The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

China’s new world order is taking shape

7 min

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It was a bumper week for diplomacy in Beijing. Chinese President Xi Jinping accompanied his French counterpart, President Emmanuel Macron, on a three-day visit to the Chinese capital and the southern metropolis of Guangzhou. Escaping, if briefly, from the fiery protests taking place in his own country, Macron was received by adoring, excited crowds of students at Guangzhou’s Sun Yat-sen University. In between grand receptions and formal tea ceremonies, the two leaders saw a slate of French companies and Chinese state-run firms clinch some major business deals.

Macron gave Xi the optics he sought: A clear reminder to the United States — who Xi obliquely referred to as a domineering “third party” — of the gap between its hawkish stance on China and the more perhaps equivocating posture of many in Europe. It was less clear what Xi gave Macron politically: The French president urged Xi to bring Russia “to reason” over its invasion of Ukraine, but that was met by boilerplate rhetoric and little indication of the needle of the conflict being moved in any significant direction.

In what was framed as a joint call with France, Xi urged for peace talks to resume soon and called “for the protection of civilians,” while also reiterating that “nuclear weapons must not be used, and nuclear war must not be fought” over Ukraine. That latter point marked perhaps the biggest distance between Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has periodically rattled the nuclear saber as the war he unleashed in Ukraine lurches on. Despite European entreaties, Xi made no definitive commitment to speak with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Macron was joined in China by Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission. The two leaders sent somewhat divergent messages; von der Leyen bemoaned China’s “unfair practices,” particularly in trade, and arrived in the country after delivering a tough speech on the authoritarian challenge posed by Beijing. Macron, on the other hand, warned against the West plunging itself into an “inescapable spiral” of tensions with China.

Chinese commentators suggested that’s because the tables of history have turned and Macron recognizes the sheer weight and importance of China’s economy, not least at a moment when he’s trying to carve out a vision of a more robust, capable and independent Europe. “Although there are still concerns in France about our country’s increasing [global] role, China’s support is essential if France wants to exercise its soft power in global governance,” Shanghai-based scholars Zhang Ji and Xue Sheng wrote in a recent essay.

Macron and Europe hedge their bets on China

In the middle of Macron’s visit, another major summit took place in Beijing. The foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and Iran — the Middle East’s feuding antagonists — conducted the highest-level meeting between their two countries in seven years in the Chinese capital. In Washington, a bemused clutch of regional experts looked on as China played the role of a stabilizing outside power in the Middle East.

The thaw between Riyadh and Tehran was long in the works and not exclusively because of Chinese efforts. “Analysts say the warming ties are due to a convergence of interests,” wrote my colleagues Kareem Fahim and Sarah Dadouch. “Iran, under Western sanctions and trying to suffocate a domestic protest movement, has looked to ease its global and regional isolation; Saudi Arabia, faced with security threats from Iran that threaten its plan to diversify the kingdom’s economy away from oil, is seeking to tamp down regional tensions — a strategy that has included pursuing partnerships with major world powers beyond the United States.”

But it does invariably show a waning of American influence, especially over the Saudis. “Many experts still assume that whoever is in the White House will guide Saudi policy on Iran, but that simply isn’t true today,” said Anna Jacobs, a senior Gulf analyst at the International Crisis Group, to the New York Times. “Saudi Arabia and Gulf Arab states are focusing on their economic, political and security interests and protecting themselves from regional threats.”

Enter Xi’s China, an economic juggernaut now flexing new geopolitical muscles. “China has in recent years declared that it needs to be a participant in the creation of the world order,” former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger told Post columnist David Ignatius last month. “It has now made a significant move in that direction.”

China’s Xi promises to build ‘great wall of steel’ in rivalry with West

The contours of this imagined Chinese world order are still difficult to sketch. We know about its vast economic ambitions, including the Belt and Road Initiative that has seen China finance and invest in major infrastructure projects around the world. But in recent weeks, Xi has touted a number of other new initiatives over “security” and “civilization” — still vague policy positions essentially challenging the architecture of the U.S.-led order, as well as the concept of universal values.

“It appears to be a counterargument to [President] Biden’s autocracy versus democracy narrative,” Moritz Rudolf, a research scholar at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center, told the Financial Times. “It’s an ideological battle that’s more attractive to developing countries than people in Washington might believe.”

China’s foray into Middle East great power politics, in particular, show a new capacity and willingness to act. “In the past we would declare some principles, make our position known but not get involved operationally. That is going to change,” said Wu Xinbo, dean of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, said in the same Financial Times story.

For some analysts, Macron’s visit is a reminder of the tough questions facing Europe. While the war in Ukraine and antipathy toward Russia have galvanized the transatlantic alliance, the question of China is thornier, with Chinese investment and trade vital to Europe’s future prospects. What that means for the grim scenarios that obsess Washington policymakers — including a possible future Chinese invasion of Taiwan — is an open question, and one that may elicit unwelcome answers on both sides of the pond.

“The paradox would be that, overcome with panic, we believe we are just America’s followers,” Macron told reporters traveling with him, before gesturing to current tensions over Taiwan. “The question Europeans need to answer … is it in our interest to accelerate [a crisis] on Taiwan? No. The worse thing would be to think that we Europeans must become followers on this topic and take our cue from the U.S. agenda and a Chinese overreaction.”

“What happens in Europe now — not just in terms of the outcome of this war [in Ukraine], but how Europeans define their relations with China in the future — will shape transatlantic relations,” wrote Andrew Michta, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “And Europe’s choices when it comes to its China policy will greatly influence the outcome of U.S. competition with China in other theaters too.”

A global order defined — or heavily sculpted — by Beijing’s one-party regime would not be an attractive prospect to most countries. China is, in the Economist’s gloomy analysis, a would-be “superpower that seeks influence without winning affection, power without trust and a global vision without universal human rights.”

But its greater clout on the world stage need not always ring alarm bells. “Not everything between the U.S. and China has to be a zero-sum game,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who leads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Middle East panel, told Politico in the context of Beijing’s Middle East diplomacy. “I don’t know why we would perceive there to be a downside to de-escalation between Saudi Arabia and Iran.”