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China’s Role in the Middle East

Jun 21, 2023
  • Jin Liangxiang

    Senior Research Fellow, Shanghai Institute of Int'l Studies

China’s effort to mediate a resumption of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia triggered another round of discussions about China’s role in the Middle East. A commentary on Middle East Eye titled “Saudi-Iran reconciliation: How China is reshaping the Middle East” is typical. Its author seems to mean well but is not making an accurate prediction.

China’s role in the region should not be overstated. It will continue to be a facilitator for de-escalation of regional tensions and will continue to persuade and push for the parties to narrow their differences.

The last two decades have seen China play an increasing role in Middle East issues. It was one of the most vocal opponents of the war launched by the United States and some of its major allies in Iraq in 2003. China also opposed to the overuse of military means in Afghanistan after Sept. 11, 2001, and in Libya in 2011, and it opposed military interference in Syria’s internal affairs since 2012 within the context of Arab Spring.

China has also been a staunch supporter of Palestinians in their pursuit of nationhood, with Chinese special envoys traveling frequently to the region to mediate between Israel and Palestine.

Yet, the role of China in all these issues has been modest. The reason is that China’s efforts were passive or reactive to the destructive policy of external actors, whether in the 2003 runup to the Iraq war or in other issues mentioned. While China made a serious effort to maintain peace and stability in the region, it failed to reverse the destructive trends.

The last couple of years have seen China become more actively engaged with security in the region. Wang Yi, former State Councilor and foreign minister, traveled to major Middle East countries, including Saudi Arabia and Iran, in 2021and received foreign ministers of major Middle East countries in 2022. He voiced China’s positions on regional security issues based on new security concepts and was succeeded by Qin Gang, the newly appointed State Councilor and foreign minister.

The successful bridge built between Iran and Saudi Arabia, leading to the resumption of diplomatic relations between the two, is not only an achievement of the five-day Beijing negotiation but also the outcome of China’s diplomacy in the region in the last couple of years promoting new security concepts.

This does signify some shift in China’s policy — from damage control to actively facilitating the relief of tensions for the reconstruction of regional order. Previously, China’s policy was meant to prevent the regional security situation from worsening as a result of the behavior of external actors and elements in the region. Now it is facilitating stability in the region by mediating between different parties.

The future will likely see China playing a bigger role in facilitating peace and stability in the region as it sees the Middle East as closely tied to its own economic security and national security. China also regards bridging differences in the region as a way to demonstrate its sense of responsibility as a major international actor. Detente or de-escalation is only the first step. There’s a long way to go from detente to meaningful order, and China will certainly be willing to assist in building that — for instance, facilitating economic cooperation and norms and creating rules for reconstruction.

On the other hand, China’s role in the region should not be oversold. It is true that without Beijing as mediator, Iran and Saudi Arabia might not have reached an agreement to resume diplomatic relations, yet there were negotiations between Iraq and Oman, but those failed at the end.

Nevertheless, it is Iran and Saudi Arabia themselves that are the drivers of this new round of detente. They both need the detente to pave the way for implementing their domestic agendas. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi attached greater importance to domestic economic development and the improved welfare of the people, as seen in his frequent visits to poor and remote provinces. The recent domestic turmoil triggered by the Hijab issue even increased the urgency of implementing a new economic agenda.

The Saudi side attaches equal importance to domestic development. Mohammed Bin Salman, upon taking power, initiated a number of big projects, including the Saudi 2030 vision and Future City. His ambition to build Saudi into a vibrant modern country is what drove his decision to normalize relations with Iran. It is difficult to implement all these big projects and visions without a stable and friendly environment. How could a country under frequent missile and drone attack talk about investment?

China facilitated the diplomatic process, but the momentum fundamentally came from within the region. If it cannot change minds in the region, China will never succeed in making changes. Its successful mediation shows that China correctly understood the aspiration of development in the region, and it promoted the general trend of de-escalation in the region while some other external actors failed to do so.

It is expected that China, as a major responsible external actor, will be more than willing to help bridge differences in the region, but success will depend on the willingness of the parties. Success in one case does not automatically mean success in another.

China had also worked hard to promote peace between Palestine and Israel, but the prospect of peace seems remote. The Palestinians earnestly want peace and to realize their legitimate right to nationhood; but Israel, the other side of the story, is far from ready for reconciliation. The right-wing politicians still hold the view deep in their minds that all the territories should be theirs. Benjamin Netanyahu seems willing to satisfy their appetite in various territorial issues so as to maintain his political power, but he is not ready for a two-state solution.

To sum up, China is aware of the reality that people in the region are the ultimate masters of their own destiny. China is more than willing to invest efforts facilitating peace and stability in the region, rather than imposing decisions for the region. In bridging the gap between Iran and Saudi Arabia, China showed that it understood the expectations of the people in the region.

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