One of the greatest military generals in human history, Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) once asserted that “China is a sleeping giant. If he wakes, he will shake the world”. Rising from its seeming slumber from the erstwhile dominance of the world under the Mongol and Ming empires for 400 years, China gradually became vocal and obtuse on the world scene in the past three decades. The three-centuries-old declaration by the French warrior, is now receiving real appreciation as Xi Jinping, the current Chinese leader and General Secretary of the Chinese People’s Party, like a conspicuous crested bird, recently embarked on a global diplomatic swirlingling.
2. As he shuttled on the self-appointed pacifist expedition, he also received a barrage of visitors at home. The actual content and outcome were clearly much beyond optics, producing glaring results in its trail, asserting his country’s burgeoning influence.
THINING SUNNI-SHIATE DIVIDE
3. First on the shuttle was President Jinping’s deft and rather peremptory visit to Saudi Arabia from December 8-10, 2022. At the bilateral level, the visit enabled the two countries to seal about 34 agreements valued at over $30 billion, covering energy, technology, transportation, and logistics sectors, among others. At a broader level was his star participation at the First China-Arab States Summit and the China-Gulf Cooperation Summit in Riyadh during the period. Impressively, virtually all Arab leaders, including the regional powerhouse, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sissi, were in attendance, underpinning the new weight being ascribed to the emerging Chinese heft around the Middle East.
4. China also engaged in back-channel mediating efforts in the region, which culminated in the breakthrough in Saudi Arabia-Iran diplomatic stand-off, which was announced in March 2023. Without bothering on the behind the scene details of the seeming quick-fix, the icing on the cake of the Chinese’s brusque move was the restorative breather to the state of complex and confusing enmity between the two neighbouring countries. The soured state of Iran-Saudi Arabia relation had greatly percolated to the rest of the region, festering internecine suspicions and insecurity.
5. The truth is that the hiatus in relations between both neighbouring countries had always hobbled around historic rivalries, including questions of faith, ideology, and quest for domino realpolitik. The divergences in substance, methods, and opinions on matters of mutually shared Islamic faith and jurisprudence have been well-known. On the one hand, the Sunnis “follower of the Sunna” led by Saudi Arabia, the larger of the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims, hold from the earliest days, that succession to Prophet Mohammed be based on piety. On the other hand, the Iranian led side known as Shias or Shiites, believe on consanguineous heritage in succession along the prophet’s line.
6. In more recent times, differences in political viewpoints, especially Iran’s self-appointed revolutionary mantra and the Saudi political conservatism, came to the fore. Particularly, in 2016, the Saudi Embassy in Teheran was violated over controversial execution of a Shiite cleric and things nose-dived, almost irrecoverably when diplomatic ties were severed during the past seven years.
7. With the Chinese brinkmanship, the predominant outcome is the immediate resumption of diplomatic relations and reopening of embassies in their respective capitals has been announced. At the bilateral level, more cultural exchanges and other forms of collaboration, especially in education, are expected to follow.
8. The other main fall-out is the potential of stronger economic ties. Both neighbouring countries are regional economic powerhouses and leading members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). From the past, they were also mutual major trading partners. This new thaw brokered from the Great Hall of People will, without doubt, bring a new impetus to increase trade and investment. Indeed, for an ailing Iranian economy, this is a lifesaver of sorts, as they eye some of Saudi’s huge free flowing investment capital of about $2.7 million to enter the Persian side.
9. One commentator noted that “this is among the most topsy turvy of developments that anyone could have imagined, a shift that left heads spinning in capitals around the globe. The alliances and rivalries that have governed diplomacy for generations have, for the moment at least, been upended“. Interestingly, this achievement is not by the Americans, who for long, have been the main broker of sorts in the area, but the Chinese, who were, at best, keen bystanders.
10. More significantly, repaired relations could aid in boosting more regional peace and build confidence in the Middle East. Iran, for one, had maintained a rather withdrawn doctrinaire posture, which in the course of time could be tempered by the relatively more liberal Riyadh regime. This could pave the way for some form of breakthrough in the long search for peace in myriads of problematic concerns in the region: most important of which are the proxy wars in Yemen, Syria, and Palestine. Already on the heels of this development, Syria has announced a softening of position against Saudi Arabia, with a view to opening its Embassy, which had been closed for over a decade.
