This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s ongoing visit to Russia forms part of a bid by Beijing to rebrand China’s international image and reshape the international community along authoritarian lines, commentators told Radio Free Asia in recent interviews and broadcasts.
Xi will have an “in-depth exchange of views” with Putin on major international and regional issues of mutual interest, with a view to boosting strategic coordination and practical cooperation, China’s foreign ministry said of the current trip, during which the two leaders will sign a declaration that their relationship is entering “a new era,” a reference to a favored Xi buzzword.
The trip comes as Xi emerges victorious from a lengthy power struggle for sole control of the levers of party, military and state, which saw him approved for an indefinite third term in office as party leader at the party congress in October 2022 and at the annual National People’s Congress session in Beijing earlier this month.
Xi is now free to steer Chinese diplomacy into his new era, which he says will be “a shared future for humanity,” a phrase analysts say means Beijing will be looking to forge stronger alliances with other authoritarian regimes to counter “U.S. hegemony” and export China’s model of party-state governance around the world.
New role as mediator
Tuvia Gering, a non-resident fellow at the Global China Hub of the Atlantic Council, said China’s foreign policy in recent decades has typically focused on following other countries’ lead, or facilitating international arrangements, rather than projecting it as a global power for other nations to follow.
“In the mediation of regional conflicts, China tends to play the role of follower [or] facilitator rather than leader,” Gering said. “This time it is surprising that China not only leads but also successfully mediates international disputes without the presence of the United States.”
He was referring to Xi Jinping’s visit to Saudi Arabia last December where he met with all Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, swiftly followed by a visit to Beijing by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, followed by a March 10 trilateral statement from Saudi Arabia, Iran and China announcing that Riyadh and Tehran would resume diplomatic relations.
“This is a clear success for Beijing — its first in the troubled Middle East region — and it could be followed by others,” columnist Marco Carnelos wrote in the March 17 edition of Middle East Eye.
Given that China is planning an unprecedented high-level meeting between Arab monarchs and Iranian officials in Beijing later this year, Carnelos wrote, “it would be difficult to imagine a bigger slap in the face to U.S. Middle Eastern diplomacy.”
China’s English-language nationalist tabloid, the Global Times, said the agreement was “another proof that unipolarity no longer exists and that we are already in a de facto multipolar world order.”
“The Middle East and the world are not only in a post-America order, but also in a post-West order,” the paper said.
But while the agreement seems like a public relations coup for Beijing, Gering said Saudi and Iran already had plenty of motivation to reach an agreement on their own, and the resumption of ties had followed years of low-level dialogue between the two governments.
He said brokering the final deal was a “low-risk” strategy for China, which had simply picked the right moment to intervene, and dismissed Beijing’s 12-point peace plan for Ukraine as “ridiculous.”
“Just like in the Middle East, China actually doesn’t want to replace the United States because it doesn’t want to get its hands dirty,” Gerin said. “In such conflicts, [China] first considers whether it can benefit from them with very low risk as it did with the Iran-Saudi Agreement.”
Aspiring global actor and standard-setter
Moritz Rudolf, fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center, said he believes China is also trying to become a serious global actor and standard-setter, however.
“As the U.S. enters the presidential election season, I think we wouldn’t be surprised to see a lot more engagement with China in just the next two years,” Rudolf said.
“From the Chinese perspective, their foreign policy direction appears to be looking towards the global south, with attempts to build coalitions with those countries and to use them in the pursuit of long-term goals, such as changing the international order,” he said.
“To me, there appears to be a real strategic goal to shape the global order through the use of the law.”
The use of international treaties, laws and other binding agreements to further Beijing’s policy goals will have a powerful side-effect, Rudolf predicted.
“Once China becomes a global actor, its legal system will also extend,” he said. “This is one of those issues that can fundamentally change how the world functions.”
“It’s an incremental process, and at some point, you wake up and realize that the global order has changed. The rules have become more Chinese, and the global order has become more Chinese as well,” he warned.
Veteran political commentator and former 1989 Tiananmen protest leader Wang Dan agreed, citing the Middle East agreement and Xi’s “global civilization initiative.”
“All of this shows us that Xi Jinping wants to become a world leader, and spread his ideology around the world,” Wang wrote in a recent commentary for RFA Mandarin, citing the Saudi-Iran agreement.
“But all of this is the stuff that is visible on the surface,” he added. “What the rest of the world also needs to look at is the way that Xi Jinping is targeting … [U.S. interests] in more secretive ways [around the world].”
Gering said further international posturing will likely follow from Beijing.
“I think we’re going to see China get more involved in the world stage,” he said. “Whenever there are opportunities [like the Iran-Saudi agreement] they will jump on it.”
According to Wang, one key indicator that China is exporting influence and power alongside the rhetoric lies in recent international arms sales data.
Central Command’s General Michael Kurilla told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 16 that China’s ability to move quickly on military sales in the Middle East and South Asia could have dire consequences, pointing to an 80% increase in Chinese military sales to the region over the past decade.
According to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the U.S. was the world’s top weapons exporter from 2018 to 2022, accounting for 40% of all arms exports. China ranked fourth, accounting for just over 5% of sales.
And China tripled its sales of weapons to sub-Saharan Africa between 2017 and 2020, with most of the weapons going to five nations that have signed up to Beijing’s Belt and Road infrastructure program.
Meanwhile, Russian entities received around 1,000 assault rifles, 12 tons of body armor, and drone parts from Chinese companies that could be used on the battlefield, since the war in Ukraine began in early 2022, Politico Europe reported last week.
“These goods weren’t handed over to Russia directly at the border, but arrived in Russia after passing through Turkey,” Wang wrote.
“China is of course doing this to evade supervision and sanctions from the international community, but Turkey and [other countries] are willing to cooperate actively, which shows us that China has made deep deployments in a traditional sphere of influence of the United States, actively wooing allies and queering the United States’ pitch,” he said.
“These new developments are very dangerous signals, not just for the United States, but for the whole world.” Wang warned.
“If Xi Jinping has made up his mind, in order to fight for world hegemony, for China’s global expansion, and to solve once and for all the containment from the United States on the Taiwan issue, he will not hesitate to combine the forces of Russia, Iran and North Korea to confront and clash with the United States head-on, or even upgrade the cold war into a hot war,” he said.
“This could pose a serious threat to world peace.”
Growing backlash following Ukraine invasion
For David Plášek, analyst at the European Values Center for Security Policy, there is also a growing backlash against communist and formerly communist countries, which he says stems directly from the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“Everyone [in Europe] knows that China is standing behind Russia,” Plášek said. “The Ukrainian war has greatly shocked Europeans. People’s feelings are very personal, with Ukrainian refugees pouring into every small town in Eastern European countries.”
He said the current situation has eroded public support for Russia in Eastern Europe.
“After the war, I would say less than 10% remain,” he said of Putin’s supporters. “The political landscape is undergoing enormous changes, which also affects people’s views on China.”
“In Eastern European countries such as the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, and Lithuania, people used to talk about China’s investments and job opportunities as important, but after a series of events, they have become aware of the danger of the Chinese Communist Party,” he said.
“China is aggressive in diplomacy, and Xi Jinping even reminds people of figures like Mao Zedong and Stalin,” he said.