In Other News – China’s Grasp for Global Leadership – 3/23/2023

March 23, 2023

Little of real substance emerged from the meeting from Xi and Putin other than platitudes about their enduring special relationship. Riding high from the Chinese brokered peace deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Xi was able to have yet another photo op brandishing his proposed peace deal between Russian and Ukraine. While the Saudi-Iranian deal is full of promise but short on details, this deal is a non-starter and Xi shows little interest in pushing Putin to get to a real place for meaningful negotiations with Kyiv.

While China speaks of its desire for peace, what Xi is most interested in is projecting to the world (especially the Global South) the emergence of new Chinese global leadership free from what he would term the shackles of the West’s hegemonic influence. Xi is offering a new sort of alliance to many of the world’s leading oil and gas purveyors – Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran – that offers a bolstered market for their oil and gas but also an alternative world order. But what that really means is a world free from international norms for territorial sovereignty, human rights, and political freedom, free from pesty regulations of transparency and accountability, free from the rule of law, free from much of the international order that keeps the global economy functioning and has on balance ushered the greatest period of political stability that the world has ever known.

It is a curious gamble that Xi is coming out so boldly on this regressive, petrochemical-heavy vision for the world economy when the imperative posed by climate change and water shortages (underscored by the UN Water Conference being held this week) require alternative energies and technologies and a reinforced global cooperation that can only take place within the framework of an international order. It is possible that there is more bluster and posturing behind these efforts than real enduring power. Xi has real domestic challenges whether it be his flailing housing sector to an existential demographic crisis of population decline. His efforts may have a shorter horizon to shore up cheaper energy to help subsidize an economic recovery and to make marginalized leaders in Moscow, Tehran and Riyadh more beholden to him.

Still, there’s strong reason to believe that many of the Global South are taken in by these grand gestures buttressed by a decade’s long investment-cum-diplomatic campaign in Belt and Road. It is a critical time for the West to realize both the strategic import of this part of the world and the strategic opportunity to make an alternative, sustainable case for international cooperation opposed to what is essentially long-term fealty to an autocratic and ruthless Beijing regime.