UNLOCKING THE RUSSIAN ROULLETTE
11. Having accomplished its gulf diplomatic stint, the Chinese leader, Jinping, who coincidentally just got elected to serve a third term in office as head of state of his expansive country, turned his agility towards northern Europe – Russia. On another auto-endorsed role as a guardian of international morals and pacifism, a greatly choreographed ‘State Visit’ to the Kremlin took place on March 20-22, 2023. Beyond the fact that China and Russia are each other’s most sizeable neighbours and closest geo-political ally, this visit was given unusual optics and colour for a number of strategic reasons.
12. For one, bilateral trade between both sides now stands at $190.2 billion. With the Russian side, weighed down by western sanctions, raising exports by 43.4% in 2022 to as much as $114 billion. A major object of the visit was, therefore, to substantially raise these figures to new heights.
13. Beyond that, the other main object of the visit was to untie the imbroglio of the Russia-Ukraine war. Now, just past its first anniversary, the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 remains perhaps the most scorching snare on contemporary global politics, moralism, and international law. Elusive, becoming a tightly tangled mass, the drag-out of the war has seen the systematic smothering and occupation of about a third of Ukraine’s territory and displacement of lots of its citizens. It was therefore not surprising that in their parting words, the Chinese leader and his Russian host, Vladimir Putin, gave the question of peace in Ukraine topmost significance. They called for cessation of the “increased tension and prolonged hostilities” in Ukraine.
14. However, diplomats around the world and international watchers observe that the common silence in identifying the provocative circumstances surrounding the invasion blighted the raised hopes on if the discussions would bring early peace. This was not any improvement on the blame-game between Kremlin and the rest of the Western world over how the war started. So, the general conjecture is that both sides might have discussed Ukraine but are keeping to their chests the actual strategic moves, if any, towards ending the conflict.
15. Regarding the wider global scene, China, which in recent times has presented itself as a dispassionate broker, joined Russia to demand a “multi polar world”. They both avowed a resolve to “safeguard the international system” and, no less, went on to caution the United States from undermining the global and various regional security arrangements for the sake of its interest.
RESURGING SINO-EUROPEAN AMITY
16. While the Chinese foray into the Arab world was on course, no less active was its upturn of relations with Europe. Like a dazzling damsel, China has become surfeited with endless ocean flow of visits. The most recent on the line-up of stop-overs was by French President Manuel Macron, which was held from 5th to 8th April 2023. The three days of “State Visit” were not only the pageantry of diplomatic show-off but what appeared to be a veiled message of French independence and autonomy in matters of foreign relations to the concerned sides.
17. Macron’s well-publicized touch-down in various parts of China paid particular accent to the new growth of Franco-Sino Relations as he made it clear that he was desirous of growing and expanding the flow of goods between the two countries which at present stands at about $81.133 billion a year. Most of the content of French export into the world’s largest market are aeroplanes, helicopters, parts for spacecrafts, nuclear energy products, beauty products, and consumables. It is, therefore, not a coincidence that the French President’s delegation comprised at least 50 major business leaders from his country, stamping a great vote of confidence on the strength of the Chinese economy.
18. Additionally, for one that has taken strenuous efforts to unlock the Russia-Ukraine debacle, President Macron who in the past had personally visited Russia leader, Vladimir Putin left none in doubt that the peaceful end of war was on the front burner of the basket of issues for discussion. As a result of the close bilateral relations between China and Russia, not only Macron but many have always held the view that the latter who is also a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council could hold the key to getting Putin to sustained process of dialogue. The French President, however, staved off any diplomatic oddities by restraining from publicly raising matters on the tensed question of Taiwan, even though this sticky issue could have, in private, been touched during the visit.
19. One other interesting aspect of Macron’s visit was that he carried along the President of European Commission, Ursula Von Der Leyen, for separate discussions with Beijing. With very little details or any public communiqué, she left none in doubt that the object of her tag-along to Beijing was to “reset relations with an important partner”. Taking account of the fact that the European Commission President is also one of the prime movers for peace in Ukraine, it is much more than common guess that the question of Ukraine was the raison d’etre for the long journey. Again, like Macron’s and Xi’s tète-a-tète, details of what positions were taken to reignite dialogue and amity between Russia and her smaller neighbour, Ukraine, were scant It is certain, however, that something is brewing beneath the surface, to see China put its hands on the diplomatic plough on the matter.
