It has been a hectic two weeks for Beijing diplomacy. President Xi Jinping accompanied his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, on a three-day visit to the capital and southern metropolis of Guangzhou, before receiving Ursula von der Leyen and a few days later the Brazilian Lula.
Fleeing, albeit briefly, the fierce protests against pension reform in his country, Macron was greeted by adoring and electrified crowds. Between grand receptions and tea ceremonies, the two leaders oversaw a series of major deals between French firms and Chinese state-owned companies. Macron offered Xi the public perception he was looking for: a clear warning to the United States – which Xi addressed indirectly as the tyrannical “third party” – of the effective distance between its aggressive stance towards China and the more ambiguous than many European countries. On the other hand, it is not clear what Xi has offered Macron on a political level: the French president has invited his Chinese counterpart to bring Russia “to its senses” regarding the invasion of Ukraine, but the request was met with formulas of rite with few clear indications on where the balance of the conflict is tipping and, despite Europe’s begging, Xi has not yet made any definitive commitment to speak with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
During his visit to China, Macron was joined by Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission. The tone of the messages sent by the two leaders, however, was discrepant: von der Leyen complained of Beijing’s “unfair practices”, especially on trade, and traveled to the country after giving a tough speech on the authoritarian challenge imposed by the CCP . Macron, for his part, warned the West not to enter a “spiral of tensions with no way out” with China.
Chinese commentators commented on the statement arguing that the historical roles have changed and that Macron now recognizes the enormous weight and importance of the Chinese economy, even more so in a phase where the tenant of the Elysée is trying to promote a more solid version independent governance of Europe and to exercise its soft power over global governance.
During Macron’s visit, there was another important summit in Beijing. The foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, and Iran, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian – the two rival powers in the Middle East – held the first meeting at the highest level between the two countries in over seven years in the Chinese capital. while in Washington a group of bewildered regional experts watched as China played the role of external stabilizing power in the Gulf.
However, the thawing of relations between Riyadh and Teheran, which took a long time, is not due so much to Beijing’s intervention as to a convergence of interests. As the Washington Post writes, «Iran, hit by Western sanctions and committed to repressing the internal protest movement, is trying to loosen the links of its global and regional isolation; Saudi Arabia, whose security and – as a result – plans to diversify the kingdom’s economy away from oil are threatened by Iran, is also aiming to ease tensions in the region – a strategy which has included seeking alliances with global powers outside the United States”.
Whichever way you look at it, the decline in American influence is evident, particularly over the Saudis. As Anna Jacobs, Gulf analyst for the International Crisis Group, wrote in the New York Times, “many experts still believe that whoever occupies the White House will lead Saudi policy in Iran, but this thesis is simply no longer reliable today.”
Xi’s China, on the other hand, is an unstoppable economic force and is starting to flex its geopolitical muscles. “In recent years, China has declared its willingness to participate in the creation of a new world order,” said former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger recently. “And it’s taking significant steps in that direction.”
The contours of China’s supposed new world order are still difficult to draw. We know of his vast economic ambitions, including the BRI initiative, where the country has invested in major infrastructure projects around the world. But in recent weeks, Xi has touted new initiatives on “security” and “civilization” — political statements that are vacuous but ultimately aim to undermine the architecture of a US-led world order, as well as the concept of universal values. “It looks like a counter-argument to President Biden’s autocracy versus the democratic narrative,” writes Moritz Rudolf, an academic at the Yale School Paul Tsai China Center in the Financial Times. “It is an ideological battle that attracts developing countries more than Washington wants to believe.”
The visit of Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, received with great pomp on 13 and 14 April by Xi Jinping in Beijing, also fits into this context. Accompanied by 240 business executives and nearly 40 senior officials – the largest delegation in his three terms – Lula accused the United States and Europe of “encouraging war” urging them to “start talking about peace”. The tenor of his statements provoked a reaction from the White House, according to which in substance and rhetoric, Brazil has hinted that the US and Europe are responsible for the ongoing war and are not interested in peace. “If this is the case,” Security Council spokesman John Kirby told the press, “Brazil is aping Russian and Chinese propaganda without being interested in reality.”
On all fronts
Above all, for some analysts Macron’s visit is a reminder of the challenges that await Europe. While the war in Ukraine and antipathy towards Russia have galvanized the transatlantic alliance, investment and trade with Beijing are increasingly vital to Europe’s future prospects. What that means for the grim projections haunting Washington policymakers — including the possibility of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan in the future — remains an open question.
“The paradox would be that, overcome by panic, we think we have to follow the United States,” Macron said during his visit. «The question that Europeans must answer is: do we need to accelerate the Taiwan crisis? No. The worst thing would be to think that we Europeans must be someone’s followers. “What happens in Europe now – not just regarding the outcome of this war in Ukraine, but how Europeans will handle their relationship with China in the future – will shape the future transatlantic relationship,” said Andrew Mitcha, researcher senior at the Atlantic Council. “And Europe’s choices, as regards its policies with China, will have an enormous influence on the competition of the USA with the latter also as regards other scenarios”.
Yet, as Chris Murphy, head of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, explained in Politico, «not all aspects of US-China relations have to be resolved in a zero-sum game. I see no disadvantage, say, in easing tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran.”
A new world order defined – or heavily sculpted – by Beijing’s one-party regime is not an attractive prospect for many countries. As the Economist writes, China is an aspiring superpower trying to exert its influence without having earned any sympathy, a power without trust with a global vision devoid of universal human rights. But, as is the case with the Middle East, its greater influence on the world stage need not always ring alarm bells.