China, a ‘want-to-be’ superpower

Other than dangling a cheque book, Beijing seems risk averse and has few answers to long-standing geopolitical flashpoints

March 26, 2024 01:33 am | Updated 01:14 pm IST

‘China seems content with predominantly displacing American hegemony without replacing it’

‘China seems content with predominantly displacing American hegemony without replacing it’ | Photo Credit: AP

The first anniversary of the China-brokered détente between Saudi Arabia and Iran in March 2023 passed without much fanfare. The war in Gaza has enveloped almost all regional political and diplomatic capacities across the Persian Gulf, while also highlighting international actors and their core interests amidst this fallout. Beijing has taken a position that is clearly pro-Palestine, in line with its historical standing on the issue, alienating its relations with Israel.

However, in China’s state-controlled media, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s success in bringing together Riyadh and Tehran was highlighted as an institutional Chinese position to promote peace. In a glowing piece on the anniversary which quoted regional analysts who underscored a sense of fatigue with the West’s ‘conditional’ relations, the Chinese media outlet Xinhua said, “Today, China’s advocacy for peace still resonates with Middle East countries.”

Beijing’s aims

In early 2023, Wang Yi (director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee) gave his endorsement to a plan to set up a new China-backed international mediation organisation headquartered in Hong Kong. According to reports, Algeria, Belarus, Cambodia, Djibouti, Indonesia, Laos, Pakistan, Serbia and Sudan were signatories to the initial statement as a preparatory office was launched. The Chinese establishment hopes to link the mediation initiative to its expansive economic corridor, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI has extensive membership in West Asia as well, with Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE among others being part of China’s economic highways. Israel, being heavily reliant on the United States for its security, is not a signatory. However, Israel’s embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu aired the fact last year that China had invited him for a state visit.

China’s absence in the Red Sea crisis

The war in Gaza has drawn strong red lines between China and Israel. This raises interesting questions on the exact role Beijing played in the Saudi-Iran détente. The probability of China being pulled into the process by Riyadh and Tehran, rather than actively brokering a deal, remains high. China has also been absent through the crisis in the Red Sea, where predominantly western naval forces have attempted to maintain the free flow of trade in this critical waterway. Contrarily, reports have suggested that Yemen-based Houthis were not targeting Chinese and Russian ships, suggesting a bypass potentially using leverages that Beijing has with its close partner Iran despite Tehran’s calls for the Yemeni militia to cease attacks. If so, it shows China’s crafty diplomacy was to predominantly protect its own interests and not wade into the crisis as an influential power looking to use its position to broker peace or even a ceasefire. Much of this kind of actual heavy lifting remains at the doorsteps of the White House.

This then begs the question. What is China’s actual role in the more challenging geopolitical regions such as West Asia? Beijing’s support for the Palestinian cause without criticising Hamas practically aligns with the larger Arab posture. This stands against U.S. support for Israel, which is increasingly being criticised for its absolutist nature as the body count in Gaza continues to grow. China’s intent for ‘mediation’ is non-existent in high-stake conflicts and is un-aspirational beyond the strategic aim of showcasing western, and, more specifically, American power and influence, as detrimental to both international stability and security.

A push towards ‘mediation diplomacy’ has been an aspirational design for China on two major fronts. First, it is to position itself as an antithesis to what Beijing sees as decades worth of western interventionist policies, specifically in a region such as West Asia, where conflict has direct correlation with colonial history. Second, it is to increase its own geopolitical weight as a responsible international actor and power. However, both these aims have been confronted by realities around the war in Gaza as China has taken a clear stance towards the Arab side and has not condemned Hamas by name. Much of the reasoning behind this is to counter long-standing American influence and to take advantage of crevasses in regional diplomacy, specifically by the likes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which are looking to chart their own paths of strategic autonomy and willing to partner with Beijing despite having close security ties with Washington DC.

In perspective

China seems content with predominantly displacing American hegemony without replacing it. Even a perception of being a ‘soft hegemon’ in the region will stand starkly against Chinese grandstanding against western policies. This is despite the fact that Beijing utilised the ‘war on terror’-era to build closer ties with the U.S. and benefit its own security concerns regarding radicalisation and terrorism narratives around its restive Xinjiang region. But once again, these were all narrow geostrategic aims. Scholars Sheena Chestnut Greitens and Isaac Kardon have highlighted in their work on how China, for its partner states, is more about their internal security rather than external — that is, prioritising political security of regimes rather than states. Arguably, this could appropriately explain what formalised Chinese mediation would aim for.

The war in Gaza colours Beijing as still being a ‘want-to-be’ superpower. Being risk averse and having a lack of alternatives to the historical West-centric policies (which it chides as being detrimental to global security and prosperity) makes Beijing stand out as hollow. Other than offering a sizeable cheque book, China still has few answers as substitutes to long-standing geopolitical flashpoints. For now, despite its size, it remains a utilitarian superpower for others to hedge against rather than being an upcoming traditional superpower.

Kabir Taneja is Fellow, Strategic Studies Programme, Observer Research Foundation

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