China’s diplomatic win in the Middle East is not anyone’s loss

By Ding Heng

China is emerging as a peacemaker and regional mediator in the Middle East. The landmark Iran-Saudi Arabia rapprochement is paving the way for a lot of positive developments. Other Gulf countries such as the UAE are now more than happy to resume ties with Iran which they had to scale back in 2016 when Riyadh and Tehran severed diplomatic relations. There is also a greater hope to see peace in Yemen. And Syria has a better prospect of returning to the Arab League.

Regional reconciliation was already taking place before the Iran-Saudi deal, and the China-brokered agreement has further fueled the momentum in this regard. Most recently, in separate phone calls with his Israeli and Palestinian counterparts, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang offered to help facilitate peace talks between the two sides amid their rising tensions.

Contrary to some people’s perception, China didn’t become a regional peacemaker overnight. Instead, it has been at least 20 years in the making. In 2002, China set up its special envoy for the Middle East to focus on facilitating the Arab-Israeli peace process. From time to time, Chinese diplomats serving on this position have also addressed other regional issues. In 2016, China appointed its first special envoy for the Syria crisis in a move to help achieve a political solution. At present, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, where Iran has become a full member and Saudi Arabia is joining as a dialogue partner, is providing a new platform for China to contribute to the Middle Eastern peace.

When the United States addresses a regional conflict, it tends to take an approach featuring military interventions, economic sanctions and choosing a side. China’s approach is significantly different.

For decades, China has maintained a balanced diplomacy in the Middle East, doing its best to be friends with every country in the region. For instance, Beijing made sure to sign a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with both Tehran and Riyadh during a Middle East visit by President Xi Jinping in 2016. In the meantime, China attaches importance to strengthening economic ties. Between Iran and China, there is a 25-year strategic agreement worth around $400 billion. Xi’s trip to Saudi Arabia late last year witnessed the two sides sign scores of deals worth tens of billions of dollars. From 2019 to 2021, China’s trade with the Middle East increased from $180 billion to $259 billion. By comparison, the US trade with the region dropped from $120 billion to $82 billion in the same period.

When an economically important country that is friendly to both Tehran and Riyadh offered a negotiating table, it became possible to finish the last few miles in the Iran-Saudi rapprochement. At times, China’s approach to resolving conflicts might be criticized by some people for what they consider to be boring, inactive or even self-interested. At least in terms of facilitating the Saudi-Iran reconciliation, however, it is China’s approach that ultimately worked.

In addition to morally-driven intentions, there is of course realistic consideration behind China’s decision to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The Middle East matters to China’s energy security, as the region accounted for more than half of China’s crude oil imports last year. The region also plays a key role in the Belt and Road Initiative. So, China has a stake in the peace and stability of the region.

But at the end of the day, countries in the region will be the main beneficiaries. Investment from Saudi Arabia, something indicated by the kingdom’s finance minister immediately after the rapprochement deal was agreed on, will be a major boon for Iran’s economy. In the case of Syria and Yemen, greater stability is the single most important thing, as no one needs a reminder about the 13 million Syrian refugees and the deaths of more than 300,000 civilians caused by Yemen’s civil war. To Saudi Arabia, an exit from Yemen’s war will allow it to be more concentrated on economic reforms so as to achieve Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030.

By the way, the Iran-Saudi reconciliation seems to havevery limited impact on the normalization of the ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, as Iran is not a focal point in this regard. In a recent media interview, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested that the peace prospect with Saudi Arabia is not dented by Iran rapprochement. Instead, the major issue here is whether Israel agrees to a two-state solution with the Palestinians. Bilaterally, China and Israel enjoy a pretty cordial relationship. In his recent phone call with Israeli counterpart, China’s foreign minister voiced support to a two-state solution. If Israel and Palestine could, with China’s assistance, resume peace talks, this would be a plus to the confidence building between Israel and Saudi Arabia. The question is whether, at the moment, Israel and Palestine have the necessary political determination.

Probably the most frequently-discussed question is whether the Iran-Saudi détente represents a US setback in the Middle East. While the US-China geopolitical rivalry provides plenty of talking points for this narrative, the US interests in the Middle East are in some ways aligned with China’s. US think tanks such as the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the RAND Corporation have published reports that suggest China doesn’t have to be America’s adversary in the Middle East.

In a commercial sense, the Middle East is witnessing an IPO boom in the post-Covid era. According to the Ernst & Young, a total of 51 listings across the Middle East and north Africa raised a record $22 billion last year, a 179% surge on 2021. American investment bankers are playing a significant role in this boom. Given the fact that capital markets are sensitive to geopolitical tensions, the US business community has a huge stake in the Middle Eastern stability. Regional conflicts benefit the US military industrial complex, but certainly not the overall US interests. Washington should be thankful to any country that contributes to regional peace.

Frankly, China has neither inclination nor capability, at least in the short term, to take over the US roles in the Middle East. This is particularly true in the military sense.

If anything, Chinese involvement aims to send a message that China’s mentality on peace and development might be able to help solve some of the problems that the region faces.

(The author is a host with CGTN Radio. The opinions expressed in the article are the author’s own. Contact the author: [email protected] )