NYT Op-Ed: Chinese Foreign Policy Comes of Age
WASHINGTON — China’s public offer to mediate peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government marks a notable departure in Chinese foreign policy. It is the first time Beijing is taking a genuine leadership role, on its own initiative, on a geopolitical issue both sensitive and significant.
If Beijing has alarmed its neighbors in East Asia with its assertiveness over contested territory, elsewhere it is its policy of noninterference that has been criticized, especially by Western governments, as a form of free-riding or obstructionism. But now its efforts in Afghanistan suggest it will no longer leave all the diplomatic heavy-lifting to other states. Beijing is finally easing into its role as a great power.
China’s noninterventionism has been a diplomatic mantra since Zhou Enlai laid out the “five principles of peaceful coexistence” over half a century ago. The policy didn’t stop Mao Zedong from sending Chinese troops into India in 1962 and supporting revolutionary movements across the globe, nor Deng Xiaoping from invading Vietnam in 1979 and providing arms to the mujahedeen in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Yet noninterference remained a defining feature of China’s foreign policy mind-set.
In more recent decades, it was coupled with Deng’s injunctions to “hide our capabilities and bide our time” and “never claim leadership.” Partly a means of distinguishing China’s identity as a developing country from Western powers, partly a strategy to minimize risk, these principles have also been an excuse for inaction, and for protecting China’s commercial interests abroad, especially in the world’s trouble spots.
Beijing has occasionally taken on tough diplomatic tasks. It has found itself on the hot seat at times, notably by hosting the Six-Party Talks on North Korea and navigating disputes between the two Sudans. But these initiatives were essentially driven by other powers, with China’s role a secondary and reluctant one. Meanwhile, its independent diplomatic excursions have had an air of tokenism.
Beijing’s proposal in 2013 to facilitate talks about a “four-point peace plan” for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was largely empty theatrics. The Chinese government hosted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, a few days apart. But with little interest on the part of Israel, the effort was principally designed to rescue Beijing’s reputation in the Arab world, which was suffering because of Chinese support for the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
China’s approach to Afghanistan today is a wholly different matter. Rather than having to be dragged along again, the Chinese government has surprised foreign diplomats, and some of its own experts, by how far it has been willing to go. Not only is it working hard behind the scenes to line up a regional consensus for reconciliation, drawing on its longstanding relationship with the Taliban and coordinating with the United States, it has also been leaning on its close friend Pakistan...