In a surprise deal facilitated by China on Friday, Iran and Saudi Arabia announced that they would resume their diplomatic relations. The deal is a breakthrough for the two Middle Eastern rivals, who will reopen their embassies for the first time in seven years and implement cooperation agreements signed two decades ago. For China, it is an opportunity to showcase a growing presence in international conflict resolution and advance its vision of a global order not led by the U.S.
The deal was the culmination of negotiations and state visits by a variety of actors. In December of last year, Xi Jinping visited Saudi Arabia, and last month, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visited Beijing, marking the first visit to China by an Iranian president in 20 years. “[T]he achievement [of the deal] should at least be considered a shared one between China and other regional countries such as Iraq,” wrote the Panda Paw Dragon Claw newsletter, referencing the framing of the deal in the media by the Iranian side. Describing the broader context of the deal in The Diplomat on Monday, Mehran Haghirian and Jacopo Scita argued that China waited until a breakthrough was imminent to take public responsibility for the mediation:
The agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore diplomatic and economic ties is the latest development in the geopolitical shifts in the Gulf region that have been taking shape since January 2021.
[…] China took the mantle of responsibility and the role of a direct mediator when it was clear that an agreement was possible to finalize the détente. While China’s former Foreign Minister – and current Politburo member – Wang Yi directly mediated the agreement, other players, including former Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi, were engaged as facilitators. This distinction is important as it adds to the significance of the Chinese role. [Source]
It is unclear whether China will remain committed to playing an active role in fostering peace between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the long term. “China’s approach to mediation is focused on high-profile diplomatic gestures with little specific follow up. This lets Beijing present itself as a responsible global power, while evading responsibility if efforts fail,” wrote MERICS lead analyst Helena Legarda, in reference to Beijing’s recent position paper on dealing with the Russian-Ukrainian war. Manoj Kewalramani, head of China studies research at the Takshashila Institution, described his skepticism in the latest edition of Tracking People’s Daily:
As far as China being the broker, it’s worth waiting and watching what the implementation is like, whether this sustains, and what Beijing is willing to put on stake amid disruptions.
[…] I was sceptical, and remain sceptical, of Beijing underwriting peace deals. That will require significant security commitments. I doubt that China has the firepower and the political will to do so. The repeated references to the Middle East belonging to the people of the region, and that China does not seek to fill the “so-called vacuum” are in part underscoring this. [Source]
In The New York Times, David Pierson cautioned readers to not overstate the significance of the China-brokered deal:
Saudi-Iranian differences run deep along sectarian lines, and it will take more than renewed diplomatic relations to mend ties. China’s role in brokering the agreement also may not be as pivotal as it seems, given indications that Tehran and Riyadh were already motivated to strike an accord.
[…] What most likely happened, [said Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center], was a convergence of interests, in which an embattled and isolated Iran gained relief; Saudi Arabia got to send a message to Washington about the costs of reducing engagement in the region; and Mr. Xi was able to claim prestige as a global leader in the face of mounting American pressure.
“This is not China bringing two countries together and solving their differences,” Ms. Sun said. “This is China exploiting the opportunity of two countries who want to improve their relations to begin with.” [Source]
Nevertheless, many Western analysts sounded the alarm at the deal’s displacement of the U.S. role in global mediation. Sanam Vakil, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, said the deal “foreshadows [China’s] potential to be an appealing alternative to Washington.” In an editorial on Tuesday, the Financial Times wrote that “the accord marked the emergence of China as a diplomatic powerbroker, and a challenge by Beijing to the US-centric global system.” With a headline declaring that “U.S. Hegemony Is No More,” a Newsweek op-ed noted that this is a “watershed moment for Chinese influence in the Middle East” and a signal of eroding American influence and reputation in the region. An article in Foreign Policy called the deal a “wake-up call for America,” adding that it “highlights an important dimension of the emerging Sino-American rivalry: Will Washington or Beijing be seen by others as the best guide to a future world order?”
Among a chorus of reactions to the deal by analysts at the Atlantic Council, Ahmed Aboudouh, a nonresident fellow with the Council’s Middle East Programs, framed the deal as a win for China at the U.S.’s expense:
For China, the agreement solidifies its legitimacy as a heavyweight diplomatic mediator able to resolve the most antagonistic geostrategic competition in the region. It could create the first conditions for a shift in the strategic balance in the context of rivalry with the United States in the Gulf. China’s ambitions to position itself as a credible peacemaker have a broader scope covering conflicts in Syria, Libya, and Yemen, especially after this agreement. This could be problematic in Washington. The United States’ hesitance to spend more political capital on mediating conflicts is increasingly seen in the Middle East as evidence of the United States’ declining power and its focus on competition with China in the Indo-Pacific. The agreement could also provide the Chinese leadership with more strategic options since de-escalating tensions between Riyadh and Tehran creates a thin layer of security and stability necessary for oil exports bound to China, trade sea lines of communication, and Chinese Belt and Road investments.
[…] It remains to be seen whether the Chinese mediation will hold in the future and, indeed, cover other regional conflicts. Nevertheless, China has just left the United States with a bleeding nose in the Gulf. [Source]
Across the Pacific, Chinese analysts praised the deal and China’s new role in the Middle East. “This is a massive victory for peace and multipolarity, and definitely a tangible milestone for China’s Global Security Initiative and Middle East policy,” said Shen Shiwei, a journalist and analyst with a background in Chinese business dealings in Africa and the Middle East. In the latest Discourse Power newsletter, Tuvia Gering highlighted various Chinese perspectives arguing that the deal symbolizes a broader victory for Chinese norms and diplomatic initiatives such as the Global Security Initiative (GSI):
“China promotes security through cooperation while the United States does so through alliances, and it is this difference in diplomatic philosophies 理念 that has contributed to the significant headway,” [said Sun Degang, director of Fudan University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies].
[…] “[The deal] serves as an effective illustration of the GSI in action. The fact that archrivals such as Saudi Arabia and Iran were able to beat their swords into plowshares 铸剑为犁 thanks to China’s mediation fully demonstrates the GSI’s lofty vision, which can serve as a compass and a roadmap for calming conflicts and resolving contradictions [worldwide,]” [said Ding Long, a professor at SISU’s Middle East Studies Institute].
[…] “This occasion could serve as a model for Beijing’s effective mediation of significant regional crises and lead to the emergence of a “Beijing Consensus” 北京模式 [lit. “Beijing Model”]” [said Professor Ma Xiaolin, director of Zhejiang University’s Institute for Studies on the Mediterranean Rim (ISMR)]. [Source]
At the China-Global South Project, Eric Olander collected several reactions from Chinese netizens, who celebrated the deal while taking jabs at the U.S.:
“How nice to make money together”（一起赚钱多好）
“Ah, not bad, the rabbit is the master of peace.”(哎哟，不错嘛，我兔才是和平大师)
“The victory of Chinese diplomacy” (中国外交的胜利)
The U.S.’s plan to disrupt the Middle East failed (老美想搅乱了中东阴谋不得逞) [Source]
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