As an old West Asia hand, I could hardly have missed the significance of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s trip to the region a year ago, which included stops in Riyadh, Tehran and, perhaps most significantly, at the Arab League summit in Cairo. With American influence in West Asia fading under US President Barack Obama, and Russia taking on a larger role in regional affairs, the Chinese leader seemed to be signalling that Beijing, too, wanted a seat at the table.
At the summit, he surprised (and delighted) the assembled delegates by announcing China’s support for a Palestinian state, with East Jerusalem as its capital. “China firmly supports the Middle East peace process and supports the establishment of a State of Palestine enjoying full sovereignty on the basis of the 1967 borders,” Xi said. “We understand the legitimate aspirations of Palestine to integrate into the international community as a state.”
Xi’s speech, a sharp departure from China’s long-standing foreign policy practice of eschewing intervention on political matters, set off much speculative discussion among those of my ilk. Could it be that Beijing was finally ready to earn its place among the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, and actually play a useful role in solving a major international problem? It was just conceivable that China could use its growing economic clout in West Asia to start a new, meaningful process of negotiations between Israel and Palestine, with the approval of Saudi Arabia and Iran — the two other stops on Xi’s trip.
Why should China bother? After all, it had been very well served by its business-only foreign policy. Since a sudden attack of altruism could be ruled out, some West Asia experts speculated at the time that there were compelling economic reasons for Beijing’s venturing into the international political arena. The argument went thus: China depends heavily on West Asian oil and gas, the steady supplies of which depend heavily on the political stability of the region, which in turn depends heavily on American policing; with Washington no longer willing to perform that function, Beijing might reasonably conclude that economic interests required it to shake off its political inertia.
There were other signs that China was taking on greater responsibility on the world stage. Its contribution of troops to UN peacekeeping missions had more than doubled, to 2,800 — and Xi had committed to increasing the number to 8,000 troops, or one-fifth of the total. (India’s contribution, in case you’re wondering, comprised 6,750 troops, 900 police, and 60 military experts.) The Chinese president had also pledged $1 billion to create a UN Peace and Development Trust Fund.
I was reminded of the heightened expectations of Chinese leadership last week, when Xi visited the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. It was the first time a Chinese president has attended, and the timing was propitious. The audience of global grandees was, much like the gathering at the Arab League, anxious by the American retreat from responsibility for world affairs. And as he did in Cairo, Xi gave the appearance of a man with a plan. China, he said, would champion the cause of globalisation, in the face of strong nationalist, isolationist political movements throughout the West. Beijing would lead the effort to maintain trade and economic stability, and would do its upmost to prevent a trade war with Donald Trump’s US.
The gathering of capitalists was reassured by Xi’s assurance that they could do business as usual in his country, as much as they were charmed by his quoting Charles Dickens — he described the current state of world affairs as “the best of times, the worst of times”, an allusion to A Tale of Two Cities. Many were apparently willing to overlook some of the more egregious contradictions in his speech; you have to wonder, for instance, what the representatives of Google and Facebook made of his claims to China’s “openness”.
Most of the audience for Xi’s speech have by now returned home to their daily routines, and many will have left their heady optimism at the high altitude of Davos. They will also have abandoned any hope that the new occupant of the White House might temper his language and attitudes upon swearing in: Trump has made it clear that he intends to follow through on his “America First” and anti-globalisation agenda. As the jet-lag from the long trip fades away, the Davos set is left with the realisation that China cannot be a substitute for the US during “the worst of times”.
That’s not to say these won’t be “the best of times” for Beijing. There are plenty of scenarios in which Beijing benefits from Washington’s withdrawal from international alliances, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which was designed to restrain Chinese ambitions. Trump’s isolationism will also allow China to bully its smaller neighbours. But beyond Xi’s rhetoric, Beijing has not yet demonstrated any interest or ability in being a solver of prickly international problems.
Which bring me back to that speech in Cairo. In the year since, China’s trade with Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran has continued to grow. But Beijing has done nothing to move the needle on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Beijing has its seat at the table, but as ever, it is content to sup while others suffer.
Bobby Ghosh is editor-in-chief of Hindustan Times