One China, three foreign policy faces

China has a changing attitude to the thornier diplomatic and security crises now afflicting the Asian continent. Depending on the amount of national interest at play and the power it can reasonably project in the relevant geopolitical chessboards, Beijing can put on the face of peace facilitator in Syria, peace broker in Afghanistan and would-be boss in the Western Pacific.

While the main driver for the Chinese diplomacy in the Middle East is the protection of economic interests, the assertion of national sovereignty, combined with the aspiration to become the driving force in East Asia, mostly explains China’s moves in the East and South China seas. The rationale for Beijing’s posturing in Central Asia is instead more nuanced. The region is in fact a crossroads for many stakeholders; here China is committed to safeguarding precious economic assets and, at the same time, exerting some form of power.

In an osmotic way, all of these three approaches are conditioned by China’s interaction with the other great powers – the United States and Russia.

As for Syria, China basically lets Moscow and Washington manage the crisis. The Middle East is still a distant geopolitical reality for Beijing. The foreign policy means that the Chinese dragon can deploy there are important but in no way comparable to the White House’s and Kremlin’s.

On January 6, China’s Special Envoy for Syria Xie Xiaoyan stressed that his government would send a delegation to the January 23 peace talks in Astana between the Syrian government and a number of opposition groups. Amid a fragile cessation of hostilities mediated by Russia, Iran and Turkey, the meeting in Kazakhstan’s capital city should help put an end to the bloody conflict that has been ravaging the Middle Eastern country since 2011, even if its chances of success are not high, given the absence of the US, Persian Gulf monarchies and Kurds.

Beijing has taken a back seat in the drive to solve the Syrian conundrum; a process that now appears dominated by Russia, as the US is grappling with a tumultuous presidential transition from Barack Obama to Donald Trump. Despite its diplomatic efforts and humanitarian assistance, China’s cautious approach to the Syrian crisis resembles that in the July 2015 negotiations to limit the Iranian nuclear activities, when Beijing successfully worked behind the scenes to facilitate the conclusion of an agreement.

China is keen that a way forward to the crisis in Syria is found anytime soon, be it the expression of a push by a resurgent Russia, a revived US or the result of a compromise between them.

Shifting from the western to the eastern edge of Asia, the geopolitical landscape changes a whole lot. China’s quest for becoming the preeminent regional force to the detriment of America is now an indisputable fact. Trump’s hard rhetoric against Beijing’s trade policy and claims over the South China Sea is persuading many within theChinese diplomatic and security establishment that Obama’s pivot/rebalancing to Asia-Pacific will soon be turned into The Donald’s encirclement/containment of China.

That will mean a more confrontational relationship between Beijing and Washington, as the former will probably try to pre-empt any American step to strengthen regional alliances and partnerships. The financial and trade leverages remain Beijing’s best tools to hold neighbors bound to its agenda. In this sense, China’s economic diplomacy is actively at work, notably in setting up a huge Asian free trade area reflecting Chinese needs and positions.

Following its economic rise, China has reached out to what Russia views as its post-Soviet backyard. Central Asia is now a sort of “middle-earth” in the Sino-Russian relations, with Moscow working as the security provider and Beijing as the financial and economic backer. However, this power-sharing formula could not serve any longer the Chinese strategic interest. The implementation of the new Silk Road strategy to create a Eurasia-wide trade network has indeed raised Beijing’s stakes in the area, leading to a more assertive diplomatic presence by the Chinese government.

The bottom line is that China is proving able to display three different faces for being a protagonist in three sensitive Asian flash points at once. Time will tell if this multifaceted conduct bears the fruits Beijing hopes for or ends up in foreign policy over-extension.

Full article: One China, three foreign policy faces (Asia Times)

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