Ever since China abandoned its zero-COVID policy at the end of last year, Beijing has been involved in a flurry of engagements from East to West.
A summit in India’s Goa, military drills in Singapore and South Africa, visits by the German chancellor and the French president as well as Chinese President Xi Jinping’s own visits to Russia and Saudi Arabia are just a few examples of Beijing’s recent whirlwind diplomacy.
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And while Western leaders have talked about decoupling or de-risking economic ties with China, the nation remains deeply integrated with the world economy and is the largest trading partner of more than 120 countries.
Long gone are the days when China was an isolated loner or the Chinese government seemed satisfied with observing world affairs quietly from the sidelines. Now, Beijing is reaching for the diplomatic status that matches its position as the world’s second-biggest economy.
In a speech at a United Nations conference held to mark the 50-year anniversary of the People’s Republic of China’s joining the UN, Xi addressed China’s diplomatic rise and spoke of Beijing’s commitment to a world order defined by the pursuit of peace, democracy and human rights as well as the rejection of unilateralism, foreign interference and power politics.
In mid-March, at a so-called dialogue meeting between global political parties in Beijing, Xi reinforced his commitment to the same principles.
In his keynote speech, Xi introduced the Global Civilization Initiative (GCI) as a way of formalising these principles with the added purpose of encouraging countries to “fully harness the relevance of their histories and cultures” and “appreciate the perceptions of values by different civilizations and refrain from imposing their own values or models on others”.
With the previously proposed Global Development Initiative (GDI) and Global Security Initiative (GSI), the GCI appears to encapsulate – although in amorphous terms – much of the Chinese president’s overall vision for a new international order.
Yao Yuan Yeh teaches Chinese Studies at the University of St Thomas in the United States. According to him, such an order would partly supplant and partly remould the international system into a new set of structures that better align with the worldview of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
“It would be a world order that does not constrain communist China but contributes to its rise,” he said.
An alternative narrative
The purpose of the dialogue meeting in March was, to some extent, to act as a Chinese counterpart to the Summit for Democracy that the United States held for a second time that month as part of an effort to rally the world’s democracies.
While leaders from Mongolia, Serbia and South Africa were invited to both events, the US summit mostly included traditional Washington allies, while the gathering in Beijing included leaders from Kazakhstan, Russia, Sudan and Venezuela.
The Chinese leadership and state media portrayed the CCP’s dialogue meeting as part of China’s vision of embracing countries across the world, which includes maintaining or even deepening diplomatic contact with nations like Russia and Myanmar.
The Chinese government’s willingness to engage with a variety of world actors has indeed been on display in recent months.
Chinese diplomacy played a role in the rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia in March. Also in March, the Chinese foreign minister visited Myanmar coup leader Min Aung Hlaing, while Xi travelled to Moscow to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In April, Xi held a phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and, last month, his envoy attempted to build support for a Beijing-led plan to end Russia’s war in Ukraine. Beijing has also been mentioned as a potential peace broker in conflict-ravaged Sudan.
Andy Mok, a senior research fellow at the Beijing-based Center for China and Globalization, says the Chinese approach to international relations is defined by a live-and-let-live mindset.
“It is less defined by shared values and more defined by a shared future,” he told Al Jazeera.
That means that while Western countries sometimes condition interactions and cooperation on adherence to a set of values, China wants to base its engagements on the potential for development and future benefits, Mok said.
The policy largely follows a CCP conviction that development and prosperity do not have to lead to adopting these – so-called Western – values. The Chinese leadership has frequently criticised “certain countries” for supposedly imposing their principles onto others and lacking respect for the ways non-Western nations with different cultures and traditions run their affairs.
Beijing’s world order would be defined by multipolarity, according to Mok, who says China has no plan to be a dominant power.
“I don’t see a change in the world order being a case of a new boss simply replacing the old boss.”
Reconfiguring the existing world order
Although the Chinese leadership regularly opposes the imposition of Western values, this does not mean Beijing wants to discard democracy, human rights and the rule of law on the global stage, according to the Chinese government.
Using China as an example, Xi has claimed that China is “democratic” because the CCP and the state represent the people and run the country on behalf of the people to promote the will of the people. Chinese state media have insisted that liberal democracies neglect the needs of the people by measuring democracy “only” on the basis of electoral cycles.
“They see these values as more relative terms and have in their own view provided a more inclusive definition of them with freedom from hunger and freedom from fear for your life being seen as examples of more basic human rights,” Mok said.
The modern understanding of human rights can be traced back to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which details a set of basic rights and freedoms seen as inherent, inalienable and applicable to all people.
Adopted in the early years of the UN, the rights were enshrined into the foundation of the international system. Since then, more than 70 human rights treaties have sprouted from the UDHR, many of which have been signed and ratified by China.
Trying to reinterpret the language on human rights and democracy is therefore not something to be taken lightly, according to Elaine Pearson, the director of the Asia division of the rights organisation Human Rights Watch (HRW).
