This month, a curious thing happened in the annals of diplomacy. A country offered up a peace plan to put an end to a seemingly endless civil war in Syria. This country was not one of the usual foreign policy suspects — it was not the United States, it was not in Europe, and it wasn’t Syria’s neighbour. It was a country that has no real experience in playing the world’s policeman. But, seeing a world filled with retired officers, it decided to try on the uniform for itself. China has taken another step into the spotlight of the world stage.
This is what happens in a G-Zero world — a world without any specific country or bloc of countries in charge. China has long been content to watch world events play out and then react, trusting that another country would step in to put volatile situations to rest. But that’s not happening with the Syrian conflict and its spillover into the broader Middle East. Americans feel that the issue doesn’t affect them enough to intervene. Europeans, as a Union, don’t seem to be particularly interested, even if some smaller countries are. And with those powers on the sidelines, suddenly the Chinese have a much bigger problem — a civil war that could metastasise into regional instability. The Chinese have far too much at stake in Iraq and Iran for that to happen: 11 per cent of China’s oil imports come from Iran, and it is on track to be the chief importer of Iraqi oil by 2030.
And so China stepped in, offering a peace plan. The details — ceasefire, a committee that negotiates a political solution to the war, etc. — are not as important as the plan’s mere existence. It’s symptomatic of China’s new approach, one that Hu Jintao hinted at in one of his final addresses as Chinese president. He said China would “get more actively involved in international affairs, (and) play its due role of a major responsible country.” In the wake of downturns in the West, there is a new diplomatic structure emerging. China is determined to be one of its architects. This doesn’t mean China necessarily knows what it’s doing. Diplomacy is new for the Chinese, who have really only interjected themselves in regional politics and through economic investment abroad.
Intervening in other countries’ affairs is a tricky thing for a Chinese government that so resolutely believes sovereignty is supreme, even if human rights are being trampled. Beijing tries not to infringe on other countries’ sovereignty because it would not allow others to infringe on its own. The likelihood that China’s plan is actually going to accomplish anything in Syria is basically zero. But just making an overture, as China has done, carries little risk. It pushes back at some of the scorn China’s received, along with Russia, for vetoing the UN Security Council sanctions on the Syrian government. If the Syrian situation doesn’t improve, China has done no better than the West. If it does, China can perhaps claim a part, and, more importantly, ensure that its investments in Iraqi and Iranian oil are safe.
That China is wading into diplomacy here does not mean it will replace the United States in negotiations. But it does mean that the world is in transition — what was once America’s domain is now no one’s. It may take years for a new leader to emerge. China, despite having little history of foreign policy beyond its region, sees an opportunity there. It’s likely to make mistakes, and its initial diplomatic attempts may not be entirely coherent. But it’s filling a void. The question: is it a black hole or a blank canvas?