When he spoke of “win-win cooperation” during his meeting with Vladimir Putin last week, Xi Jinping put forward his vision of the world order, no longer governed by universal values, but as a transactional system of agreements between great powers, reflecting the balance of their balance of power.
So in Ukraine, China played its part, ruthless and efficient. Its objectives: to subordinate Russia while taking care not to weaken it too much; to create an image of a peacemaker in the eyes of the emerging world; and, with an eye on Taiwan, undermine the perceived legitimacy of Western sanctions and military support. Xi Jinping cynically calls for “respect for the sovereignty of all countries”, but fails to mention that Russia occupies more than a sixth of its neighbour.
Another example of China’s approach to foreign policy caused a stir. On March 10, Beijing successfully brokered a detente between two bitter rivals: Iran and Saudi Arabia. A first intervention in the Middle East which highlighted the reduced weight of the West in this region, twenty years after the invasion of Iraq by the Americans.
Finally, on March 15, Xi Jinping unveiled the Initiative for World Civilization, according to which countries should “refrain from imposing their own values or models on others and from stirring up ideological confrontations”, affirming that the defense by the West of human rights, in Xinjiang and elsewhere, is a new form of colonialism.
Support from Brazil, pivot to the Middle East and Afghanistan
The Chinese president intends to reshape the post-1945 world order. And this vision of a negotiated world enjoys real support outside the West. Xi Jinping will soon meet Brazilian President Lula da Silva in Beijing. Supporter of a multipolar world, the latter wants China to help him negotiate peace in Ukraine.
For many, the 2003 invasion of Iraq underscored the West’s double standards on international law and human rights, a point that Chinese state media get busy hammering. After the Trump years, Joe Biden has reconnected with the world, but the pivot to Asia means downsizing elsewhere, including in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
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The West has been tough on Ukraine, but many countries are ambivalent about the war and its outcome. At least 100 countries, representing 40% of global GDP, are not fully implementing the sanctions. The ability of the United States to resist is in doubt. Neither Donald Trump nor his Republican rival Ron DeSantis consider Ukraine a fundamental interest for their country.
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All of this creates space for new players, from Turkey to the United Arab Emirates; and especially for China. Its dangerous message, that true democracy involves economic development but not necessarily political freedom, appeals greatly to elites in undemocratic countries.