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Xi Pursues New World Order

Fresh from the Legislative Congress, in which he solidified his vision of China’s governance, Xi turned his attention to how he will build a better global order, saying it would be based on mutual respect, tolerance, and equality, and that China would be the natural leader, he told the heads of political parties from an array of countries, including Russia, South Africa, Nicaragua, and East Timor. 

“Chinese-style modernization does not follow the old path of colonial plunder or the hegemony of strong countries,” Xi told them in a video call Wednesday, sitting at a desk surrounded by Chinese and Communist Party flags.

“The world does not need another Cold War,” he said. He introduced the “global civilization initiative,” a set of lofty guiding principles for a “new type of international relations” that China is building.

“China realizes it needs to create something new. It needs to create new space for China that redefines China’s role in the world and hopefully redefines the world system,” said Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C.

Xi’s comments were an apparent rebuke of the U.S., and a reflection of the tougher approach he is taking as he steps up China’s diplomatic efforts, setting off an expected visit to Russia.

President Vladimir Putin said in December he had invited Xi for a state visit in the spring. That trip may come as early as next week, according to Reuters on Monday.

Asked if Xi was planning to visit Russia, Wang Wenbin, the China foreign ministry spokesman, said on Tuesday he did not have information to share “at this time.” 

He said China and Russia maintain close communications on various levels. Xi is expected to hold a call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky following this trip, according to The Wall Street Journal.

It will be their first conversation since the start of the war. It comes on the heels of a Chinese-brokered deal that saw the resumption of diplomatic relations between the longtime adversaries, Saudi Arabia and Iran, following a series of secret meetings held in Beijing—a development that surprised the Biden administration. President Biden said on Monday he expected to hold a phone call with Xi soon.

“‘China has facilitated the restoration of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia.’ For the West, the key word in this news headline is not Iran or Saudi Arabia, but China,” the state-run paper Guancha said in an editorial. “The change of hands of the ‘peacemaker’ is enough to shock all walks of life in the United States.”

The image of China as the world’s envoy and arbitrator has given Xi a further boost. Newly empowered by a record-setting third term, he is seeking to thwart what he views as American efforts to constrain Beijing, proposing an alternative global system suited to Chinese interests. 

Under Beijing’s leadership, he says, countries will not have to pick sides in the autocracy-versus-democracy struggle. As Washington and other Western governments have criticized Beijing for its “no limits” partnership with Russia and continued threats to Taiwan, China has sought to claim it is on the side of peace, and it is the U.S. and its allies who are destabilizing Europe and the Indo-Pacific.

“What China is trying to signal is that the world is not dependent on the U.S. and its allies and partners,” said Chong Ja Ian, associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore. “China is trying to be a full-spectrum global player and demonstrate that it too can provide public goods.”

Its latest initiatives and outreach are a key part of this.

After overhauling the administration and changing the leadership, which has given it greater control of policymaking, Mr. Xi is in a stronger position to advance his goals for a new world order.

Last week, he took the unusual step of explicitly accusing the U.S. of trying to “contain, encircle, and crush” China. His policy, called “the global security framework,” includes principles such as “indivisible security”– the notion that one nation’s security cannot come at another’s expense, a concept that Moscow has used to justify its invasion of Ukraine. Since Friday’s Iran-Saudi agreement, Chinese state media and commentators have excitedly discussed Beijing’s new role as an important powerbroker, hailing the achievement as a sign of Chinese skill in diplomacy.

In veiled comments intended for the U.S., Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said on Tuesday that “tactics such as strengthening one side and bashing another” and “block-based confrontation” have never solved security problems. 

The People’s Daily, an official newspaper, wrote in an editorial that the agreement demonstrated “the appeal” of Chinese diplomacy. Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Beijing’s Renmin University, said that China was trying “to restore its influence and prestige internationally” after years of difficulties. 

“It would be welcomed in certain parts of the world, but certainly not by the United States and its allies at sea and in Eastern Europe,” Shi said.

But the limits to China’s brokering skills could become clear very quickly, with Xi traveling to Russia. Beijing has little experience with conflict mediation, with little track record of success to show for it. Iran and Saudi Arabia have been talking for years, and previously expressed a willingness to make peace—crucial conditions it has not had in dealing with Ukraine and Russia.

“China’s ability to identify and capitalize on a diplomatic opportunity in the Middle East does not signify that it is either a ready or capable mediator in the Ukraine-Russia conflict,” said Amanda Hsiao, senior China analyst at the International Crisis Group.

In February, the first anniversary of the Russian invasion, Beijing issued a 12 point proposal to end the war, which included calls for peace talks, ceasefires, and the halting of “unilateral sanctions,” but did not require Russian withdrawal from Ukrainian territory. Zelensky said that he welcomed Chinese participation, but he will await further details. 

“There is nothing particularly new in the content of this document, and everyone knows this,” said Wan Qingsong, associate professor at the Center for Russian Studies at East China Normal University in Shanghai.

For Xi, this offer, as well as his Russia trip, might have less to do with outcomes than it does about shoring up support from other countries also feeling left behind in the U.S.-dominated international system. When he visits Moscow, Xi will have an advantage over Putin.

“It’s important to understand it’s not just about Europe, Russia and the U.S., but also about all the other countries out there,” said Alicja Bachulska, a Warsaw-based policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “All these decisions and communications from Beijing are not only aimed at the so-called West but also the global south.”

Russia depends on China for most of its imports, including many high-tech items such as semiconductors, which are used for military as well as civilian applications. Exports from China to Russia rose by almost 13%, reaching $76 billion in 2022, according to government data.

Observers expect that the two leaders will discuss expanding the trade flows, including increased sales of oil and natural gas, as well as perhaps the construction of natural gas pipelines. 

“It shows the world, it shows the U.S. that ‘you can make your advancements, but we can, too,’” said Sun, of the Stimson Center. They’re saying, she said: “We have our alternative theaters, theaters that you are retreating from.”

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