20. Retraced back, a fortnight earlier, another high profile but less choreographed European, Spanish Prime Minister, Pedro Sanchez Perez-Castejon entered Beijing on March 30-31, 2023. Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez clearly disclosed that the object of his visit was to discuss the way forward in Ukraine against the backdrop that “Beijing had become a global power, which comes with great responsibilities”. The Iberian leader therefore urged China in the aftermath of its efforts in successfully mediating in the Iran and Saudi Arabia diplomatic break to bring peace to Ukraine. Aside, the visit from Madrid, the first of its kind ever, is in obvious preparation for Spain’s eventual take-over of the rotatory presidency of the European Union, which will begin from the second half of 2022.
21. Still regarding Europe’s feverish thaw with China, indeed, even going further back was the visit of the German Chancellor, Olaf Scholl, to China on November 4, 2022. An event which came shortly after the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, the main motive as was disclosed, was to key into the booming economic landscape of China and position Berlin as a strategic partner of this new awakening. Already, trade exchanges between the two countries amount to $320 billion annually. Both sides restated a new resolve to shoot up the value exponentially. However, not surprising and leaving none in doubt, was the common concern, that Ukraine was on the highest layer in their minds and the items of discussion; pressuring the Chinese side to show more activism in the peace efforts.
And Nearer its Back Garden.
22. For some time now, the Chinese have also started spreading their dragnet to other parts of the world, especially around its backyard in South East Asia. China had typically regarded all of East Asia as most important to its diplomacy and a critical area of its proprietorial interest. Therefore, all countries in the region, including Japan, Korea, and more increasingly, Thailand, Cambodia, and Singapore, have come under so much economic overflow of China. In the past, during its “Revolutionary Years” (1949-1976) under Chairman Mao, China’s pursuit of command economy and political isolationism, created a gulf with its neighbours which were more capitalist-oriented and within the western sphere of influence. However, for the past three decades, Chinese society itself has undergone fundamental processes of political and economic transformation, allowing for open door relations with its neighbours.
23. China’s robust economic performance has also enabled it to become the net exporter of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) to virtually all the 10 South East Asian countries amounting to over $340 billion at present. With the rest of its neighbours, especially Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan, China has made significant gains in the improvement of economic relations, despite the tensed political and security nerves which occur from time to time. As a matter of fact, these three countries, which are relatively solid economic centres, happen to be amongst its biggest trading partners. In the case of Korea, in particular, its net investments in China have lately risen to as much as $200 billion, all of which portend greater margins for influence within the geo-strategic space.
CHINA AND GOOD OLD AFRICA
24. In the rest of the world, the Chinese have no less been active, as China has investments of over $200 billion especially in the energy sector in 140 countries of Africa, Middle East, Pacific and Latin America. Indeed, China’s interest in Africa assumed a greater focus since after the pioneer Sino-Africa Cooperation Forum of 2000. The country has increasingly become Africa’s biggest trading partner, with volumes reaching over $200 billion annually. One estimate put the number of Chinese companies doing business in Africa at about 10,000. In terms of the actual quantum of investments and debts, the available figures are varying and disparate. However, studies by Chinedu Okafor, writer for Business Insider Africa, adduces that “Chinese lenders account for 12% of Africa’s public external debt, which increased more than fivefold to $696 billion from 2000 to 2020”. Since the 2000 Summit, Beijing has used its influence in Africa to gain preferential access to the continent’s natural resources, open up markets for its exports, and enlist support for its diplomatic agenda around the world.
25. The country’s interest in Nigeria, the regional powerhouse, is particularly weighty. With several of its now privatized or corporatized construction companies, the Chinese have entered virtually all key sectors of the Nigerian economy. These include construction, railways, power, petroleum, and mining, among others. The 700 megawatts Zungeru Power Plant, which is almost being completed, is through Chinese loans, while the huge 3,050 megawatts Mambilla Power Complex is also being developed by them. One study estimates the worth of Chinese ongoing construction contracts in different parts of Nigeria as nearing $20 billion, while investments in oil and gas, through its giant China Nation Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), also nearing about the same figure.
