Can China Broker the Resolution of the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict?
China’s expanding economic ties with the two sides of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict give Beijing important leverage to push for quick resolution. The Diplomat answers the question whether China can contribute to resolution of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict in its article Can China Broker the Resolution of the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict?
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between two South Caucasian republics, Azerbaijan and Armenia, is already over 30 years old. Negotiations toward a settlement face a stalemate that appears difficult, if not impossible, to overcome. The conflict, which has roots dating back to the early 20th century, was restarted violently in late 1980s at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union when Armenia, seizing the opportunity created by the regional geopolitical turbulence, established its control over 20 percent of the internationally recognized territories of Azerbaijan. Since the 1994 ceasefire agreement brokered by Russia, the sides have been trying to reach a peace agreement through negotiations brokered by the OSCE’s Minsk Group, co-chaired by Russia, the United States, and France.
The existing deadlock in the negotiations begs the question of whether China, an increasingly more assertive global actor that has never attempted to undertake a mediating role in the conflict, can push Armenia and Azerbaijan to resolution. Doing so would also expand the economic value of the entire South Caucasus region for China’s global projects. China’s expanding economic engagement with the two sides of the conflict and its global conflict resolution efforts suggest that it actually can push for a breakthrough – if Beijing chooses to try.
China’s Increasing Conflict Resolution Efforts
Beijing’s aspiration to expand its global economic ties had the knock-on effect of forcing the Chinese leadership provide fundamental security conditions for Chinese citizens and companies internationally. This generated a clear-cut shift in China’s foreign policy principles, which had traditionally insisted on disengagement from conflict resolution abroad.
The launch of the BRI was a powerful push for this transformation. The project might encounter a drastic failure if the necessary political stability in the target countries cannot be maintained. A 2018 study by the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) concluded that since 2013, when the initiative was announced, China has demonstrated a much more active role in the resolution of numerous conflicts along the route that the BRI traverses:
Recent years have seen significant changes in China’s international mediation activities. In countries like Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Syria, and Israel, among others, diplomats from China increasingly engage in preventing, managing, or resolving conflict. In 2017 Beijing was mediating in nine conflicts, a visible increase compared to only three in 2012, the year when Xi Jinping took power as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Such a rise in Chinese mediation of international conflicts creates hope for the constructive engagement of China in the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. As the authors of the Mercator Institute study rightfully flesh out, not only would the resolution of interstate conflicts along the BRI route provide better security conditions for Chinese investments but it would also help Beijing to craft an image of itself as a responsible global power. This perspective is in a perfect line with Xi’s political agenda, as he has promised to turn China into a great power by 2049, the centennial of the People’s Republic.
The expanding economic bonds between the regional countries and China gives Beijing important leverage to affect the conflicting sides and push them into a quick resolution. In particular Armenia, a country that faced massive political and economic difficulties due to the prolongation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, desperately needs Chinese investment for economic revival. Yerevan cannot fullfil its economic plans otherwise; the “Persian Gulf – Black Sea” multimodal transport and transit corridor alone could cost around $10 billion, not much less than Armenia’s annual GDP.
The conflict resolution process has the potential to be revived through Chinese-style mediation, which is traditionally based on high-profile engagement with the top levels of governments through official visits and via special envoys. The innovative strategies brought about by the European and American involvement, which included so-called Track II diplomacy promoting contacts between the peoples and civil society of the two countries, has so far failed to produce tangible results. Therefore, a new approach to the resolution process brought by Chinese mediation could prevent a potential escalation of the conflict and help reach a peace agreement between the sides.
The potential of Chinese mediation is also bolstered by the common interest shared by both Europe and China to maintain stability and build lasting peace agreements in the regions between the two. The European Union, although largely unsuccessful, but has spent a large amount of resources and made numerous efforts to encourage the sides to make compromises to achieve a common ground. These efforts could gain a new life with cooperation between Europe and China.
Importantly, the expanding cooperation between China and Russia in a wide range of global issues can also play a positive role in this context. Although Russia has traditionally opposed projects that seek to bypass it, international conditions are pushing the Kremlin to cooperate with Beijing, which might bode well for the settlement of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict.