1st Oct 2023


What does China really want? Perhaps we could try asking

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On 10 March, surprising news made the headlines. Saudi Arabia and Iran made a deal to restore their diplomatic relations. The news itself was unexpected after decades of bitter rivalry between both countries.

Iran and Saudi Arabia have been fighting each other in proxy wars in Yemen and Syria and have tried to destabilise each other's country with all means possible. Therefore, the fact itself that both made an agreement to normalise their relationship was big news.

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  • 'Whatever the reasons are for the mutual distrust between China and Europe, there is one thing Europeans have to agree about: we don't know what China wants'

Perhaps even more surprising to the West was the fact that the deal was not brokered by the United States, or the European Union, but by the People's Republic of China. Since when was China mediating peace agreements, many wondered? Why did nobody notice that representatives of both Middle Eastern powers were actually in Beijing?

It is true that no Western country would have been able to broker this deal. The United States is still a sworn enemy of Iran. On top of it, former US president Donald Trump killed the nuclear deal that the US, the EU, Russia, China and the UN made with Iran. As negotiations on a new nuclear deal are not going very well, despite many efforts of the EU, Europeans were not even thinking of trying to help mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The Saudi side is also losing trust in the West. Saudi Arabia has noticed that the United States didn't want to react when Iranian rockets hit Saudi oil facilities in September 2019 and March 2022. The Saudi trust in US president Joe Biden also hit rock bottom when Biden announced in January 2023 that the US-Saudi relations should be re-evaluated.

China jumped into the gap that was left by the United States and Europe in the heart of the Middle East.

Xi in Russia

When the Chinese president Xi Jinping arrived in Moscow on 20 April 2023, nobody knew what to expect. Would Xi support Russia's president Vladimir Putin? Would he promise to deliver arms? In other words, how much would China take the side of Russia?

Most analysts were left confused. Xi certainly did not condemn Russia's invasion, and he definitely underlined his friendship with Putin. However, between all diplomatic lines, Xi clearly took no side in the conflict.

On the contrary, China came with a kind of peace plan, or rather a plan for a way towards peace. Many in the West reacted with cynicism to the plan — mostly because it didn't ask Russia in clear terms to leave Ukraine.

The question is if, in this Ukraine conflict, China might actually best be placed to mediate peace? Russia cannot afford to lose China's partnership. The Kremlin will have to go along with what China will propose, at least up to a certain level. The West on the other hand cannot broker peace either as it is deeply involved on the Ukrainian side.

That leaves us with the question what China really wants? Does it want to show that the US is not in the driver's seat anymore? Does China want to underline its peacefulness to avoid a conflict with the West over Taiwan? Or has Beijing decided that the time has come to finally play its role as a political superpower?

Talking with China

One senior European diplomat told me a few months ago that Europe is talking a lot about China, but that it is hardly talking with China.

There is the European distrust towards Chinese companies like Huawei and TikTok. Few Europeans believed that China's Belt and Road Initiative was a genuine effort to reinstall the old Silk Road and reconnect the world. It is, on the contrary, seen as a way for China to get more resources, faster, to its country — while making other countries dependent.

On the Chinese side there also exists a historical distrust towards Europe. The era from the first Opium War in 1839 until the foundation in 1949 of the People's Republic of China by Mao Zedong is called the "Century of Humiliation". When you read the history of that century, the Chinese do have some reasons to be resentful about the West's efforts to weaken and divide the country.

Whatever the reasons are for the mutual distrust between China and Europe, there is one thing Europeans can agree about: we don't know what China wants.

For sure, China isn't a liberal democracy and what the country is doing to the Uyghurs is unacceptable.

Nevertheless, in the tribal, fragile and polarised world of today, it seems better to do more efforts to find out what China wants. In order to find out, it might be better to start talking to China, instead of only discussing it.

Author bio

Koert Debeuf is distinguished adjunct professor at the Vrije Universiteit Brussels and president of the board of EUobserver.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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