These days, Xi Jinping’s global offensive is everywhere on display, from his renewed trips abroad to China’s public diplomacy. Xi is promoting a Global Security Initiative, a Global Development Initiative, and now even a Global Civilizational Initiative: top heavy in rhetoric, these offers to the world considerably broaden China’s bid for what it has called “discourse power” (话语权).
Zheng Bijian, a Chinese Communist Party adviser, who had promoted the notion of China’s “peaceful rise” at home and abroad in 2003-2004, also seems to have first coined the idea of discourse power. Hu Jintao, China’s leader from 2002 to 2012, made this notion a prerequisite to advance China’s soft power. More simply, Xi Jinping spoke in 2012 about “telling China’s story well.”
At the best possible moment for its stand regarding Russia’s war on Ukraine, China posed as a mediator between Iran and Saudi Arabia. After similar efforts in 2016 in Myanmar, China is also playing a role as a facilitator among conflicting parties in the Horn of Africa. And of course, China’s 12-point proposal for a solution to the “Ukraine crisis” is also a step up for Beijing’s diplomacy. Taken together, these moves are quite a change from China’s usually cautious and slow-moving diplomacy, and from an ingrained habit of describing any assertive development from China as merely reactive to the wrongful actions of one or the other international actor.
We are now close to half a century of fascination with the “rise of China.” On several occasions in those decades, assumptions were made about its direction. Global convergence, based on China’s global opening and turn to the market, proved to be wrong. Yet China’s growing economic weight inside the global economy, decades of increases in military expenditures that now surpass its GDP growth rate, and an apparent centralization of power that contrasts with the political strife in almost all the world’s democracies lend further credence to the notion that China is a global power on the way to reshape the international order.
Today, China’s diplomacy is suddenly seen as turning from a passive to an active role, along with the ability to defy the United States for global leadership. All previous restraint – including China’s well-known reluctance to shoulder responsibilities – may be forgotten. China’s priority courting of countries in the so-called Global South and its translation into an anti-American and anti-Western consensus impress audiences everywhere.
But we should look closer, with two guiding observations. First, do Chinese capacities match the long shadow it projects on the global community? Second, what are the risks that China is ready to take in its international endeavors – as a blustering enemy of Western democracies, a mediator or peacemaker, and a friend to autocracies in need?
The reality of China’s diplomacy remains far behind the claims. It paints a different picture: that of an opportunistic power that is making use of weaknesses and divergences in the camp of democracies, while denouncing what it calls encirclement.
Financially, China accumulates surpluses – in Western currencies. What is called China’s soft power is its trade and lending strength. Yet it can hardly pull away from the dollar or call in its loans to the emerging world; its power as a creditor rests on its income as an exporter. The West’s insatiable thirst for its products is China’s chief source of wealth. The calculus on gains from trading with countries such as Russia or Middle Eastern ones, which Beijing dominates commercially, is a sideshow.
Militarily, decades of budget expansion are not equivalent to combat deployment and experience. Teasing and occasionally crossing red lines – or changing the goalposts – is the ground on which China excels, largely because it can count on its counterparts’ reluctance to engage in conflicts. China conveniently forgets this reluctance when it denounces sanctions as almost an act of war. A major part of its defense program is achieving near-parity with the United States in terms of nuclear weapons, yet one does not conquer territory with nuclear weapons.
Is China becoming a mediator? Its role in the compromise reached by Iran and Saudi Arabia does give pause. But let’s look beyond appearances. It was in the 1980s that Riyadh bought Chinese mid-range missiles. Iran has been consorting with China ever since the Iran-Iraq war. The Saudis and Iranians were already talking quietly in Baghdad before that location became unsuitable.
China does have an essential quality for a mediator: It is truly equidistant from each, as was graphically shown by Xi Jinping’s consecutive visits in 2016 to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Iran. U.S. – and European – sanctions on Iran, the Saudi kingdom’s increased hostility to the West’s human rights approach after the Khashoggi murder, and Europe’s lack of leverage, allow Beijing to play the role of a host and to offer its good offices. But where are the Chinese guarantees to any aspect of the deal? This is no Camp David.
And of course, China’s partialness toward Moscow prevents any comparison in Ukraine. Were a solution to the Ukraine war be found at some point, China could be a messenger among others, and it could grade up or down its support – which is what is coveted by all sides. In all likelihood, China would end up being a godfather and guarantor for Russia, in a situation that would best recall the 1954 Geneva Conference. It cannot be a mediator.
China is also not a frequent gambler and risk-taker, as the nuances of its relationship with Moscow show. Indeed, there is massive overt support for Vladimir Putin, to the extent that Xi extended wishes for his “re-election” in Moscow – an unprecedented breach of Beijing’s opposition to external interference in domestic affairs. During Xi’s latest trip, the “best in history” friendship was reaffirmed, as was a litany of complaints ranging from NATO enlargement to Japan’s plan for disposing of tainted water from the Fukushima nuclear plant. But nothing was said about material support to Russia – especially weapons – and Putin’s early claim that an agreement about the Power of Siberia 2 gas pipeline was about to materialize was not confirmed during the meeting by China.
China’s game is skillful. Invocation of the U.N. Charter and norms comes at little cost since the United Nations is prevented from taking action over Ukraine by Russia’s – and China’s? – veto power. The cost to China for its extraordinary overt leaning to Russia is not huge: Europe has no strategic weight in the Asia-Pacific beyond isolated initiatives. It is rational for China to predict that the wish of many Europeans to bring an end to the war will keep the relationship open, if not effusive.
As to Russia, “it’s in hardship that one sees true friends,” wrote Xi Jinping in a Russian publication. Although this was expressed in the context of COVID-19, it also demonstrates the sense that Beijing has the upper hand over Russia.
Finally, Xi Jinping has opened a barrage of denunciations against the United States, without apparently crossing the red line of substantial weapon deliveries to Russia. Until better informed, the allegations aired up to now concern infringements, not an all-out shift to arms deliveries.
As has been the case in the language that China has been deploying at the United Nations for several years, China’s word offensive is relentless, 360 degrees, and full of promises of common prosperity under one roof. Strikingly, there is never a single proposition aiming to make international institutions more effective. Binding rules are invoked only when they restrain international action. Lofty aims – the last one out of the box is the “Global Civilization Initiative” – are not backed by consequential follow-ups. Here the Belt and Road does stand out, but it is more of a commercial venture over infrastructure than a feat of development assistance.
China’s positive strength remains its trade balance and the power that flows from it. Negatively, it benefits from doubts about the long-term engagement of the United States to safeguard the international order, and from Europe’s collective weakness: We have been able to unite over Russia’s war much better than many predicted, but we cannot deliver as much as would be required, and our political leaders fear opinion fatigue.
China is cleverly, and sometimes daringly, exploiting these opportunities. On March 22, Xi Jinping’s parting public words to Putin as he left Moscow were: “Right now there are changes – the likes of which we haven’t seen for a hundred years – and we are the ones driving these changes together.” The notion of a “once in a hundred years” opportunity is for Xi a code name for his belief in the decline of the United States and the West.
So far, it is a low-cost international strategy. Behind the chanting about the U.N., there is a search for “major power” coalitions under toothless international regimes. Authoritarian regimes can defend themselves from global chaos; democracies need rules. China’s vulnerability under such a situation would be over trade. A major exporter needs rules at least in that regard. And so, our continued addiction to convenient Chinese goods is the life insurance for China’s low-cost international strategy.
This article was originally published as the introduction to China Trends 15, the quarterly publication of the Asia Program at Institut Montaigne. Institut Montaigne is a nonprofit, independent think tank based in Paris, France.