Belt and Road Initiative drives China’s growing mediation role in world conflicts but peace elusive
Beijing’s focus on stability and conflict management unlikely to bring lasting results, researchers say
China has increasingly been involved in mediation efforts for international conflicts, particularly along the route of its signature “Belt and Road Initiative”, but its high-profile approach has failed to produce sustainable peace results, a new report from a leading European think tank has found.
In contrast to its past reluctance to engage in conflict resolution outside its borders, Beijing was involved in mediation for nine conflicts last year compared to only three in 2012.
According to analysis by the Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS), the spike coincided with the launch of the initiative, a series of infrastructure projects across Europe, Asia, and Africa.
But China’s approach centred on conflict management and stability preservation rather than long-term resolution, largely as part of broader multinational efforts, which had so far proven ineffective, the report’s authors Helena Legarda and Marie Hoffmann said.
“It is becoming more obvious now that Beijing is diving into conflicts that have higher international visibility,” they wrote.
The authors noted China’s reliance on top-level diplomatic tools, while neglecting the full range of stakeholders in a conflict.
“This approach has the benefit of providing Beijing with media attention and direct access to local governments, but … Beijing has failed to produce a long-term sustainable peace process in any of the conflicts it is involved in.”
Beijing’s mediation efforts have also been driven by its belt and road programme, with an expanded focus in regions that are strategically important to the initiative, such as South Asia, the Middle East, and East Africa.
Since last year, China has been newly involved in the Qatar crisis, with Beijing urging talks between the oil-rich country and the Saudi Arabia-led bloc of four Arab nations.
China also has a growing role in the Afghanistan peace process, hosting trilateral talks in Beijing between the country and Pakistan in December.
“In many countries along the [belt and road route], especially in the Middle East, China is seen as a relatively honest broker since it does not carry the same historical baggage as the United States or European countries, due to its very limited presence in the region in the past,” the report said.
Other high-profile conflicts where China has taken part in mediation efforts include the civil war in Syria, the Israel-Palestine conflict, and the Bangladesh-Myanmar clash over the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya minority.
“Getting involved in multinational initiatives, even in a passive manner, lets Beijing take credit for any potential successes of these processes, while evading full responsibility if efforts are unsuccessful,” Legarda and Hoffmann said.
The duo said Beijing’s increased mediation efforts stemmed from a desire to promote an image of being a responsible global power, along with the opportunity to influence governments in key countries such as Myanmar and Syria.
This is especially significant at a time when US President Donald Trump has adopted more inward-looking “America first” policies.
It also comes from a need for the stability of the countries along Chinese President Xi Jinping’s much touted belt and road route, to ensure the success of the Chinese development projects there.
“The international community would certainly welcome a China-brokered peace agreement in any of the conflicts Beijing is currently involved in,” they wrote.
“However, given China’s current approach to mediation, such a positive outcome seems unlikely for now.”