“It is not up to individual states to redefine human rights as they like,” Pearson told Al Jazeera.
“Totalitarian North Korea also calls itself the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea – simply saying something doesn’t make it true.”
HRW warned in 2020 that Beijing was trying to bring about change within the UN, not only by trying to redefine established principles but also by hampering investigations and diluting condemnations of human rights abuses around the world.
Its efforts come at a time when international NGOs and UN bodies have expressed deep concern about the violation of basic freedoms and rights in China.
Beijing has fired back at such concerns.
When a UN report was released last year detailing possible “crimes against humanity” by the Chinese state against the mostly Muslim Uighurs in the far western Xinjiang region, Beijing responded with a report of its own. It accused alleged anti-China forces in the US and other Western countries of feigning concern for human rights and claimed they wanted to use the Uighur issue to “destabilise Xinjiang and suppress China”.
A vote in October at the UN’s Human Rights Council to debate the issue, however, was narrowly defeated.
Following the vote, human rights group Amnesty International accused the council of failing to uphold its core mission: protecting the victims of human rights violations everywhere.
“The Chinese government has gained more global influence in recent years and has been able to turn that influence into a greater sway at established international institutions,” Liselotte Odgaard, a professor of China Relations at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies, told Al Jazeera.
Additionally, Beijing has used its veto power in the UN Security Council to block resolutions and statements condemning the military coup in Myanmar and hinder new sanctions on North Korea, while abstaining from condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Besides developing a greater say in traditional global institutions, Beijing has also founded new institutions to further its credibility as an international player.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the BRICS New Development Bank (NDB), the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Silk Road Fund have all been spearheaded by China, have headquarters in China and have been called alternatives to established global institutions such as the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
But they should not necessarily be seen as an attempt by Beijing to replace existing international institutions, according to St Thomas’s Yeh.
As UN cases show, Beijing has channelled considerable effort into reshaping established institutions as well. At the same time, China is the second-biggest donor of funds to the UN and one of only five members of the security council with permanent veto powers.
“We are seeing Beijing working both inside and outside established structures, depending on what is most conducive to their goals,” said Yeh.
Pursuing the Chinese Dream
The ultimate goal is achieving the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation also known as the Chinese Dream – a vision closely associated with President Xi since his early days in office.
The Chinese Dream represents Beijing’s quest to regain its prestige – damaged in the ‘Century of Humiliation’ by the imperial powers in the late 19th and early 20th century – and turn China into an advanced, world-leading nation by 2049.
This includes developing China internally but also expanding the territory under the PRC into areas currently beyond its direct control that are nonetheless considered inalienable parts of the Chinese nation.
This includes disputed territory along the land border with India and Bhutan, the Senkaku islands (that China calls Diaoyudao) administered by Japan in the East China Sea as well as most of the South China Sea where Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have rival claims.
Above all else, however, China’s rejuvenation means unification with Taiwan and Beijing has not ruled out the use of force to achieve this goal.
When the Chinese military conducts large-scale exercises around Taiwan or when Chinese vessels intercept ships from other countries in the South China Sea, Beijing argues these are not breaches of China’s international pledges but examples of China upholding sovereignty over territory that rightfully belongs to the Chinese nation.
On the world stage, the Chinese government has repeatedly condemned violations of national sovereignty, foreign interference in other nations’ affairs and the unilateral use of economic sanctions.
But at the same time, it reserves the right to look past international rulings that go against it – such as the 2016 international court ruling that its historic claim to the South China Sea had “no legal basis” – and take action against those perceived to stand between Beijing and its path towards national rejuvenation.
When Lithuania in 2021 allowed the opening of a “Taiwan Representative Office” rather than the usual “Taipei Economic and Cultural Office” in Vilnius, Beijing was furious. Seeing such a naming convention as encouraging Taiwanese independence, it imposed severe economic sanctions on the Baltic state.
But even as Beijing touts “non-interference” for itself and others, it has itself been accused of engaging in interference abroad.
In Canada, a leaked intelligence report revealed in early May that Chinese authorities had allegedly been involved in an intimidation campaign against a Canadian MP and his family in Hong Kong after he sponsored a successful motion declaring the Chinese treatment of the Uighurs a genocide.
Previous Canadian intelligence leaks have led to allegations that Beijing attempted to interfere in the Canadian general elections of 2019 and 2021 to secure the defeat of anti-Beijing candidates.
Chinese diplomatic staff have also been accused of election interference in Denmark, while consular staff in Manchester, England’s second-biggest city, were accused of employing physical violence to disrupt a demonstration outside the Chinese consulate.
In all these cases, Chinese officials have denied engaging in any sort of tampering, claiming instead that forces with “hidden agendas” were “fabricating lies” to “smear” China. At the same time, the Chinese government says it reserves the right to defend its sovereignty and act against those that attempt to interfere in China’s domestic matters.
As Xi allegedly told US President Biden regarding US engagement with Taiwan during a phone call last year: “Those that play with fire get burned.”