Can China play conflict mediator for neighbors?

August 22, 2019 09:00
China is seeking to expand its influence on the global stage, including in matters pertaining to conflict resolution between individual nations. Photo: Bloomberg

As world attention focused on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, India all of a sudden moved to strip the special region of Jammu and Kashmir of the autonomy guaranteed to it in India’s constitution since independence in 1947. That triggered a predictable protest from Pakistan, which claims the region as its own, and which has fought three wars with India.

The conflict over Kashmir has lasted for more than seven decades and is one of the critical danger spots in the region, involving two nuclear powers.

Beijing has sought to maintain peace between India and Pakistan, both neighbors of China. Pakistan is an “all-weather” friend and China has been working hard at improving relations with India.

Last Friday, the United Nations Security Council held a meeting on the Kashmir issue, the first in more than 50 years. Pakistan, backed by China, a permanent member, had requested the meeting.

The session was called a “closed consultation” and wasn’t a full council meeting. After 90 minutes, it adjourned without issuing a statement.

Still, this was an example of China playing an increasingly influential role, especially in its neighborhood as it assumes greater responsibility for maintaining global stability and as the United States seems to be retreating from its traditional interests. 

Zhang Jun, China’s ambassador to the United Nations, told the media afterward that council members had been “seriously concerned” by the Kashmir crisis, including the human rights situation.

He added that in China’s view Kashmir is an international issue and must be peacefully resolved in accordance with the United Nations Charter, Security Council resolution and bilateral agreements. By contrast, New Delhi takes the view that Kashmir is an internal Indian affair and no other country should be involved.

Unlike 40 years ago when China kept a low international profile, China today under President Xi Jinping is playing an increasingly prominent global role and other countries are looking to it to help settle disputes, especially in its part of the world.

There has been talk that China could help defuse tensions between South Korea and Japan so that the three countries can work together on economic issues, including a free trade agreement.

Even though both Japan and South Korea are American allies, they are geographically close to China and all three countries are interested in closer economic cooperation, which is impossible in the current atmosphere of hostility between Seoul and Tokyo.

Moreover, as the United States negotiates with the Taliban to facilitate an American military withdrawal from Afghanistan, Chinese diplomats have also been active, hosting a Taliban delegation to discuss the Afghan peace process in June.

The Chinese foreign ministry, when disclosing the Taliban talks, said that Beijing has paid great attention to the evolving situation in Afghanistan in recent years.

Lu Kang, a foreign ministry spokesman, said China supports the people of Afghanistan to resolve the country’s problems through talks, and that China was helping to promote such talks.

Another example of China’s use of its economic and diplomatic heft is Beijing’s continued support of the Iran nuclear deal, despite American withdrawal from it last year.

Interestingly, the American leader, Donald Trump, offered last month to act as mediator between Pakistan and India on the Kashmir issue. At a meeting in the White House, Trump suddenly said to visiting Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan: “If you want me to mediate or arbitrate, I would be willing to do it.”

He then said that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had asked for his help. Hours later, the Indian foreign minister denied that Modi had made any such suggestion.

It is highly unlikely that India will accept mediation in this matter. But, China could argue that it is better placed than the United States in such a role if a mediator was needed.

Chinese vice foreign minister Le Yucheng told the Financial Times last September: “Kashmir is an issue between India and Pakistan that is left from history. We believe the two parties should resolve the issue properly through dialogue and consultation. We don’t side with either party.” Neutrality, of course, is vital for any mediator.

If China were asked by these two countries to help resolve an intractable problem, would it accept? The task is daunting and thankless unless it is successful. But, as it seeks to be considered an influential and responsible power in Asia, it is quite likely that China would accept and in the process try to show the world that in the new era there is a new China, trusted by its neighbors, willing to take on tough tasks and cognizant of other parties’ sensitivities.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.