London (Special to Informed Comment; Feature) – China has come out in favour of a third round of talks to design a peace framework for the conflict in Ukraine following its attendance at an international forum in the Saudi city of Jeddah earlier this month. China’s attendance and active participation in the summit was seen as a diplomatic coup for Riyadh after China did not attend a previous round of talks at Copenhagen in June to which it was invited.
Russia’s disastrous military performance so far in the war in Ukraine has weakened its military reputation in the eyes of Beijing, but also sharpened China’s desire not to see Moscow humiliated or Russian leader Vladimir Putin driven from power; Beijing fears regime change in Russia would leave it isolated and potentially faced with a pro-Western regime along its northern border.
China’s attendance boosted the profile of the summit, something which pleased the US, and in may help smooth still-strained personal ties between Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (MBS) and US President Joe Biden. The US, India, Brazil, the EU also attended the talks, as well as a number of Global South states like Zambia, Indonesia and Egypt. Moscow was excluded however.
Is China breaking with Russia on this issue?
On the surface China’s change of direction by attending the summit would appear to move it away from Russia, whose invasion it has so far refused to condemn. However, while China has close economic ties with Ukraine which it wishes to preserve, its position on the conflict still mirrors the ambivalent attitude of many Global South states like South Africa, who have chosen to take a neutral stance or even tilted towards Russia somewhat. Li Hui, the Chinese special representative who attended the event, previously served as China’s ambassador to Russia for a decade, for example. Many Chinese see the Russia-Ukraine conflict as a proxy war between Washington and its ally Moscow, one which the US is also using to encircle China, for example by strengthening NATO countries’ ties to American allies in Asia like South Korea and Japan.
China’s attendance at the Saudi summit served several strategic purposes from Beijing’s point of view. It allowed Beijing to join Riyadh in burnishing its credentials with Global South countries as a peacemaker and to leverage improved relations into stronger economic ties down the line which provide it with an alternative to reliance on trade with an increasingly anti-China US-led global bloc. It was a concession to Ukraine to attend but at an event which would produce no final outcome that would put pressure on Russia.
Attendance further allowed China to support a Saudi initiative at no diplomatic cost to itself, building on the momentum it gained from its sponsorship of the Saudi-Iran peace deal earlier this year. Wang Yi, China’s top diplomat and returning foreign minister, helped broker that agreement. China’s relationship with Saudi Arabia remains a shallow and transactional one, but, given each regime has its problems with the current US-led global order, this is often sufficient motivation for the two sides to cooperate for now.
The Saudi-led conference was billed as an event for Ukraine to reach out to countries outside the Western zone of influence, given Riyadh’s neutrality (it maintains ties with Beijing, Kiev and Moscow). More quietly it was also intended to help re-invent MBS as a responsible global statesman, part of a concerted effort to turn a page on his past history of erratic and dangerous decision making. Past highlights have included allegedly kidnapping Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, invading neighboring Yemen and his probable involvement in the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
For its part, Russia has also annoyed Riyadh by failing to implement OPEC+ production cuts in recent months, and MBS may not have been averse to causing Moscow symbolic discomfort on the global stage by publicly hosting a large international forum to which Russia was not invited.
Is China using Riyadh as a back channel to Washington?
China and the US are slowly rebuilding bilateral meetings between senior officials this year after Beijing suspended or cut off multiple official contacts in protest last August at then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan. Relations between the two countries remain poor but at present both sides are attempting to put a floor under their relationship, in China’s case motivated by the need to support its flagging economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
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BEIJING, CHINA – AUGUST 31: Saudi Arabia Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) shake hands during a meeting at the Diaoyutai State guest house on August 31, 2016 in Beijing, China. The deputy prince is meeting Chinese officials during his visit to boost bilateral ties between the two nations. (Photo by Rolex – Pool/Getty Images). FILE.
Given this situation, Beijing does not need to use Riyadh as a back channel to Washington; however Saudi Arabia is likely leveraging its burgeoning relationship with China — of which the Ukraine summit is the latest instance — in its bilateral relations with the US and Beijing will not object to Saudi Arabia’s attempts to balance itself between the two superpowers. China may one day wish to supplant the US as Saudis’ main political and security partner in the Middle Eastern region, but at present it is not unhappy for the US to continue to act as the leading power there, given that this ties down American military assets and political capital which might otherwise be used against China in East Asia.
Oil and Wheat
Commodities form another factor in Chinese and Saudi diplomatic calculations. Despite tensions over Saudi oil production levels, Saudi Arabia is no longer as important to the US as an energy supplier as it was in the 1990s. Meanwhile, the Chinese economy is also currently faltering, which is likely to reduce Chinese demand for Saudi energy supplies this year (though it is still a major oil customer).
Ideally, Saudi Arabia would like to keep relations with both superpowers stable enough that it can sell to them (given softer demand from both for its main export at present) while preserving its freedom of manoeuvre when it comes to oil production levels. Moreover, given its recent raft of diplomatic activity with China, Saudi Arabia will probably be happy to balance this with renewing ties to Washington. The two sides have tried to mend fences since the fallout from the murder of Jamal Khashoggi strained ties with the Biden White House several years ago.
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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (4th R) attends a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping (3rd L) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on February 22, 2019. (Photo by HOW HWEE YOUNG / POOL / AFP) (Photo credit should read HOW HWEE YOUNG/AFP via Getty Images). FILE.
While working with China allows Riyadh to show Washington it can find alternative partners if pushed too hard on issues like human rights, Saudi Arabia still wants US help on many issues which matter too it. Washington in turn is now seeking assurances Riyadh will not get too close to China, despite the fact it was happy to see Beijing attend the latest round of Ukraine-related peace talks in Jeddah.
For its part, China will be keen that the Saudi talks create a constructive atmosphere that helps it achieve its goal of resurrecting the collapsed Russia-Ukraine Black Sea grain deal. China was the top purchaser of Ukrainan agricultural goods through the initiative before Russia withdrew from it in July. China places a high political priority on food security but is reliant on imports due to a lack of food self-sufficiency. \
Large parts of the country’s farmland was flooded this summer in the aftermath of Typhoon Doksuri, damaging crop production and causing officials to warn of further risks to agricultural output from pests and disease once the flood waters recided. Its public support for a third round of talks after Jeddah may in part be calculated to help its relationship with Ukraine, to help win it over at a later date should Beijing be able to persuade Russia to allow grain shipments to resume in the Black Sea.