Wary world watches as China plays peacemaker

Beijing under Xi is doing more to seek solutions in strife-prone regions. But its nascent activism is drawing a mixed reaction in the West, which has long criticised China for not doing enough despite its growing clout as an economic powerhouse

As 2017 drew to a close, there was a flurry of diplomatic activity in Beijing.

First, just days before Christmas, there was a two-day symposium organised by the Chinese on peace between Israel and the Palestinians with participation by delegations from both sides.

Then on Boxing Day, China held an inaugural trilateral dialogue with Afghanistan and Pakistan - two neighbours at loggerheads with each other - to discuss trust-building, reconciliation and fighting terrorism among other things.

Earlier in November, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi proposed a three-step approach to resolve the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar. This included allowing the return of the over 600,000 Rohingya who had fled violence against them to Bangladesh and economic development of the impoverished Rakhine state to solve the underlying problems that led to the violence.

These events came after Chinese President Xi Jinping said at the Chinese Communist Party's five-yearly congress in October that his country was ready to move "closer to centre stage" in the world and make "greater contributions to mankind".

For some observers, they were signals of a China under Mr Xi that is willing to take a more interventionist approach to foreign affairs after decades of adhering closely to principles set out in the 1950s that included non-interference and peaceful co-existence.

This should be welcome by many in the international community at a time when the United States is in retreat under President Donald Trump's "America First" policy.

After all, the West has been calling for China to do more internationally as a responsible stakeholder rather than free-riding on an international system and refusing to pull its weight, as it is often accused of doing, by hiding behind its non-interference policy.


For example, in an interview with The New York Times in 2014, then US President Barack Obama said China had been free-riding on the global system for 30 years and that no one expected it to do anything. He was referring to the situation in Iraq, where its government was battling the terrorist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). China, which had been making significant investments there in the aftermath of the US-led Iraq war, had kept a low profile over the ISIS crisis.

However, given how the Chinese political and economic systems are different from the West's - one-party authoritarian rule and state capitalism versus liberal democracy and capitalism - will the Chinese approach to dealing with international issues be at odds with the Western powers'?


As has been pointed out by analysts, China had not always stuck to its principles of non-interference and peaceful coexistence. Between 1949 and 1978, as Professor Kerry Brown of King's College London has noted, China fought with India and Russia, and with the US in Korea. During the late Mao period, China supported revolutionary struggle in the developing world and in 1979, it fought a border war with Vietnam in response to Hanoi's invasion of Cambodia.

In the three decades since then, however, China stayed close to those principles of the 1950s by following the adage of patriarch Deng Xiaoping of "keeping a low profile and biding your time" while focusing on economic development.

In recent years, though, China has found it hard to keep strictly to its non-interference policy.

This is because with its "go out" policy that began in the 1990s, more and more Chinese companies and citizens have been moving overseas. It is estimated that in 2015, some 20,000 Chinese firms had a presence in over 180 countries and territories, including in unstable regions that sometimes sank into crises.

According to some reports, China made 10 large-scale evacuations of its nationals from 2006 to 2011 because of unrest, wars and natural disasters. Often, huge losses were incurred as assets were abandoned.

In the case of Libya, when the dictator Muammar Gaddafi fell in 2011, China had to airlift more than 30,000 Chinese workers and it lost billions of dollars in investments, loans and assets.

Often, the decision to cut losses was taken because there was neither the stomach nor the capability to intervene in the crisis.

However, as China's capabilities and its economic clout have grown, and as its interests overseas have spread and deepened, it has begun to take a more flexible approach to its non-interference policy to protect those interests.

One case in point is South Sudan, where, two years after it gained independence, civil war broke out in 2013. China, which had invested heavily in its oil resources, decided to wade in to mediate between warring sides when asked to do so by South Sudan's neighbours.

The peace talks it convened in 2015 did not yield concrete results but it secured agreements not to attack oil infrastructure and restarted a stalled peace process, wrote security analysts Xie Yanmei and Casie Copeland recently.

Certainly, political and economic self-interest is involved in China's taking a more active approach in dealing with crises in countries where it has a stake. So in South Sudan, it's about protecting its investments, while in Afghanistan and Pakistan, with which it shares borders, a key consideration is ensuring the security of its borders and preventing terrorism from spilling over to its restive Xinjiang province.

