Sunday, June 23, 2024

China Becoming a Power Broker in the Middle East

Washington, DC – On 10th March 2023, Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to re-establish diplomatic ties in Beijing and issued a joint communique along with China. The seeds of the diplomatic coup have been growing since Xi Jinping visited both countries in 2016 and managed to enhance bilateral relations and trade while avoiding thorny issues. The execution of Shiite opposition cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi Arabia in January 2016 sparked Iranian protests and led to the destruction of the Saudi diplomatic missions in Tehran and Mashhad. Both countries wanted to resume peace talks in 2021. The subsequent negotiations resulted in visits by both countries to each other, with Saudi Arabia inspecting the status of its diplomatic mission and Iran asking the KSA to allow Iranians to perform the Hajj pilgrimage. July 2022 saw the breakdown of negotiations when an Iranian pilgrim was arrested by Riyadh after posting an Instagram post. After a few months, he was finally released by the intervention of Omani authorities.

When Xi Jinping visited Riyadh in December 2022, he was asked to intercede as a mediator and bring negotiations back on track. Taking it as an easy win in the Global South, China agreed to mediate, and we see the fruits of their labor after several months.

The exchange of benefits seems extremely complicated, and the shifting global paradigm of geopolitics is even more so. Over the years, China has moved far beyond simply being an arms supplier to the middle east and become a significant voice in the region. The penetration of the Belt and Road Initiative in terms of exchanging oil for infrastructure and development has led to the current alignment of interests. China is more than happy to upstage the West regarding brokering peace between parties who want to resume communications.

The global perception of China taking a more active stance in world politics may be something of an exaggeration. China is happy to take advantage of enhancing trade cooperation with all parties while not taking any sides on sensitive issues. Rather than giving credence to any claims that China has brokered peace, we should view it as yet another exercise of the Chinese propaganda machine. China has long been adept at the art of declaring victory to end sensitive issues and giving world powers an excuse to step down from confrontation. At the heart of the matter, we can see that maintaining common interests has always been an effective way to whitewash over long-standing contradictions.
Washington, in the meantime, has sided with Beijing on the grounds that peace in the middle east is good for everyone. At the same time, they remain skeptical that Tehran will keep its promises to Riyadh. Global perceptions on the whole issue take it as Saudi capitulation to Iranian threats in the region after Iran’s 2019 strike on Saudi oil facilities. None of this detracts from the fact that China is spending vast amounts of time and money trying to convince everyone that it can lead to a new world order. The following steps involve Xi Jinping talking with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and declaring China’s vital importance to world peace whenever the Russian conflict inevitably ends. All of this is in service to the freshly rolled out Global Security Initiative by Xi Jinping as an alternative to the US-led international system.

Chinese fears over ‘containment’ by the West and Iranian paranoia over isolationism by the Gulf Council due to its nuclear program have led to increasingly good ties between the two countries. However, in terms of cooperation, Saudi Arabia ranks far ahead of Iran when it comes to trade between the two countries. An interesting point to note here is that we will never really know what tactics China has used to produce this diplomatic coup in a matter of months. The questions of how many people in Iran have received funding from China, the issue of leverage over the country due to existing infrastructure deals, and the need to ‘save face’ on the world stage are being conveniently forgotten. While everyone is trying not to antagonize China over this seemingly insignificant issue, the consequences are severe. The implication of allowing China to establish a new framework in the middle east is simply a drastic increase in terrorism. This is by no means an alarmist point of view. If the struggling and the rich economies of the middle east allow China to replicate its debt traps in the region and churn out shoddy infrastructure, the inequalities and resultant increase in oppression from authoritarian regimes will increase instability.

With Saudi Arabia becoming the second largest recipient of the Belt and Road Initiative investment globally, China is increasingly aligning its goals with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Internally, there were concerns that such dependence on the middle east might lead to US pressure because of its security role in the region. The GCC managed to put these concerns to rest with promises of insulating Beijing from any ‘containment’ from the United States. The rationale for this was the increasing dissatisfaction of the Middle East with inadequate security in the region as the US continually withdraws from its purported role as a global peacekeeper. While it is impossible to predict the region’s geopolitics, Iran’s increasing dissatisfaction with Beijing is becoming more apparent. It is yet to become clear to what extent Chinese investment can smooth over these hurdles. One can only hope that pressure from Beijing and Washington can contribute to regional stability. Iran’s historical track record makes it probable that they will continue to do what is in their best interests while simply agreeing to what China says. One can only wait to see what the next diplomatic flashpoint between Iran and Saudi Arabia will be. To what extent Saudi Arabia can convince China to put pressure on Tehran is unclear, as the real test of China as a middle east power broker is yet to come. The increasing likelihood of China ignoring all security issues remains as long as conflicts do not impinge on its own interests as it trades with all parties.

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