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Beijing's Bid For Global Influence Tested In Ukraine Summit

  • China recently joined a 40-country summit in Saudi Arabia aimed at peace in Ukraine, but still remains strategically allied with Russia despite showcasing support for peace.
  • The broader goal behind China's diplomacy is to solidify its leadership in the Global South, especially in Africa and the Middle East, where Beijing has invested heavily over the past decade.
  • Despite negative perceptions in Western countries, majorities in Africa and the Middle East hold favorable views of China, reflecting the global divide in opinions about Beijing's rising influence.

China joined international diplomatic talks in Saudi Arabia on August 6 for a two-day summit with officials from 40 countries designed to find a framework for peace in Ukraine. But does it signal a new tack for Beijing?

Finding Perspective: China sent its special envoy for Eurasian affairs, Li Hui, who offered support for the summit and called for another round of talks through the format that includes countries from the West and across the Global South.

The summit -- which also included representatives from the European Union, India, and the United States -- excluded Russia and centered upon putting momentum behind a 10-point peace formula developed by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

Several observers saw China's presence as a sign that it was willing to play a more constructive role in pushing for peace talks, but there's plenty of signals that show Beijing is playing its own game here.

China unveiled its own 12-point peace document in February and Alexander Gabuev, the director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, was skeptical that Beijing was changing its stance on the war, arguing that while the economic and reputational costs for standing by Russia are rising, the longer term strategic calculations of keeping Russia by its side remain the same for China.

This was reaffirmed when Foreign Minister Wang Yi spoke with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, on August 8 and assured him that China hadn't wavered on its partnership with Moscow.

Why It Matters: China is hoping that it can use its diplomatic track record and openness to dialogue on Ukraine to cement its status as the Global South's superpower and showcase its leadership credentials in the process.

Mark Leonard, the director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in a recent article for Politico that think tankers and policymakers in China are focused on appearing constructive around ending the war while at the same time ensuring that Moscow will continue to stand by Beijing in rewriting the Western-led world order.

The focal point for establishing this new non-Western order are the so-called "nonaligned" countries across Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere in the Global South -- many of the same ones that were in Saudi Arabia over the weekend.

Beijing has invested tens of billions of dollars over the last decade in boosting its global image and it has so far yielded mixed results, according to a series of new polls.

A recent Pew Research poll found that two-thirds of respondents from the 24 countries surveyed viewed China unfavorably, while only 28 percent held a favorable opinion. Anti-China sentiment has also reached new highs in Argentina, India, and Brazil, according to the poll.

But there are important divisions here. The majority of the countries surveyed were Western, with African countries like Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa showing much more favorable views of China in comparison.

While souring public opinion in the West and countries like India marks its own type of foreign policy failure for China, the story is different in Africa and the Middle East.

Public opinion polls by Afrobaromter and Arab Barometer, show that majorities in Africa and the Middle East tend to view China favorably -- although, the Afrobarometer data found that both China and the United States were slipping in recent years as competition between them accelerates.


These global divisions and the larger battle for hearts and minds have now carried over to the diplomatic stage around Ukraine.


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