China Politics

For years, China shied away from global conflicts. Not anymore

Key Points
  • Chinese President Xi Jinping will be visiting Senegal, Rwanda and South Africa in the coming days.
  • As Beijing increasingly presents itself as a mediator in political conflicts, China's influence on the continent could grow.
  • Africa is home to massive Chinese investments and the country's first overseas military base.
Djiboutian people hold China's national flag before the launching ceremony of a new housing contruction project in Djibouti, on July 4, 2018. The new project is financially supported by China Merchants Group.

As the world's second largest economy invests billions in continent-spanning infrastructure projects, it's building a stronger diplomatic voice to match its ever-expanding presence on the global stage.

Across the developing world, Beijing has been engaging in mediation diplomacy — a style of conflict resolution where it's the sole or principal moderator — to protect its assets and gain recognition as a respectable superpower.

Africa, where Chinese President Xi Jinping will be touring in the coming days, has long been a training ground for Chinese peace efforts. In 2007, Beijing appointed its first-ever special representative to genocide-hit Darfur to help achieve a political settlement. And in 2015, Chinese officials brought together South Sudan’s warring parties for negotiations. Just this week, the communist state offered to mediate in a border dispute between Eritrea and Djibouti, the latter of which is home to China's first overseas military base.

Assuming the role of mediator could increase Beijing's influence in nations home to Chinese investments, such as Senegal, Rwanda and South Africa where Xi will soon be visiting.

"Being seen as a mediator in regional disputes can only help burnish China’s image," said researchers at the China Africa Research Initiative, a program at Johns Hopkins University. And in Africa, where Xi's administration has established greater military links, it's essential for Beijing to protect the stability of countries where China has economic interests, they added.

In fact, many speculate that it was China's concerns over its investments in Zimbabwe that resulted in the coup that ousted former leader Robert Mugabe in November of last year — a charge that Xi's administration has denied.

The Middle East's role in China's Belt and Road
The Middle East's role in China's Belt and Road

According to Xi's vision of a "community of common destiny," a phrase he repeatedly uses in speeches, "China’s growth and prosperity becomes a part of the experience of all these other countries," the researchers said, adding that such a line of thinking "can also be interpreted as a type of foreign policy or growing political influence."

It's a new development in China's traditional diplomatic protocol. Since 1954, the Asian giant has said it practices mutual non-aggression and non-interference in the internal affairs of others. But the nation's political ambitions have swelled considerably under Xi's reign, and that's led to a change of approach. With Chinese commercial and economic ventures now spanning the globe under the Belt and Road Initiative, Xi's government is intensifying efforts to secure Chinese workers and interests abroad.

In 2017, Beijing hosted a meeting with the foreign ministers of Afghanistan and Pakistan to end terrorism-related hostilities between the two as Xi sought to incorporate Kabul into his $57 billion economic corridor with Islamabad. Last year also saw Xi raise the possibility of three-way talks with Israel and Palestine. He's also proposed a peace plan for ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, which is home to a special economic zone being built by a China-led consortium.

But China's attempts at brokering peace may be fundamentally limited. Its primary goal is a stable atmosphere for its global investment, so it is likely unwilling to enforce outcomes or apply pressure, strategists said.

“China will actively explore a way of resolving hotspot issues with Chinese characteristics and play a bigger and more constructive role in upholding world stability," Foreign Minister Wang Yi said at last October's 19th Party Congress.

A willingness to provide solutions with "Chinese characteristics" is significant, Angela Stanzel, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations' Asia division, wrote in a brief last week: "The implication behind this offer is that China is better placed to resolve regional and global problems than other countries, particularly the U.S."

The Asian heavyweight may be seeking to demonstrate that, unlike Western countries, it doesn't differentiate between democracies and dictators, Stanzel suggested.