Washington has a lot to gain and little to lose by challenging Beijing to fulfill its diplomatic ambitions
Chinese diplomats have been hard at work this spring, helping broker a normalization deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran and orchestrating President Xi Jinping’s summit in Moscow with Vladimir Putin to celebrate the friendship between their two countries. Beijing is apparently keen to portray itself as a force for peace in the world, but its recent wave of diplomacy is also in line with another goal: to strengthen China’s influence and ensure stability and peace where it suits their interests. national interests.
Washington does not need to buy into Beijing’s rhetoric about its peacemaking ambitions to recognize and take seriously China’s considerable power to shape world events, especially with regard to the behavior of adversaries like Russia and Iran, which the United States has apparently lost the ability (or will) to engage, or vice versa.
Rather than reflexively fighting China’s rise in the diplomatic arena, Washington should challenge Xi Jinping to act on China’s apparent ambitions for diplomatic leadership and use its strengthened position in a multipolar world to help advance Washington’s and Beijing’s mutual interest in stability in the Middle East and peace in Ukraine.
Forging limited cooperation between the United States and China at a time of unprecedented enmity and suspicion between the two nations requires first recognizing the possibilities (and limitations) of Beijing’s current approach.
The agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran seems more the result of Tehran and Riyadh’s desire to consolidate China’s neutral position in their rivalry than Beijing’s diplomatic finesse.https://www.foreignaffairs.com/china-became-peacemaker-middle-east.” rel=”footnote”>1 Remember that Riyadh and Tehran often go through phases of confrontation and accommodation; tensions of the past six years or so, fueled by a proxy war in Yemen, meddling in each other’s affairs, and the ill-fated JCPOA had already given way to renewed and substantive talks and a ceasefire in Yemen. Iraq and Oman paved the way for normalization, but it was China that managed to get over the goal line by acting as a guarantor, which means that if Riyadh or Tehran cheats on the agreement, not only will they undermine their relations, but also with Beijing.https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/lessons-from-china-s-role-in-middle-east-diplomacy.” rel=”footnote”>2
The pomp and circumstance of Xi’s visit to Russia the week after the deal was superimposed on a mind-numbing joint document that recorded all the political moves, attitudes and inclinations of the two governments, but put virtually nothing in writing about the ongoing war in Ukraine. It lacked last year’s grandiose language about the boundless Russia-China partnership.https://www.csis.org/analysis/xi-goes-moscow-marriage-inconvenience” rel=”footnote”>3 US officials have noted China’s glaring lack of military assistance for Russia’s war effort, while other observers have pointed to the lukewarm nature of its rhetorical support.https://www.cnn.com/2023/04/07/intl_business/china-russia-not-provided-assistance/index.html; Jake Werner, Biden doesn’t need to keep bringing Xi and Putin together, The nationMarch 22, 2023. https://www.thenation.com/article/world/biden-doesnt-need-to-keep-pushing-xi-and-putin-closer/” rel=”footnote”>4
What is the United States supposed to do with these theatrical double diplomatic representations?
In the case of Saudi Arabia and Iran, China appears to have borrowed from Henry Kissinger’s legendary playbook, leveraging its relationship with both sides in a regional conflict to eliminate a strategic competitor. The United States in 1973 had good relations with warring parties Israel and Egypt, leaving no diplomatic role for the Soviet Union to play, and Moscow never came back into the game. The lesson: to be relevant, the United States must have some kind of influence in Tehran.
We don’t need to spell out the worn tale of grievances and missed opportunities since the Islamic Revolution swept the Shah from power to recognize that Washington and Tehran will remain worlds apart for the foreseeable future. There is, however, an opening, even if it is uncertain. The United States could consult with China on how best to cement the rapprochement between Iran and Arab Gulf states, help relaunch a revised JCPOA, or, at a minimum, find an informal agreement to ensure that no parties further aggravate the situation, and put in place traffic rules for Iran-backed militias in Syria and Iraq, where China is a major investor.
The United States would hardly be the supplicant in this arrangement; despite the current mess in US-Saudi relations, the two countries are still integrated in multiple ways, while Saudi Arabia’s de facto mercurial leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) has linked his outreach in Beijing with renewed interest in a US security guarantee.https://www.nytimes.com/2023/03/09/us/politics/saudi-arabia-israel-united-states.html.” rel=”footnote”>5 A joint US-China diplomatic effort to stabilize the Persian Gulf region, which is of obvious mutual interest, would create space for cooperation in a relationship otherwise plagued by deep mistrust.
A parallel approach to the war in Ukraine could also bear fruit. The Chinese have advanced the possibility of a ceasefire, which would end the conflicts with immense human suffering. Xi himself reached out to Zelensky and refrained from offering significant military support to Russian operations.https://www.politico.eu/article/china-xi-jinping-volodymyr-zelenskyy-ukraine-finally-called-zelenskyy-first-since-russia-waged-war/.” rel=”footnote”>6 In the best of cases, a ceasefire would be the occasion for a disengagement of forces, a demilitarization of Donbass and negotiations leading to the withdrawal of Russian forces. The Russians made only modest gains in their long offensive, failed in their efforts to force Ukraine to give up by destroying its energy infrastructure, suffered huge casualties and received no significant military aid from their allies. . Russia will soon face a serious Ukrainian counter-offensive, made possible by massive transfers of modern arms and ammunition from the West.
Depending on how the conflict unfolds over the summer, Putin might find a ceasefire an attractive option, but he will look to China to broker it. In this case, it will be up to the United States to ensure Ukrainian cooperation. Washington is well placed to open a channel to Beijing so that the two countries can synchronize ceasefire efforts when the time comes. But even if the United States and Ukraine reject a ceasefire in the short or medium term, it will become necessary at some point. As Fred Ikle, the great diplomat and international relations theorist, observed: All wars must end.https://thehill.com/policy/national-security/3890382-china-ranks-atop-worldwide-threats-us-intelligence-chiefs-tell-lawmakers/.” rel=”footnote”>8 Indeed, it could be torpedoed by domestic politics, divisions within the US government or by Beijing. But Washington should not be deterred from trying. Diplomacy involves probing an adversary’s intentions and testing avenues for mutual accommodation. It’s an attribute of wise statecraft, not strategic weakness.
The United States has long cherished the role of global peacemaker, but has rarely fulfilled it with much success. China’s ambitions may hurt US geopolitical pride, but that’s no reason to resist harnessing them to US advantage to advance stability in the Middle East and peace in Ukraine. .
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