AND NOW THE BRAZILIAN SAMBA
26. Perhaps the most colourful outing around Beijing, which received the highest level of global watch and attention, was that of Brazilian President Luiz Lula da Silva, which was held from April 12 to 14, 2023. In the past, when he was the leader of one of the world’s biggest democracies of 214 million people, President Lula had visited China on two occasions in 2009 and 2014. The visit this time, which, like his European counterparts, was marked by great glitterati, saw both leaders and their delegations sign about 15 bilateral agreements covering a wide range of areas, especially agriculture and technology.
27. It was a great show-off and bluff, perhaps over the US stealthily diplomatic demeanour, as all the events through the visit came up with singsong celebrating the new commitment to re-energising Sino-Brazilian strategic partnership. Even though their present trade volume stands at about $88 billion in terms of exports into China and imports from Brazil of about $54 billion, the large markets of both countries portend great potentials, which they avowed to build up. Officially, that was explained as the main impetus for the visit.
28. Beyond that is the fact that Brazil which is one of the leaders of Concert of Medium Range Powers known as BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and its Chinese partner started to converse around creating a new future for their relations and a need for the two sides to “play an important and positive role for peace, stability and prosperity in their regions around the world”. Like other European leaders, no doubt, Ukraine was high on the agenda with pressure on China to put its hands on the diplomatic plough. Therefore, no one was in doubt as they re-echoed a common concern on bringing peace back to Ukraine by insisting on the need for dialogue and negotiation and restating their decision to keep close contact underscored again. Considering that Russia, which many consider as the aggressor nation in this Ukraine issue, is a fellow soul mate
In the BRICS alliance, fingers remained crossed if the Chinese would yield to the Brazilian pressure on this matter.
29. Interestingly, another recurrent chord during the visit was promoting a multi-polar world, which is an obvious chagrin to American drive for unipolarism under its terms.
ENDING OF THOUGHTS
30. No doubt, the Chinese have woken up to take the rightful place in the world of diplomacy and in the global power game arena. The recent moves in the Middle East and the flirtatious manoeuvring on the European continent arguably are clearly to tactical flex its enormous muscles.
31. The Chinese know well from ancient wisdom that influence and gravitas of nations in the global scene are often determined by the ponderances of power. Power in terms of economic might, the social circumstances of its people, and none the less, its tactical and defence well wherewithal. Today, their country is not only the world’s largest economy but has become the global industrial superpower. Against the backdrop of its robust economic fortune with a whopping GDP of $19.3 trillion, now number one in the world, the moves appear an affirmation of a new dawn, bringing to pass the French General’s prediction of yore years.
32. Additionally, China maintains the world’s largest standing army with over 2 million active soldiers, not including paramilitary and reserve forces. Its military budget is $293 billion, though next only to the United States of America is believed by several analysts as grossly under-reported. As things stand, the Chinese diplomatic armada appears unstoppable and set to foray into all parts of the world. Not unexpected, American diplomatic paraphilia has become greatly discomfited and embarked on strategies to cut the tail of the Chinese tiger to size. Hence, a jolted-up Congress passed an unprecedented budget of $886.3 billion for tactical engagement for 2024 as against $857.9 billion for 2023 and $774.4 billion for 2022.
33. This may not likely stop this giant, which has woken up or forced it to go back to sleep. Since the end of the Cold War in the 1990s, the US increasingly became a global power house and, not the least, ruled over a unipolar world. With the Napoleonic prediction seeming to unfold, the world may be entering a new season of multi-faceted nerve centres of power. The innervating impact of the multi-centres of power may impulse, like during the Westphalian era, resumed multilateralism with China emerging much more than a passive influencer and holder of the ace cards.
34. What this means for a country like Nigeria is to tactically de-cocoon itself from the apron strings of neo-colonial umbilical cords. If the Germans, the Portuguese, the French, the Saudi’s, the Brazilians are all looking east, towards the Chinese direction, it will be redolent to imagine that they are only going on a leisurely rendezvous at the impervious Great Wall of China. No! Abuja will require early tactical moves to sail closer towards where the wind is blowing.
Dr. Igali, a retired ambassador, is Pro-Chancellor, Federal University of Technology, Akure (FUTA)