Is China an Effective Mediator on all Fronts?

13 décembre 2023
Le point de vue de Emmanuel Lincot

Facilitator of COP28, mediator in the Hamas-Israel and Russia-Ukraine conflicts, maintaining dialogue in Afghanistan by appointing an ambassador… China is now presenting itself as an international mediator at the centre of the geopolitical chessboard. What economic and geopolitical strategy is China pursuing as it asserts its role as a mediator on the international stage? Does its rise in power reflect a weakening of the diplomatic position of the United States and the West? Emmanuel Lincot, professor at the Paris Catholic Institute, sinologist, associate research fellow at IRIS and author of « Le très grand jeu : Pékin, face à l’Asie centrale », published by Cerf, takes stock of the situation.

While China is the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, it is playing the role of facilitator in the COP28 negotiations, in particular to reach an agreement on phasing out fossil fuels. How and why is China positioning itself as a key player in the ecological transition? Could this position influence those of other countries, such as India, which has declared that it will not reduce its use of coal?

China is certainly part of the answer to the general problem of pollution, but certainly not the solution. It should be remembered that despite substantial efforts towards a green economy, the threshold for which should officially be reached in 2060, China is still the biggest consumer of fossil fuels, and of coal in particular, from which it obtains 60% of its energy. However, this is a sign that China is obviously staying in the race by being a force to be reckoned with and by challenging the West in the crucial area of mastering low-carbon technologies. This control presupposes a total monopoly of the production chain. This is obvious in the manufacture of electric motors, which requires control of lithium mining and the imposition of standards, particularly those ultimately intended for export. And it is precisely because the Chinese State-Party has made a massive commitment to this investment that it is pushing its companies to change paradigms in their turn. This does not bode well for oil producers or India, but it is a way of widening the gap between China and its competitors.

On 13 December, China became the first country to officially appoint a new ambassador to Afghanistan since the Taliban took power. With Afghanistan at the heart of the « New Silk Roads » strategy, what is at stake in China’s presence in this part of the world? Even if China has not diplomatically recognised the Taliban regime, what geopolitical impact could this decision have?

The catastrophic departure of the Americans from Kabul in August 2021 has been of great benefit in strengthening China’s presence in Afghanistan. It is a country that China knows well. Firstly, because it is a neighbour and secondly because, along with Uzbekistan, it is the keystone of the whole of Central Asia. It is absolutely essential to secure it in order to perpetuate the « New Silk Roads » project and create a continuum with the Middle East in the rail and digital sectors. Hence the accreditation of an ambassador sent by the Taliban regime to Beijing. This is not unprecedented, since China, like Pakistan, recognised the first Taliban government in the 1990s. And at a time when, ten years earlier, Afghanistan was facing a Soviet invasion, China, like the CIA, was helping the Mujahideen in their fight against the Red Army.In addition to the security aspects, this interest is driven by a desire to eradicate terrorist groups affiliated to Daech and al-Qaeda, whose main resources are based on drug trafficking. For China, the drugs issue echoes the Opium Wars of the 19th century. It is not only synonymous with trauma, but also with the collapse of the last imperial dynasty, the Qing (1644-1911).In other words, Beijing is taking political developments in the region very seriously.Its economic commitment is accompanied by multilateral diplomatic initiatives through the all-important Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which is now the second most important international body after the UN.

After proposing a peace plan for a « political settlement of the Ukrainian crisis » in February 2023, China now aspires to play a mediating role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What strategy is China pursuing in asserting its role as mediator on the international stage? Does its growing power reflect a weakening of the diplomatic position of the United States and the West?

First of all, it has successfully demonstrated its ability to offer its good offices in resolving the conflict in Yemen between Tehran and Riyadh.This success is linked to a rallying of partners who were previously antagonistic to the « New Silk Roads » project.For them, there is more to be gained by cooperating, why not under the aegis of China, in the reconstruction of the Near and Middle East.China’s proposals are attractive for their economic opportunities, while the West is above all present in the strategic field, which the Arab states have no intention of abandoning. In short, it is a question of creating an alternative to the West, both in terms of discourse and economic exchanges, by constantly asserting itself as a peace mediator while playing the card that will enable it to unite this coveted global South around itself. Not surprisingly, it supports the Palestinians without alienating Israel, which remains a major partner in the high-tech sector. The most important thing for her is to create a sufficiently peaceful context in which to develop her economic projects, and to do this she adopts an inclusive diplomacy. Its approach does not take into account the culturalist prejudices that are widely held in France, particularly in diplomatic and academic circles, according to which Shiites and Sunnis are the subject of an absolute divide. China, on the other hand, takes a much more pragmatic approach to understanding situations.It has refused to describe Hamas as « terrorist ».Doubtless so as not to insult the future, but also so as not to fall prey to criticism from India, which accuses it of supporting Islamist factions from Pakistan that New Delhi condemns for their terrorist acts.In other words, China has not finished surprising us.It turns up where we least expect it.Its strength: cultivating a form of permanent decoincidence.


Translated by Deepl.
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