Chinese flag waves in front of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, October 29, 2015.  REUTERS/Jason Lee
Chinese flag waves in front of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, October 29, 2015. REUTERS/Jason Lee

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 the Chinese 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.

No compromise is contemplated by Chinese leaders for the country’s role in East Asia, where it must be the main actor, in a scenario in which Washington’s clout has to be downgraded but, for the sake of the regional balance of power, not completely eliminated.

Afghanistan remains an intricate diplomatic arena for the Chinese leadership. The Central Asian country, which borders China’s restive Xinjiang region, has been an unstable US protectorate since 2011, when Washington waged a war against the ruling Taliban regime to flush out Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda acolytes after the 9/11 attacks. Besides protecting mining and infrastructure interests, China needs to prevent any terrorist spillover from Afghanistan, as Muslim Uighurs – a Turkic minority inhabiting Xinjiang – fill the ranks of militant groups linked to Islamic State or al-Qaeda.

Russia hosted a meeting with China and Pakistan in late December to assess the security situation in Afghanistan, with a particular focus on the potential growth of IS’ influence there and its spread further across Central Asia. The trilateral encounter in Moscow aroused considerable resonance, as it appeared yet another attempt by Moscow to supplant Washington in the handling of an unsolved Asian crisis.

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.

With the help of Moscow or, alternatively, through the quadrilateral peace format including Washington, Islamabad and Kabul, the pacification of Afghanistan would in any event play in China’s hands in terms of regional power distribution, as Beijing could emerge there as the shadowy kingmaker.

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.

Emanuele Scimia

Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and foreign policy analyst. He has written for Asia Times since 2011. His articles have also appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, The National Interest, Deutsche Welle, World Politics Review and The Jerusalem Post, among others.

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