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to restyle China as a diplomatic mediator

Xi Jinping, head of state and leader of the Chinese Communist Party, is travelling to Saudi Arabia on Tuesday. His tour of the Middle East will then take him to Egypt and Iran. Although a keen traveller, China’s top politician has avoided this part of the world up to now, but since the ever-worsening crisis in Syria is now threatening Beijing’s geo-strategic interests, he feels it is time for China to mediate in the conflict – a novel step for Chinese diplomacy, which has traditionally been much more reserved.

We spoke to Moritz Rudolf, Research Associate at the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) in Berlin, about the matter.

Why has Xi Jinping decided to go to the Middle East now of all times?

Those who keep a watch on developments in China have been expecting Xi to make a state visit to the region for a long time now as it’s the only part of the world he hasn’t visited yet. A trip he intended to make in May 2015 was cancelled at short notice when Saudi Arabia intervened in the conflict with the Houthis in Yemen, which provoked sharp protests in Iran. The fact that Xi is now heading into the region to mediate in a different conflict is an indication of China’s growing self-confidence and sense of global responsibility. 

What topics is Xi going to bring up during his trip?

Well, primarily, he’s going to focus on expanding China’s economic relations abroad. The key points here were stated in China’s ‘Arab Policy Paper’ published on 13 January – the Government’s first paper on the country’s Middle East policy. Essentially, it’s about building up what it calls ‘1 plus 2 plus 3’ co-operation, i.e. collaboration in three fields:

  1. Co-operation on energy is at the heart of this policy. Saudi Arabia and Iran are two of China’s most important suppliers of natural resources (natural gas and crude oil).
  2. Besides this, the co-operation also aims at expanding China’s infrastructure and promoting trade and investment. Since Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran are all founding members of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), it’s likely that specific infrastructure projects will be discussed as well. China is also hoping to make more headway in Iran’s (and Egypt’s) sales markets in future. The Iranian market is particularly promising in China’s view as UN sanctions just lifted last Saturday.
  3. Furthermore, Beijing wants to achieve a breakthrough in technological co-operation concerning nuclear technology, satellite technology and renewable forms of energy. In view of this, we can expect a large number of non-binding declarations of intent to be made. Some concrete accords in these fields are also likely, however. 

Will security issues play a role, too?

Well, China does have specific geo-strategic interests in the region. Strategists in Beijing want the Middle East, Africa and Europe to be linked up to one another by an extensive network of infrastructure, for instance: the PRC intends to spend up to 900 billion US dollars on its gigantic ‘Silk Road’ project. Stability in the region is therefore essential for China if it is to push ahead with its plans. Continual fighting and terror attacks may jeopardise the Government’s ambitions, however. Since Iran and Saudi Arabia are regional powers that play a key role in stabilising the Middle East, Xi has an obvious interest in fostering good relations with Teheran and Riyadh. The dispute between Iran and Saudi Arabia is endangering the stability of the whole region, and hence Chinese interests. That’s why China now wants to try and mediate between the two governments.

At the same time, it’s keen to forge close alliances with Islamic countries in order to fight terrorism internationally. The Chinese leadership is fearful of ISIS focusing more of its attention on the PRC in future – anxiety that is reflected in its recent anti-terrorism law. Close liaison with Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt could be very important to Beijing in its fight against terrorism.

Finding a solution to the crisis in Syria is also important. Recently, China has been taking an active part in brokering peace talks on the Syrian conflict. However, the Chinese leadership is well aware of the fact that it is only possible to ease the situation by involving both Saudi Arabia and Iran.

What do you think of China’s role as a mediator in the Syrian conflict?

I think it’s unusual for Beijing to get involved in diplomacy this actively as it has generally played a very low-key role in the past regarding Middle Eastern issues. China has been sitting at the negotiating table at the Syrian peace talks in Vienna for a while now, but it hasn’t achieved very much yet, apart from making empty demands for a peaceful solution to the conflict that respects Syria’s sovereignty. China isn’t likely to support a coalition against Syria’s ruler, Bashar al-Assad, in future as it still maintains good relations with his regime and has even supplied the government with weapons in the past.

China’s active involvement in the peace negotiations now gives its Middle East diplomacy a brand new quality. Apart from tending to its own geo-strategic interests in the region, Beijing is also keen to improve its own diplomatic capability. In Afghanistan, it has been attempting to mediate in the conflict between Kabul and the Taliban for over a year now. The Chinese Government is engaging in diplomacy here to ensure its own diplomats gain experience in dealing with such crises. After all, Xi Jinping wants the PRC to be regarded as a major power, and one that is able to help find solutions to international conflicts. 

What chance of success do you think China has, mediating in the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia and in the Syrian conflict?

The advantage that China has over the United States and Europe is that it’s going into the talks with Iran and Saudi Arabia relatively free of any bias. At the moment, it still doesn’t have enough experience in resolving international conflicts. I doubt whether Beijing can actually achieve anything constructive to help resolve such disputes; China quite simply does not have enough knowledge and experience of the Middle East yet – it’s highly questionable whether Chinese diplomats possess all the negotiation skills called for to get Teheran and Riyadh to come to an agreement on the Syrian conflict, for example. Xi’s trip to the Middle East is an attempt by the Chinese government to get more involved in international diplomacy, and it emphasises a new priority in China’s foreign policy: the Middle East is becoming more important in China’s eyes. 

How could China actually get more involved in world diplomacy in future, then?

No matter how successful China’s attempts are at mediating in the Syrian conflict, the fact is that Beijing is now insisting on having more of a say in global security. Up to now, the only international platform enabling an exchange of viewpoints at this level has been the United Nations, an organisation that has often proved to be inefficient over the years. It is particularly in Germany’s long-term interest to integrate China in new network-based approaches of crisis prevention and mediation. 

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