Beijing’s hands-off approach to diplomacy may suffice for now, but as the Belt and Road unfolds, an assertive foreign policy may prove the only way to secure its realisation.
This Friday (23rd of October), representatives of both Armenia and Azerbaijan are due to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Washington – more than three weeks since the conflict erupted. Despite an enthusiasm for foreign policy victories in the run up to elections, the administration in Washington has, until now, largely neglected the troubles in the South Caucuses, preferring to leave mediation to regional powers like Turkey and Russia. “America first” may have created the strategic space for historical hegemons, but there is a new stakeholder on the scene that has so far struggled to take a proactive stance on the issue – China.
China’s foreign policy interests are those of a rising superpower that aims to become a global player by the time of Xi Jinping’s second double centenary goal in 2049. The crucial project for the achievement of this goal is the realisation of the Belt and Road Initiative, a multi-billion-dollar project that would reshape international trade and the economic geography of the Eurasian landmass. Central to this project is the mountainous and troubled South Caucus region. Azerbaijan in particular is not only a key location along the economic corridor that links China to Turkey and Europe, but a strong contender for the heart of the Eurasian continent itself and the bridge between East and West. That a conflict along its remote border should draw the attention of pandemic-stricken Russia and economically occupied Turkey is testament to its privileged position at the centre of any future world order.
Despite becoming one of the primary sources of investment in Central Asia, China’s diplomacy offensive has yet to extend to the region. During a press conference near the beginning of the conflict, spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Wang Wenbin merely stated that “maintaining peace and stability in the region serves the interests of all sides” and that he hoped that differences could be resolved through “political dialogue”. In contrast to highly publicised peace initiatives sponsored by Beijing such as the Taliban – Kabul talks or its enterprises in Africa, China has yet to turn its hand to resolving simmering disputes directly in the path of the BRI.
China’s failure to “shoulder its share of global responsibility” in what may soon become its own backyard could be put down to one of two reasons. The first is that the Caucasian corridor is only one of a number of routes that Chinese goods will take on their way to Europe, with the China-Mongolia-Russia Economic Corridor appearing to be a more reliable option. However, the southern route cuts almost 2000km off the journey and opens a wider range of options, passing by the Maritime Silk Road port of Piraeus and perhaps Trieste. The second appears to be that it has yet to discover an effective way to balance its interests as it seeks to walk a tightrope between bitter rivals – a situation true of many infrastructure signatories.
China’s ties to Armenia are long-standing – the first Confucius Institute in the region was opened in Yerevan in 2009. The President of Armenia has spoken warmly of linking the country into the Belt and Road Initiative and there were even rumours of a $15bn “smart city” for the country. Even the latest fleet of buses in the country come with prominent notification of their East Asian country of origin. It remains however the smallest economy in the region and given its fractious relations with its neighbours (closed borders with two of its four sides), it seems unlikely to immediately reap the benefits of a scheme designed for connectivity and integration.
Relations with Azerbaijan are a more complicated affair. Thanks to Azerbaijan’s oil wealth and its connectivity to the Caspian, a flurry of investment has flowed back and forth between the two countries in recent years. The Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway is an important regional infrastructure project that has seen interest from Chinese investors; as is the newly built port in Alat, just south of Baku – an officially designated component of the Belt and Road. Azerbaijan however must balance its own delicate interests in dealing with China. Home to a large Uyghur diaspora, Azerbaijan was noticeably absent from both of last years letters about rights abuses in Xinjiang, choosing neither to defend nor criticize Beijing’s policies in the province.
The delicate balancing act China must maintain if it is to protect its strategic interests may prove too much to bear as fighting continues to rage. China’s calls for stability and peace are revealing of its policies regarding conflicts along its new silk road – defence of the status quo is preferable to early diplomatic failure. China might be willing to play a minor role in long-simmering conflicts such as in Baluchistan, along the flagship China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), but the sudden explosion of outright warfare seems to have caught Beijing unprepared. The official commitment to non-intervention in the affairs of other nations will – if the Belt and Road is to become a success – someday have to be replaced by a more pragmatic approach to regional diplomacy. To simply let opposing armies fight out their differences whilst waiting for preoccupied Russia and a recalcitrant Turkey to find a solution will be damaging to Chinese interests, infrastructure and soft power.
Further recent eruptions in fellow Silk Road travellers Kyrgyzstan and Belarus, emphasises this point all the more clearly. Regardless of the purely economic terms in which China chooses to view its role in the region, its growing interests will sooner or later necessitate a stronger response and a game plan to deal with threats to its overseas projects – and to the realisation of the “Chinese Dream” itself. Ethnic conflicts rear their head from time to time across the entirety of the Silk Road Economic Belt, from Rakhine state in Burma to the Balkans. Until now, China has relied on established mechanisms such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the rhetoric of non-intervention to assuage grievances across the steppe. The ferocity of fighting in Karabakh should be a wake-up call to officials in China’s foreign ministry: unless there is a more secure plan of action to safeguard the realisation of the Belt and Road, China may find itself scrambling to put out fires from Kashgar to Kosovo.
China’s attempts to build a local support base, develop its neighbouring hinterlands and shift global value chains in its favour is not a simple project, it is one that necessitates intertwined economic and political strength. As Beijing attempts to further push US influence from its backyard, it will soon notice that any ensuing vacuum is not a mere absence of dollars that can be easily replaced by renminbi. Diplomacy is a public good that must be provided alongside this investment in order to safeguard peace and ensure development in the region. On the same day that representatives of Armenian and Azerbaijan arrive in Washington, China marks the 70th anniversary of the People’s Volunteer Army crossing the Yalu river in aid of Korea. It would do well to remember those internationalist values that its people remain proud of today.