China's Peace Pivot: Challenging Perceptions and Assessing Its Impact

Published On: May 19, 2023 09:00 AM NPT By: Amrit Poudel

“Change is coming that hasn’t happened in 100 years and we are driving this change together”

President of China Xi Jinping made a friendly gesture to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin as he left the Kremlin on his first international trip after getting reelected for the third term, to which Putin nodded and replied, “I agree, dear friend!” Shortly after, Putin walked Xi to his motorcade and wished him a happy road ahead. The bonhomie of the two leaders cemented the countries no-limit friendship which they had agreed upon in Putin’s last visit to China, and in the process, gave the Western think tanks and the analysts much to contemplate.

Despite  the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict, and the West’s attempt to exhaust Russia economically through packages of sanctions, Xi’s visit has shattered their hopes for the most part. With its neighboring country China - an economic powerhouse - to its side, Russia’s economic collapse appears to be a distant dream, a mere wishful thought. Moreover, this visit not only underscores the importance of China for Russia but also the sine qua non of their strategic alliance especially with recent attempts from the West to question the status quo of Taiwan.

Following  Xi’s visit to Russia, Western leaders with the likes of Emanuel Macron, Von Der Lyen, and Pedro Sanchez rushed to China, likely as a messenger from Washington, as China hasn’t opened its doors to Secretary Blinken's long-awaited visit to the mainland after the Balloon Incident. However, Macron’s pro-Chinese comments following the visit garnered significant attention, as he spoke about Europe's independence from Washington on foreign policies, the Taiwan issue, and most notably, the emergence of a multipolar world and the ongoing de-dollarization trend worldwide. Recently, it has come to light that the Chinese are working on a peace plan for the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict, which however if true doesn’t seem likely to bear any fruit in the near term. Instead, the conflict is likely to end as a frozen conflict with both sides dug in and not willing to budge as stated by Dr Mearsheimer, a political scientist from The University of Chicago.

With 17.3 percent of its population identifying themselves as Russians according to the 2001 Ukrainian census, Ukraine's hatred towards the ethnic-Russian population, combined with the prevalence of extremist ideologies such as white supremacy and russophobic beliefs, has been a major obstacle in achieving lasting peace in the country. These issues had already existed in Ukraine before the 2014 Maidan Coup, which ousted the sitting Russian-favored President Yanukoveych with a western-backed Poroshenko. However, the coup provided a breeding ground for these ideologies to become more widespread. This, in turn, led to some of the eastern provinces seeking autonomy, with separatists in these regions being backed by the Russian Federation. This conflict is also known as the War of Dobass, which has been ongoing since 2014 and has now entered its ninth year. The prospect of autonomy for these regions has become increasingly realistic over time. Despite diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict (Minsk Agreement), a lasting solution is yet to be found, and the conflict continues to simmer.

Amidst the conflict, Vladimir Zelensky was elected as the sixth president of Ukraine in 2019,  largely due to his promise of improving the country's relationship with Russia and its ethnic-Russian population. However, those promises quickly faded out as tensions between Ukraine and Russia escalated, and Zelensky faced pressure from both domestic and international actors to take a strong stance against Russian aggression. Zelensky also faced criticism for his handling of corruption within the government and his failure to deliver on his promises of reform. Despite these challenges, Zelensky has remained in office and has sought to navigate Ukraine through this difficult period in its history.

Since the conflict began in February 2022, it has become apparent that NATO and the US are just as invested in the conflict as Russia. Recent Pentagon leaks suggest that the conflict has turned into a proxy war between the two nuclear superpowers. The official website of the US Department of State reports that the US has provided more than $30 billion in security assistance for training and equipment alone. With the Biden administration invested heavily in the Ukraine conflict, they have redirected significant attention and resources away from the Middle East, leaving a void in the region that has already been filled, to some extent, by China successfully. China’s increasing involvement in the Middle East has been viewed as a significant development in the region, as it seeks to expand its economic and political influence globally.

While China is aware of the challenges involved in challenging the status quo, particularly the influence and presence of the US in the region, it appears to be taking advantage of the situation by expanding its trade and establishing a stable market. In doing so, China seems to be benefiting from the region's resources and strategic location without taking on the burdensome responsibilities that come with being a regional power. This has allowed China to ride on the coattails and expand its influence in the Middle East without incurring the same level of geopolitical risks as other major powers. As part of its goal of multipolarity, China appears to be focused on empowering regional powers within the Middle East, rather than exerting direct influence or control over the region. Ultimately, China’s success in promoting regional powers to a larger extent rests on the willingness of regional powers to cooperate and China’s ability to balance its own interests with those of the region as a whole.

A recent example of China's involvement in the region is its role in brokering a peace deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The conflict between these two countries has been driven by a range of factors, including geopolitical competition, religious differences, and regional power struggles, with the sectarian divide between the two countries being a major source of tension. By helping to resolve this conflict, China has demonstrated its potential to play a positive role in promoting peace and stability in the Middle East. However, it remains to be seen whether China's involvement will lead to a more multipolar and equitable regional order, or simply reinforce the existing power structures.

The reestablishment of diplomatic ties between Riyadh and Tehran after eight years of severed relations, as a result of the peace deal signed in Beijing, has created a ripple effect in the region. One of the immediate effects was Saudi Arabia's initiation of peace talks with Yemen. The country has been embroiled in war since 2014 when Houthi rebels overran the sitting government and seized the capital city of  Sanaa to which a Saudi-led coalition launched a military intervention in 2015. Saudi and the Yemeni Houthi rebels, following the initial peace talks, have already freed the prisoners of war, and are expected to continue negotiations to reach a lasting political settlement and end the ongoing conflict. Moreover, as a result of Saudi Arabia's efforts to mediate the dispute between Qatar and Bahrain, the two countries re-established their diplomatic ties in Riyadh. Additionally, there have been ongoing talks regarding the reinstatement of Damascus into the Arab League. In a recent development, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister became the first major politician from the Gulf Cooperation Council to visit Syria in more than a decade, indicating a potential thawing of relations between the two countries.

As part of its efforts to promote regional stability, Riyadh also hosted Hamas leaders in the Kingdom recently to mediate the conflicts in occupied Palestine, which has sent a cold message to the Netanyahu government in Israel. Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, has been in conflict with Israel for years, and Saudi Arabia has been seeking to play a role in resolving the long-standing issue. Though the efforts made by Saudi Arabia and other regional powers towards promoting regional stability and resolving conflicts are steps in the right direction, it remains to be seen how successful these efforts will be, but the importance of regional cooperation and dialogue cannot be underestimated.

The Chinese-brokered peace deal has initiated a promising start towards peace and dialogue in the Middle East. Additionally, China's significant role in Africa cannot be overlooked, as the country has invested billions in developing infrastructure and promoting regional growth. However, the critics fear China of repeating the same neocolonialism that European powers did in the past, exploiting Africa's resources and influencing its politics. Only time will tell how successful China's efforts will be in promoting regional powers and stability, but for now, there is hope for a more peaceful and connected world.

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