By Ian Bremer
Nov 20 This month, a curious thing happened in
the annals of diplomacy. A country offered up a peace plan to
put an end to a seemingly endless civil war in Syria. This
country was not one of the usual foreign policy suspects - it
was not the United States, it was not in Europe, and it wasn't
It was a country that has no real experience in playing the
world's policeman. But, seeing a world filled with retired
officers, it decided to try on the uniform for itself. China has
taken another step into the spotlight of the world stage.
This is what happens in a G-Zero world - a world without any
specific country or bloc of countries in charge. China has long
been content to watch world events play out and then react,
trusting that another country would step in to put volatile
situations to rest. But that's not happening with the Syrian
conflict and its spillover into the broader Middle East.
Americans feel that the issue doesn't affect them enough to
intervene. Europeans, as a Union, don't seem to be particularly
interested, even if some smaller countries are. And with those
powers on the sidelines, suddenly the Chinese have a much bigger
problem - a civil war that could metastasize into regional
instability. The Chinese have far too much at stake in Iraq and
Iran for that to happen: 11 percent of China's oil imports come
from Iran, and it is on track to be the chief importer of Iraqi
oil by 2030.
And so China stepped in, offering a peace plan. The details
- cease-fire, a committee that negotiates a political solution
to the war, etc. - are not as important as the plan's mere
existence. It's symptomatic of China's new approach, one that Hu
Jintao hinted at in one of his final addresses as Chinese
president. He said China would "get more actively involved in
international affairs, (and) play its due role of a major
responsible country." In the wake of downturns in the West,
there is a new diplomatic structure emerging. China is
determined to be one of its architects.
This doesn't mean China necessarily knows what it's doing.
Diplomacy is new for the Chinese, who have really only
interjected themselves in regional politics and through economic
investment abroad. Intervening in other countries' affairs is a
tricky thing for a Chinese government that so resolutely
believes sovereignty is supreme, even if human rights are being
trampled. Beijing tries not to infringe on other countries'
sovereignty because it would not allow others to infringe on its
own. The one other time in recent years that the Chinese
government has pushed for peace was in Sudan's dispute with
South Sudan. But even then, when Sudanese President Omar Hassan
al-Bashir visited Beijing, Hu Jintao said: "The Chinese side has
always respected the will and choice of the Sudanese people."
It's difficult to affect change when you're not sure if you even
have the right to be affecting it.
The likelihood that China's plan is actually going to
accomplish anything in Syria is basically zero. But just making
an overture, as China has done, carries little risk. It pushes
back at some of the scorn China's received, along with Russia,
for vetoing U.N. Security Council sanctions on the Syrian
government. If the Syrian situation doesn't improve, China has
done no better than the West. If it does, China can perhaps
claim a part, and, more importantly, ensure that its investments
in Iraqi and Iranian oil are safe.
That China is wading into diplomacy here does not mean it
will replace the United States in negotiations. But it does mean
that the world is in transition - what was once America's domain
is now no one's. It may take years for a new leader to emerge.
China, despite having little history of foreign policy beyond
its region, sees an opportunity there. It's likely to make
mistakes, and its initial diplomatic attempts may not be
entirely coherent. But it's filling a void. The question: is it
a black hole or a blank canvas?
( Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group, the leading
global political risk research and consulting firm. Bremmer
created Wall Street's first global political risk index, and has
authored several books, including the national bestseller, The
"End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and
Corporations?", which details the new global phenomenon of state
capitalism and its geopolitical implications. He has a PhD in
political science from Stanford University (1994), and was the
youngest-ever national fellow at the Hoover Institution. )