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  Opinion   Columnists  23 May 2023  Claude Arpi | What lies behind China’s new role as ‘peacemaker’

Claude Arpi | What lies behind China’s new role as ‘peacemaker’

The writer is based in South India for the past 40 years. He writes on India, China, Tibet and Indo-French relations.
Published : May 24, 2023, 12:00 am IST
Updated : May 24, 2023, 12:00 am IST

Beijing’s Global Security Initiative (GSI) is another move from Beijing which indicates that China wants to play a bigger international role

Chinese President Xi Jinping. (Photo: AP)
 Chinese President Xi Jinping. (Photo: AP)

The People’s Republic of China would like to project itself as the world’s new “peacemaker” -- as we have seen in the Middle East (between Saudi Arabia and Iran) some time ago, and then later in Moscow.

Well over a year after the sudden invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops on February 24, 2022, Beijing has released a 12-point document which proposes a framework for a political settlement. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace commented: “The document is a laundry list of familiar Chinese talking points about the war. It repeats Beijing’s support for the UN Charter and the territorial integrity of states, but at the same time condemns unilateral sanctions, and criticises the expansion of US-led military alliances… China’s vague plan is aimed not at actually ending the war, but at impressing the developing world and also rebutting the accusations that Beijing has become a silent accomplice to Moscow.”

Beijing’s Global Security Initiative (GSI) is another move from Beijing which indicates that China wants to play a bigger international role.

Earlier this year, on February 21, at the Lanting Forum, Qin Gang, China’s foreign minister, spoke of his country’s new role: “The world today is not a tranquil place: changes unseen in a century are fast evolving, major country competition is intensifying, geopolitical conflicts are escalating, the global security governance system is woefully lagging behind… The choice made by China is clear-cut.”

That is why, Mr Qin explained, Xi Jinping proposed the Global Security Initiative, which upholds “the vision of common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security, pursues the long-term objective of building a secure community, and advocates a new path to security featuring dialogue over confrontation, partnership over alliance and win-win over zero-sum”.


A growing dichotomy

A dichotomy is growing between Beijing’s totalitarian policies at home and its supposed peacemaker role outside; it is striking and the real question is: are the two stands reconcilable?

The hardening at home can be explained by the fact that China wants to assume the role of the number one power in the world and it believes that only the strictest adherence to the Communist Party’s line can achieve this goal.

It is indeed a fact that the Chinese regime is becoming more and more authoritarian and autocratic. One could take several examples. Reuters cites one: “China is increasingly barring people from leaving the country, including foreign executives, a jarring message as the authorities say that the country is open for business.”

The international news agency quotes from a report for the Safeguard Defenders, a human rights group: “Since Xi Jinping took power in 2012, China has expanded the legal landscape for exit bans and increasingly used them, sometimes outside legal justification.”

It is estimated that tens of thousands of Chinese are banned from exit at any one time. Reuters concludes: “This contrasts with China’s message that it is opening up to overseas investment and travel, emerging from the isolation of some of the world’s tightest Covid curbs.”

But why do more and more people want to leave the Middle Kingdom?

Simply because they can’t express themselves freely.

The fact that people like Jack Ma, the founder of the Alibaba group, has to exile himself in Japan and take an assignment at the University of Tokyo, indeed speaks for itself. The university in Tokyo said: “Ma will work with researchers, serve as an adviser to the college and participate in seminars. He will also conduct research with university staff, especially in the field of sustainable agriculture and food production.” What a loss for a China, which today does not accept differing views.

In this context a new report from the Hoover Institution written by Matthew Johnson, an expert on the Chinese Communist Party’s politics, about China’s strategy to achieve a global edge through the accumulation and control of data, is an eye-opener.

According to Johnson, China’s strategy is “to accumulate and control data at a global scale”. The scholar believes that the origin of this strategy is a 2013 speech given by Mr Xi at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The then new Chinese President said: “The vast ocean of data, just like oil resources during industrialisation, contains immense productive power and opportunities. Who controls big data technologies will control the resources for development and have the upper hand.”

The way to do this is for Chinese commercial enterprises to “siphon data at a global scale,” explains Johnson, who spoke of an “accumulation espionage ecosystem”, meaning a network of internal data storage and processing facilities; the data is later “absorbed into military, technology, and surveillance projects in China and is potentially shared with like-minded international partners such as the Russian Federation or the Islamic Republic of Iran”.

The point is that the same “vast ocean of data” is used on the Chinese populations (particularly the so-called minorities like the Tibetans and the Uyghurs) to monitor their lives in minutest details.

Johnson’s conclusion: “In this sense, China’s grand strategy for data is a case study which highlights the current gap that exists between the complexity of the challenge and the (US) current response.”

However, it is not clear what the free world can do for the Chinese people living inside the Middle Kingdom. In the meantime, “peaceful” China is preparing to invade Taiwan, the democratically-run island. Like the GSI, it may however lead nowhere; the US strategic platform War on the Rock warns: “A worst-case Taiwan scenario for Chinese leader Xi Jinping would be a major military operation in which the People’s Liberation Army fails spectacularly or displays shocking incompetence akin to Russia’s in Ukraine. Could this happen?”

The specialised website believes that the bad news is that “even if China’s armed forces fail spectacularly, this does not necessarily mean a shorter, less bloody, or less costly conflict. If the People’s Liberation Army stumbles badly, Xi is unlikely to call off his military. Where Taiwan is concerned, Xi can be expected to press his armed forces to persist in the fight, producing a protracted conflict in the centre of the Indo-Pacific and profoundly disrupting commerce and stability across the region.”

So much for the “peace initiatives”!

The other question, of course, is: Do the Taiwanese people, who have tasted freedom and democracy, have to go back to Mao’s dreadful days when everyone has to follow the Party… or else.

Certainly not. In Hong Kong, for example, the people themselves have started discovering the difference between freedom and the dictatorship of the Party.


Tags: people’s republic of china, saudi arabia, ukraine, xi jinping