By He Jun
China’s foreign policy is capsulized in what it calls the “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence,” i.e., mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, non-aggression, non-interference in internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence. These principles were established in the 1950s and have been upheld by later leaders. Being the cornerstone of China’s foreign policy, they are now accepted by many countries and reflected in numerous bilateral and multilateral agreements.
With the development of its economy, economic cooperation has become increasingly important, and China has followed the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence in its foreign economic cooperation, without attaching political conditions to its economic partnerships. Because of this, some foreign media have viewed China’s diplomatic style as only focusing on economic matters and ignoring politics.
In recent years, China has taken a more proactive approach to its foreign policy, while still adhering to the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence. While it remains committed to these principles, the country has pursued greater achievements in its foreign relations, representing a more assertive posture compared to the past.
There are two examples to illustrate this point.
First, China promoted talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which led to a peace agreement. On March 10, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and China issued a joint statement in Beijing, which was a declaration of peace. Under the mediation of China, the two Middle Eastern countries with long-standing hostility agreed to sign a peace agreement, restore diplomatic relations, and discuss the exchange of ambassadors. The latest progress is that Saudi King Salman wrote a letter to Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi. According to a tweet from Mohammad Jamshidi, the Iranian president’s deputy chief of staff for political affairs, the Saudi monarch “welcomed the deal between the two brotherly countries (and) invited him (i.e., the Iranian President) to Riyadh”. Raisi gladly accepted the invitation and emphasized that Iran is willing to strengthen cooperation with Saudi Arabia.
The shift of Saudi Arabia and Iran towards peaceful coexistence in the Middle East has had a significant positive impact on the local geopolitical environment. Encouraged by the historic reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Beijing, the relationship between Iran and Bahrain is also thawing. The two Middle Eastern countries that had once severed diplomatic ties will soon open embassies. In addition, on the other side of the Middle East, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi will hold a meeting, marking the end of the 10-year estrangement period between the two countries. The improvement of Iran’s relations with Arab countries also has a positive impact on the situation in Yemen, where the civil war there could potentially come to an end.
Amid the significant changes happening in the Middle East, China has played an important role in mediation and peace promotion. According to media such as the Wall Street Journal, during President Xi Jinping’s visit to Saudi Arabia in December 2022, he proposed talks between Iran and Saudi leaders. China also made a similar proposal to the Iranian government and expressed its willingness to provide an environment and convenience for this purpose. Both sides accepted China’s proposals and invitation, and some negotiations were held in China, ultimately resulting in the trilateral declaration in March of this year. Surprisingly, this important diplomatic action involving changes in the Middle East’s geopolitical landscape was well kept secret, at least at the media level, with Western media unaware of the progress.
Public opinion in the West expressed surprise about Saudi Arabia and Iran’s move towards peace. In the opinion piece “How China is heralding the beginnings of a multipolar Middle East” [published in the Washington Post on March 16, there are quotes from Henry Kissinger’s words on China’s facilitation of the resumption of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Kissinger believed that this is a “substantial change in the strategic situation in the Middle East”. Kissinger added that, over the longer run, Beijing’s emergence as a peacemaker “changes the terms of reference in international diplomacy”. He sees that as China declared that it needs to be a participant in the creation of the world order in recent years, the country “has now made a significant move in that direction”. On the other hand, Israel, which has significant geopolitical relations with the Middle East and is antagonistic toward Iran, expressed disappointment with the resumption of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Its media consider it to be a significant failure in Israel’s diplomacy.
Secondly, China’s stance towards the war in Ukraine has attracted attention from different parties, including Russia, Ukraine, and the West. On February 24 this year, China outlined 12 principles that demonstrate its commitment to promoting peace talks for the Russia-Ukraine war. While the announcement was met with varying opinions, it showed China’s basic attitude and ideas toward a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Russia has expressed its desire to negotiate under the current situation to establish a strategic security buffer zone in Ukraine, while Ukraine insists on driving Russian troops out of all war-torn territories, including Crimea. The West, led by the United States, has expressed its opposition to stopping the war, as it believes that it would benefit Russia and that the American geopolitical interests have not been fully realized.
Under such circumstances, according to researchers at ANBOUND, while China’s call for peace may seem difficult to achieve in the short term, it still has profound and far-reaching implications, that it provides another peaceful option for the Ukrainian issue.
With the war in Ukraine continuing for over a year and at a stalemate, persisting on continuing the war would lead to a lose-lose outcome. If the war drags on, more Ukrainian civilians would suffer and be displaced, and Russia would also pay a heavy price. For the West, Europe would be dragged into the war and its economy severely impacted. Moreover, the burden of providing military aid to Ukraine would increasingly fall on the United States, creating a drag on its economy and development.
Therefore, a peaceful solution must be pursued to end the human tragedy of the conflict. Although challenging, it is a direction that China has been advocating, namely, to persuade and facilitate negotiations toward peace. While every war has an end, peaceful negotiations are the only way to resolve conflicts sustainably. By proposing and persisting in a peaceful resolution, China demonstrates a proactive and positive stance in its foreign diplomacy towards international public affairs. Ultimately, it is through these efforts that the world will eventually move toward a path of lasting peace.
President Xi Jinping is currently visiting Russia and is expected to discuss the resolution of the Ukraine crisis with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Reuters previously reported that after the visit to Russia, Xi will also communicate with Ukrainian President Zelenskyy (possibly via video call). If this report is true, it will once again demonstrate China’s stance and action of advocating peace and promoting dialogue in the Ukraine crisis, which is also a manifestation of its positive attitude toward peace in diplomacy.
Whether it is mediating and promoting a peace agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, expressing political statements to promote peace in the Ukraine conflict, or communicating with the leaders of Russia and Ukraine, it can be seen that China is making adjustments in its diplomacy and moving towards a more proactive direction. As it stands, China has become increasingly unable to avoid the growing demands from the international community, and the world will require China to shoulder more responsibilities. Its recent diplomatic actions, which are dominated by peace, are a concrete manifestation of its participation in the international community.
China’s recent adjustment of diplomatic strategy and actions reflects its need to improve its environment for survival and development. In a world dominated by geopolitics, the West led by the United States has systematically contained, sanctioned, and suppressed China, and pushed for decoupling in various fields, including the economy, technology, and finance. In the aftermath of the Ukraine conflict, the United States and the West are promoting “NATO-ization” in the Asia-Pacific region and seeking to contain China in partnership with their Asian allies. In this context, China’s actions to adjust its diplomatic strategy are even more significant. For instance, mediating between Saudi Arabia and Iran was an unexpected diplomatic move by China. By engaging in such a diplomatic move in the Middle Eastern geopolitical landscape that has traditionally been controlled by the United States, China demonstrated its willingness to take on the role of a major global power and assume greater international responsibilities.
Final analysis conclusion:
While pursuing a diplomatic policy of peace, China has also expanded its geopolitical and diplomatic space through proactive thinking and actions. Such change, in terms of global geopolitics, is of great significance.
He Jun is a researcher at ANBOUND