Iran-Saudi Arabia deal casts China in unfamiliar, but growing, global role

Agreement between two regional foes seen as major diplomatic triumph for Beijing, as Gulf Arab states perceive United States winding down its involvement in Middle East

Visiting Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, left, shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping before their meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, February 14, 2023. (Yan Yan/Xinhua via AP)
Visiting Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, left, shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping before their meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, February 14, 2023. (Yan Yan/Xinhua via AP)

BEIJING — An agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia to reestablish diplomatic relations has cast China in a leading role in Middle Eastern politics — a part previously reserved for longtime global heavyweights like the US and Russia. It’s another sign that China’s diplomatic clout is growing to match its economic footprint.

Under strongman leader Xi Jinping, Chinese diplomacy has become known for angry outbursts against the West, threats against Taiwan, aggressive moves in the South China Sea, and a refusal to condemn Russia over Ukraine.

The deal reached in Beijing Friday, under which the sides agreed to reopen their embassies and exchange ambassadors after seven years of tensions, shows a different side of Chinese diplomacy. Xi appears to have played a direct part in the talks by hosting Iran’s president in Beijing last month. He also visited the Saudi capital Riyadh in December for meetings with oil-rich Gulf Arab nations crucial to China’s energy supplies.

The agreement was seen as a major diplomatic triumph for China, coming as Gulf Arab states perceive the United States as winding down its involvement in the Middle East.

“I think it is a sign that China is increasingly confident in taking a more assertive role in the Middle East,” said Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat, an Indonesian academic affiliated with the Washington-based Middle East Institute.

China’s economic interests increasingly draw it into conflicts far from its shores. It’s by far the biggest customer for Middle Eastern energy exports, while the US has reduced its need for imports as the country shifts toward energy independence.

Saudi Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman, right, greets Chinese President Xi Jinping, during the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, December 9, 2022. (Saudi Press Agency via AP)

Chinese officials have long argued that Beijing should play a more active role in the region, said June Teufel Dreyer, a political scientist at the University of Miami, specializing in Chinese politics.

Meanwhile, US-Saudi frictions have created “a vacuum that Beijing was happy to step into,” Dreyer said.

China has invested heavily in regional energy infrastructure. It also occasionally contributed naval ships to join anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia, though the US Navy has served as the main security guarantor for Mideast waters since the 1980s.

In a statement Saturday, China’s Foreign Ministry quoted an unidentified spokesperson as saying Beijing “pursues no selfish interest whatsoever.”

“China has no intention to and will not seek to fill the so-called vacuum or put up exclusive blocs,” it said, in an apparent reference to the US.

At the close of the ceremonial legislature’s annual session Monday, leader Xi Jinping said China should “actively participate in the reform and construction of the global governance system” and promote “global security initiatives.”

The diplomatic victory comes as Washington has heavily criticized China for failing to condemn Russia’s invasion and for accusing the US and NATO of provoking the conflict.

However, many Middle Eastern governments view China as a neutral party, with strong ties to both Saudi Arabia, China’s largest oil supplier, and Iran, which relies on China for 30 percent of its foreign trade and in which China has pledged to invest $400 billion over 25 years. Iran, which has few export markets owing to sanctions over its nuclear program, sells oil to China at a steep discount.

A part of Pardis petrochemical complex facilities in Asaluyeh on the northern coast of the Persian Gulf, Iran, September 4, 2018. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

The deal “boosts Beijing’s ability to project an image of itself as a constructive actor for peace, which will be helpful for fending off accusations from the West that it is supporting Russia’s invasion in Ukraine,” said Amanda Hsiao, Taipei-based analyst for the International Crisis Group.

“It demonstrates that China is trying to conduct competition in foreign diplomacy with the US, and not only in its immediate neighborhood,” said Wang Lian, an international relations professor at Beijing’s prestigious Peking University. The successful negotiations show the two countries “placed their trust in China,” Wang said.

China created the position of special envoy for the Middle East in 2002, focusing on Israel and the Palestinian Authority. While China sells drones and other weaponry to countries in the region, it does so nowhere on the scale of the US and without political conditions.

Earlier, China moved aggressively to build ties in the South Pacific, signing a security agreement with the Solomon Islands that could see Chinese naval ships and security forces taking up a presence in the country. The US, Australia and others moved swiftly to shore up ties in the Pacific, and China’s efforts to ink similar agreements with other island nations ultimately foundered.

Having secured a norm-breaking third five-year term in office, Xi appears more confrontational than ever toward the West, with his foreign minister warning just days earlier of future “conflict and confrontation” with the US.

However, that strain of tough-talking “wolf warrior” diplomacy is mainly reserved for developed nations seen as rivals, while China has been “admirably diplomatic” with others, said Dreyer. Having largely written off the democratic West, China has been willing to build close ties with authoritarian regimes from North Korea to Nicaragua.

Though China is active in UN peacekeeping operations, Beijing’s previous efforts at third-party mediation have sagged under the weight of its political baggage. A recent Chinese proposal calling for a cease-fire and peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine went nowhere.

It’s too soon to say whether the agreement will bring lasting improvements between the two longtime adversaries, much less greater Middle Eastern stability. None of their fundamental conflicts appear to have been discussed.

But for Saudi Arabia, the agreement may facilitate its quest for an off-ramp from its proxy war against Iran-backed Houthis rebels in Yemen. And for Iran, it could contribute to greater regional stability at a time of mounting domestic problems.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on March 5, 2023. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

Not everyone is happy about the agreement.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has threatened military action against Iran’s nuclear program as it enriches closer than ever to weapons-grade levels. Riyadh seeking an accommodation with Tehran takes one potential ally for a strike off the table.

It was unclear what this development meant for Washington, whose Middle East presence has waned since the end of its withdrawal from Iraq and amid its growing energy independence.

However, the White House bristled at the notion that a Saudi-Iran agreement in Beijing suggests that Chinese influence could replace the US in the Mideast. “I would stridently push back on this idea that we’re stepping back in the Middle East — far from it,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said.

The fact that Saudi Arabia struck the agreement without Washington shows they are “seeking to diversify their bets on security and not rely wholly on the United States,” Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic & International Studies, wrote in a note on the deal.

“The US government is of two minds on that; it wants the Saudis to take increasing responsibility for their own security, but it does not want Saudi Arabia freelancing and undermining US security strategies,” Alterman wrote.

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