China's role in mediating peace between regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia may resonate in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war. In a recent visit to Beijing, French President Emmanuel Macron encouraged China to play a role in winding down the conflict in Ukraine. In late March, the European Union’s top diplomat Joseph Borrell also said that China can facilitate talks between Moscow and Kyiv.
By not being a party to the conflict despite the lure or pressure from domestic and external forces, Beijing preserved for itself a role acceptable to belligerents. China's peace plan, President Xi Jinping's trip to Moscow, and a possible virtual meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky show Beijing's efforts to seek a negotiated solution to a cruel year-long conflict. China’s peacemaking role abroad may also sober its a moderating effect on its attitudes towards territorial and maritime disputes with neighbors.
A new dawn for a turbulent region
The Iran-Saudi rapprochement announced China's rise as a major power broker in the Middle East. It draws a comparison with the 2020 U.S. brokered-Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between Israel and four Muslim countries - United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco. But the Iran-Saudi deal is arguably of a higher order magnitude. Not only are the two sides recognized as respective leaders of Islam's two main branches, but both are also actively involved in proxy wars throughout the region. China's growing economic clout and regional countries' desire to diversify their foreign relations converge to give Beijing the platform to facilitate the final leg of talks between two traditional arch-foes.
Peace between Tehran and Riyadh bodes well for a region that produces a third of the world's oil and a fifth of the world's gas. Both countries are members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), and mutual understanding can improve policy coordination. The detente also bears on the nine-year-old civil war in Yemen, the twelve-year-old year civil war in Syria, and other long-running proxy wars in the region. Working together, Saudi Arabia and Iran can better address sectarian strife. The peace deal may inject fresh impetus into similar talks between Turkey and Syria mediated by Russia. Thus, the pact has immediate and long-term humanitarian, economic, and political dividends for the region and the world.
Translating economic muscle to diplomatic heft
The Iran-Saudi accord caught many by surprise. Eyebrows were raised about China's intentions behind its peacemaking foray. But this did not happen overnight. Rather it was the culmination of the country's growing trade and investment in the region - a master class on how economic muscle can translate to diplomatic heft. China has been the largest trade partner for both regional powers for over a decade. In 2021, Saudi Arabia's trade with China surpassed the combined value of its trade with the United States and the European Union. Both Tehran and Riyadh were provisional founding members of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), established in 2016. Both also signed on to China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Iranian and Saudi ministerial-level delegations attended the first and second Belt and Road Forums held in Beijing in 2017 and 2019, respectively.
Security and economic groupings where China plays an outsized role are also making inroads in the Middle East. Last year, Iran became the newest member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization - the first from the region - while Saudi Arabia, along with Egypt and Qatar, were inducted as dialogue partners. Both Tehran and Riyadh also expressed interest in joining the BRICS. Last year, foreign ministers from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and UAE, among others, joined the BRICS Foreign Ministers Meeting for the first time.
The high point of China's burgeoning influence in the region came last December with the first China-Arab States Summit in Riyadh. The event was indicative of shifting sands in West Asia's geopolitics, with Beijing becoming a new force to reckon with. China's role in the Iran-Saudi detente has not materialized out of nothing, and has been built on solid ground.
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The Iran-Saudi saga bears some parallels with the Russia-Ukraine case. Iran's domestic challenges and isolation, Saudi's desire to hedge as Washington shifts its priority to the Indo-Pacific, and China's economic leverage all played a part in making the landmark dialogue happen. Like Iran, Russia also became a pariah, subjected to unprecedented sanctions. The International Criminal Court has already issued an arrest warrant against President Vladimir Putin. And like in Tehran, Beijing's influence over Moscow grows as economic exposure deepens. Russia has already dislodged Saudi Arabia to become the biggest oil supplier to China. Faced with price caps and embargoes in Europe, Russia's energy and trade will turn more eastward. Finally, Ukraine, despite being beholden to the West for its massive military support and despite misgivings due to China's stance over the war, still sees Beijing as a potential partner in its reconstruction.
China will mean a lot for a country bracing for enduring sanctions and a country charting its road to postwar recovery. As the world's biggest food and energy consumer, Chinese demand is a major driver in the commodities market. The world's second-largest economy is the top buyer of Iranian and Saudi crude. This leverage is also at play in the case of Russia and Ukraine. Since the onset of the full-scale war last year, China has displaced the EU to become the principal destination for Russian fossil fuels. It is also the chief importer of Ukrainian sunflower meal and corn. The country's reopening only signals the return of spring for such exporters.
In addition, like Iran and Saudi Arabia, Russia is also a founding member of AIIB. Both Moscow and Kyiv also joined the BRI. Putin attended the first and second BRI forums in Beijing. First Deputy Prime Minister and concurrent Minister of Economic Development and Trade Stepan Kubiv was present for Ukraine. And in his recent visit to Moscow, Xi invited Putin to join the third iteration, which may be convened this year.
The Arab Spring that turned into an Arab Winter wreaked havoc in the Middle East. Governments ceased to exist as regimes collapsed, non-state actors filled the void, and civil wars erupted, some of which rage on to this day. It took five years and the mediation of three countries - Iraq, Oman, and China - for Tehran and Riyadh to bury the hatchet. This development can help stabilize a volatile region, offering a possible exit to the Syria and Yemen quagmires.
Moving to the Russia-Ukraine war, which began in 2014 and escalated last year, signs of strains are becoming apparent. Inflation, energy crunch, and anti-war protests in Europe against sending arms to Ukraine may undercut NATO support, especially if the war drags on. War fatigue and the coming elections in the U.S. and the European parliament next year and in Germany and UK the year after may impact Kyiv's campaign. Russia is also running short of war material, turning to Iranian drones, and possibly soliciting military aid from China. These may provide fertile ground for making peace overtures. The renewal of a deal to ensure the safe passage of grain exports from Black Sea ports may provide an opening.
China's cautious approach to the crisis – opposing the violation of territorial integrity and resort to nuclear weapons, but at the same time recognizing the deeper roots of the conflict – made it an acceptable arbiter. But at the end of the day, it is Beijing’s ability to throw a lifeline regardless of the war's outcome that makes parties – whether in the Middle East or Eastern Europe - eager to listen.