when confrontation would occur and how far-reaching it would be.
The recent G7 summit sought to take a middle-ground approach of “de-risking,” whereby Western companies wouldn’t fully disengage from China, but would reduce the risk of being caught in the crossfire of future escalatory scenarios, along with limitations on the sales of sensitive equipment. One of the reasons Russia must be definitively defeated in Ukraine is that leaders such as Xi should ultimately look at the decisions Putin made and think: “I don’t want that to happen to me.” Just as the 2003 Iraq invasion was an unmitigated disaster, the Ukraine invasion should leave a large enough wound in the global psyche for no leader to consider any further such war of aggression for at least another century. Full-blown direct confrontation between America and China would be a recipe for Armageddon. Such scenarios should be a wakeup call to leaders in China, America and elsewhere that we are all better off when this newly multilateral international environment is governed by a strict system of mutually binding rules, in which leaders are beholden to behave responsibly – and with real penalties for all those who violate their obligations. China and the US have been locked in a zero-sum mentality, when in fact the opposite is true: trade between them has soared in the past two decades since China joined the World Trade Organization, with China now the US’s third-biggest export market, and total merchandise trade between the two countries climbing to nearly $700 billion in 2022 – despite all the economic saber-rattling!
If both sides can put their playground one-upmanship and petty differences aside then the entire planet thrives. America’s climate envoy John Kerry is due to hold talks with China about issues such as reducing global dependence on coal and methane reduction, a critical reminder of the necessity of superpower cooperation in ensuring the planet’s very survival. America and its allies must up their diplomatic game for addressing this full spectrum of East-West challenges, particularly as – unlike Iran, North Korea and perhaps even Russia – China is too big and too crucial to be simply contained or sidelined. However, Beijing too must learn that if it desires to be a world-class power, it must lead by example and accord the people of Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan the dignity and rights that will allow China to take its rightful place as a global force to be admired and emulated.