MERICS China Security and Risk Tracker 02/2023 (2023)

Focus topic: The geopolitics of China’s mediation push

by Helena Legarda

China has positioned itself as a potentially credible international mediator by brokering the recent agreement for Saudi Arabia and Iran to restore their diplomatic relations.1It was only one of several such moves by Beijing over the last few weeks: China has offered to mediate in the Israel-Palestine conflict and reemphasized its wish to facilitate talks between Russia and Ukraine.2Beijing has also set up an International Mediation Organization in Hong Kong.

China is pushing its self-image as a peacemaker and a responsible global power. Beijing's recent moves may signal greater willingness to get involved in international mediation processes. However, European actors should be cautious about Beijing’s motivations and the likelihood it will take on sufficient responsibility or deliver outcomes. China’s current mediation push seems to be largely a reflection of its geopolitical competition with the United States and its ambition to expand its global influence at the expense of the West.3

China plays a greater role in international mediation, but with limited success

China is certainly playing a bigger role in foreign conflict mediation than ever before, but for now, its role remains limited and, in most cases, non-decisive.

Since 2018, Beijing has mediated or participated in multilateral conflict resolution efforts in at least four conflicts and has offered to mediate or facilitate talks in another four - a clear sign of its growing ambitions and involvement.4 From Afghanistan and Yemen to the Bangladesh-Myanmar conflict or the Horn of Africa, Beijing’s approach focuses mainly on high-profile mediation tools targeting top levels of government. These include host diplomacy (inviting the leaders of both sides to Beijing) and top-level visits by Chinese officials.

Although China claims to be a full mediator, its role has mostly been limited to dialogue facilitation. So far, the Chinese leadership has been reluctant to make concrete, original proposals for peace agreements in any of the conflicts it has become involved with. It has also held back from providing incentives that might encourage concessions, or from applying pressure when negotiations encounter obstacles.

Beijing’s role is still characterized by its late-stage involvement, its unwillingness to lead the process alone, and by grand gestures or offers with little concrete follow-up. Beijing’s offers are often made without prior consultation with all the conflict parties. China’s role in the successful reestablishment of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, for example, saw Beijing coming into the process at the very end, once it was clear that an agreement was possible. Prior to this, mediation had been conducted by other regional powers, including Iraq and Oman.5Beijing’s involvement was probably not the only deciding factor, even if it did bring the process to completion. But arriving at a late stage in the process enabled Beijing to claim responsibility for sealing the deal.

An additional obstacle to Beijing’s ambitions is that China's mediation approach tends to not follow international best practices: it often disregards concepts such as consent, impartiality, inclusivity and national ownership. Beijing often openly takes sides, making it difficult for all parties to accept its arbitration. In the conflict between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, China backed Addis Ababa.6 Its stance towards the Ukraine war remains largely pro-Russian. Beijing’s 12-point position paper on the Ukraine crisis was issued after more than a year without any contact between Ukraine and China’s leaders.7It was most likely drawn up in coordination only with Russia.

Beijing shows a clear ambition to get more involved in conflict resolution efforts and to be perceived internationally as a peacemaker, but also a degree of unwillingness – or inability – to overexpose itself to the risk of negotiations breaking down, or to enforce agreements once they are concluded.

Beijing’s mediation push is driven by geopolitical competition

China’s mediation ambitions go back to the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013. Beijing’s increased involvement in international conflict resolution was initially driven mostly by economic interests – which require stability in key regions – and its desire to project a positive international image.8

The economic rationale remains in place. Many of the conflicts that Beijing is mediating, or has offered to mediate, are in countries or regions along the BRI where it has economic interests. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia, for example, are key oil suppliers China needs to meet its growing energy needs. Instability in Afghanistan or Myanmar could affect key BRI corridors. And the Horn of Africa hosts China’s first and only overseas naval base in Djibouti and sits on a global shipping route. Hundreds of Chinese companies operate in the region.

But Beijing’s most recent moves seem more driven by geopolitical dynamics. Establishing itself as a global mediator is part of the application of the Global Security Initiative (GSI) that President Xi Jinping launched in 2022.9Beijing presents the GSI as a “Chinese solution to international security challenges” that is meant to lay the foundation for an alternative global security architecture. Tapping into global dissatisfaction with the continuing war in Ukraine, Beijing uses the GSI to present itself as a peaceful country that prioritizes dialogue and is a force for stability. Beijing’s official narrative contrasts its stance with the United States and other Western countries that, it says, provoked the conflict and are still “adding fuel to the fire”.

A more active role in conflict resolution could help Beijing promote this narrative and pursue three key objectives: (1) cultivate its own image as a peacemaker; (2) delegitimize the United States and other Western countries; (3) expand its influence across the Global South to build an alternative coalition of countries.

China’s decision to establish a new International Organization for Mediation (IOM) headquartered in Hong Kong shows how these three objectives interlink. Run by Beijing, the organization is built on Chinese concepts and principles, such as “mutual respect” or “win-win cooperation”. Its declared goal is to settle international disputes by peaceful means in order to “promote world peace, security and development”. Claiming leadership in these efforts will allow Beijing to burnish its own image.

China is not the only country involved in the IOM. The joint declaration on the body’s establishment included other signatories, such as Indonesia, Pakistan, Cambodia, Belarus or Algeria.10 The details of their involvement, or of the IOM’s projects and functioning, are still unclear. But for now, their diplomatic support indicates Beijing’s coalition building efforts are proving partially successful and gives China an opportunity to cultivate an alternative institution and approach to mediation.

Opportunities for cooperation may emerge, but caution is required

Although Beijing's involvement in foreign conflicts is largely interest-driven, its new mediation push may still be a positive development that creates opportunities for cooperation with Europe. Sino-European interests can overlap when it comes to finding ways to manage and stabilize ongoing conflicts around the world. Sustainable peace agreements would be welcome in any of these conflicts, regardless of who brokers the peace. European actors should try to engage with China’s efforts where these seem serious and productive.

However, a degree of caution is necessary. The geopolitical drivers behind China’s ambitions, together with Beijing’s approach to mediation, will create challenges for any potential cooperation. China’s policy of stepping into mediation processes late and its reluctance to accept the risks of leadership in conflict resolution processes could make Beijing an unreliable mediation partner or even a free-rider - seeking mainly to claim credit for any successful outcomes.

The links between China’s conflict resolution activities and the GSI may also create situations that require proactive pushback – for instance if Beijing were to promote narratives, norms and values that clash with European ones. As Beijing’s primary focus is its competition with the United States, this may well hinder cooperation with countries seen as too close to Washington – a label that could apply to many European nations.

China will continue to take on a more active role in conflict mediation in the future. It will present itself as a neutral party that works with countries regardless of their political systems, and does not impose any requirements or preconditions ahead of negotiations. Beijing will leverage the GSI and China’s lack of historical baggage in many key regions of the world to depict itself as a more reliable partner than the United States or other Western countries, thereby expanding its global clout. However, European actors should remain realistic about the chances of successful Chinese mediation. Beijing remains a risk-averse actor, unwilling to take responsibility or act as a guarantor for a deal. Building alignment among EU member states on how Europe should respond to potential new mediation initiatives by China should be a priority, lest Beijing uses its offers to weaken European alignment.


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