However, as Professor Johan Lagerkvist of Stockholm University pointed out, China also wants to be seen as a responsible power. And the US retreat gives it the "opportunity to look responsible and behave responsibly because there is so much vacuum to be filled regarding global governance".

Indeed, Professor Francois Godement from the European Council for Foreign Relations said Beijing's stepping into the Israel-Palestine issue "shows China beginning to fill gaps left by US diplomacy".

With its greater confidence and improved capabilities, it is also ready to do more, said other analysts.


In the main, the West welcomes, if cautiously, China's efforts to do more than fence-sitting on international issues.

Said Mr Daniel Russel, who was US assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific Affairs from 2013 to last March, in reference to the Rohingya crisis: "It is just and proper for China to seek to make a positive contribution to diplomatic and political challenges in the region."

But he added: "As long as it acts in a manner that is consistent with global norms and universal rights, China has a great deal to offer."

Sharing the same view is Prof Godement: "We frequently request China to become a stakeholder rather than a stockholder. China contributes very little compared with its economic weight. If China acts within international law, we should welcome a change."

The reaction to what China has attempted so far has been mixed.

In the case of Afghanistan and Pakistan, the two neighbours' relations have deteriorated tremendously, with each side accusing the other of providing Islamist militants with safe havens from which to launch attacks across the border.

China has focused its efforts on rebuilding trust between the two sides and strengthening cooperation against terrorism as well as cooperation for the long-term security and development of the impoverished and restive border areas of the two countries.

As pointed out by Chinese international relations expert Su Hao of the China Foreign Affairs University, the Chinese and the West are on the same page on the Afghanistan issue and the West is hoping that China can do more here.

Still, German broadcaster DW, in an article on its website, quoted analysts as saying Chinese efforts in Afghanistan are aimed at containing the crisis but not resolving it, and that China was also trying to restrict US influence in the region.

It quoted a researcher at the University of Heidelberg's South Asia Institute, Mr Siegfried Wolf, as saying China's counterterrorism measures in the region exclude the US and India. "It appears that Beijing is trying to construct a new security bloc in Asia. This, however, does not involve the Sino-Indian security cooperation," he was quoted as saying.

As for China's involvement in the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, Mr Russel thought China's three-step approach was too vague. "It is not entirely clear to me it can be called a plan," he said.

While Prof Lagerkvist agreed it was lacking in details, he thought it was a wise move, compared with what the West did in Libya. "The economic aspects of restructuring the Rakhine state are definitely viable and defensible and a very wise policy move because without development, continuing poverty will radicalise the poor, (leading) to militant action and responses from the Burmese army," he said.

He added that in Libya, the West had moved hastily to intervene militarily "but they do not have a longer-term backup plan for economic restructuring".

Prof Su noted that China's policy was not to support any one side against another but rather to play the role of a mediator or intermediary as it did in the case of South Sudan. It also wanted to play a constructive role to help a country improve its internal governance.

In the Rohingya case, China was offering its experience in economic development as a model which the Myanmar government could draw on to better the lot of the people in the Rakhine.

He acknowledged that in general, there was a difference between the Chinese and Western approaches, with the West more focused on human rights and the Chinese on stability and development.

But what China was doing would also benefit the West because it would lead to stability and peace in the region. "There is room for the two sides to coordinate and cooperate," he suggested.

Clearly, however, as China becomes more interventionist in its foreign policy, the West is becoming more wary about its intentions.

Said Prof Godement: "A neo-imperial China advancing its own interests is a replay of past behaviour of the former colonialists. A China contributing to humanitarian intervention (for which China has had too restrictive criteria in the past) is a most welcome development. A China mediating regional conflicts falls in between - and thus should be judged on its own merits and case by case."

The Chinese would do well to be more transparent in communicating its intentions to the world in order to reduce mistrust.

As Prof Lagerkvist said, there is too much secrecy and too little transparency in the way China conveys its views to the world.

And because it is such a strong economic and political force and also a rising security force, its neighbours are worried and seeking alliances to hedge against the Chinese military threat.

China would need to promote a version of itself that is "consistent and open-minded and not secretive", he said.

Until that happens, many outside China would continue to mistrust its intentions.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 01, 2018, with the headline Wary world watches as China plays peacemaker. Subscribe