Chinese state media seizes on US killing of Iranian commander to paint Beijing as a force for stability

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  • Qasem Soleimani
    Iranian senior military officer

As tensions in the Middle East flare following the killing of a top Iranian military commander, China’s state media is seizing the chance to contrast its conduct of foreign affairs with those of the United States.

The main official media outlets have focused on global criticisms of the US following Friday’s drone attack in Baghdad, which killed Major General Qassem Soleimani, and asked what consequences the US would face.

This coverage highlighted China’s commitment to peace and international law and placed China’s international profile in opposition to the US.

“The responsibility of a great power is not its own national priorities, nor is it militarisation, but to take practical actions to safeguard international fairness and justice,” said an online People’s Daily commentary.

“As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, China will continue to work with all parties concerned to maintain peace and security in the Middle East and the Gulf region,” said the commentary, one of several articles along similar lines run by the party mouthpiece in recent days.

Comments made by leading top Chinese diplomats and spokespeople in recent days have also followed similar lines.

They joined other governments in calling for a de-escalation of tensions after the attack on Soleimani, which followed an attack on the US embassy in Iraq by pro-Iranian militiamen after a US air raid on the Kataib Hezbollah militia.

On Tuesday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang warned the US against the misuse of force, and urged it reverse the decision to refuse a visa to Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif for a UN Security Council meeting in New York this week.

Pentagon rejects Trump threat to strike Iran’s cultural sites

“It is the international obligation of the US to issue visas and provide other conveniences for delegates from other countries to UN conferences as the host country of the UN,” he told a press conference.

“As a permanent member of the Security Council, China will, in an objective and fair spirit, continue to work with other parties to uphold international law, international justice as well as peace and security in the Middle East and the Gulf region”.

For domestic audiences, state media coverage of the situation, and China’s role, has boosted a long-term drive to present the country as a stabilising international force in contrast to the United States, analysts said.

“This event obviously has helped China make the argument that the US is in fact isolating itself in the world by engaging in unilateral interventions in other countries, and China is on the side of the righteous majority in resisting [what it frames as] US hegemonic activities,” said Victor Shih, associate professor of political economy at the University of California San Diego’s school of global policy and strategy.

Chinese media has highlighted the international criticism the US drone strike has attracted. Photo: AFP
Chinese media has highlighted the international criticism the US drone strike has attracted. Photo: AFP

However, China’s presentation of itself as respectful of the sovereignty of other nations does not square with numerous examples of China looking to use its economic sway to influence other nations’ diplomacy or politics, Shih said.

Major outlets including state news agency Xinhua, China Daily and People’s Daily, have highlighted the potential for China to play a role in stabilising the region and characterised the US as a destabilising presence in the Middle East.

This positioning, including support for Iran, has been a critical feature of China’s policy approach to the Middle East, according to Kevjn Lim, a doctoral researcher with the school of political science, government and international affairs at Tel Aviv University,

How the world is reacting to the US killing of top Iranian general

In contrast, he said Beijing had “implicitly and explicitly portrayed [the Trump administration] as destabilising the region and repeatedly flouting or threatening to flout international law and norms”, for example by unilaterally withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal.

The state media blitz comes at a time when China has faced significant scrutiny of its international affairs and geopolitical aims.

American officials have warned of Chinese influence campaigns on university campuses and the potential security threats to countries accepting Chinese investment, loans and research partnerships.

Coverage of events like the US-Iran conflict “should help state-run media advance the claim that, unlike the United States, China does not interfere in the norms of other sovereign countries”, said Jonathan Hassid, an associate professor of political science at Iowa State University.

“From a propaganda perspective this is a good argument, though in practice China – like other great powers – ignores international laws and conventions when it suits,” he said, pointing to the South China Sea dispute, where China dismissed an international tribunal that ruled against Beijing in favour of the Philippines.

Hassid said such arguments face a mixed reception internationally, but tend to be successful in building confidence in China’s foreign policy among citizens back home

“Judged from a [domestic] standard, this kind of propaganda seems quite effective,” he continued.

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