Is China angling for a Saudi–Iranian detente?

Author: Guy Burton, Brussels School of Governance

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi embarked on a six-country tour of the Middle East at the end of March 2021. On the eve of his departure, Wang announced China’s five-point plan for the region, which included mutual respect, equity and justice, non-proliferation, collective security and development cooperation.

The principles set out in the five-point plan are uncontentious — and it is also not the first time that China has issued a plan for the Middle East. In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping launched a four-point plan around the Israel–Palestine conflict. Four years later he re-launched it, this time referencing China’s Belt and Road Initiative — with Israel and Palestine as important partners.

What makes the recent five-point plan unique is its wider scope to include other conflicts in Syria, Libya and Yemen, as well as the rivalries in the Gulf. In a departure from previous proposals, Wang also set out some concrete suggestions for how tensions in the Gulf might be managed. They included China hosting a ‘multilateral dialogue conference’ to help create a trust-building mechanism which — as a first step — could ensure the ‘safety of oil facilities and shipping lanes’.

In the end, the five-point might not make much of a splash. There was no statement on when the conference might happen or what role Beijing would have in the design or guarantee of the trust-based mechanism. The plan was also overshadowed by the media coverage given to an alleged 25-year cooperation deal signed between China and Iran — which some observers have argued is overstated.

Yet even if the five-point plan seems like it may fizzle out, its spirit kept with regional developments in the past month. Saudi and Iranian officials met at a face-to-face meeting in Baghdad for the first time since diplomatic relations broke off five years ago. Initially, the Saudis denied the meeting took place. But at the end of April, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) implicitly backed the move. In a television interview, he abandoned his previous confrontational language towards Iran in favour of a more conciliatory tone, expressing his hope for ‘good’ relations.

In explaining the shift, analysts have focused on changes taking place in the United States, in particular the presidency of Joe Biden. Not only was Trump more sympathetic towards MBS than Biden, but he also pursued a ‘maximum pressure’ strategy against Iran when he pulled the United States out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and reimposed sanctions. In contrast, Biden is perceived as cooler towards MBS. His administration is pushing back on Saudi Arabia’s military campaign in Yemen and is also involved in indirect talks with Iran over the future of the JCPOA.

But focusing on US-centric explanations is too limited given the increasing multipolarity of the Middle East. A quiet Chinese word may have also made a difference. For instance, official statements made clear that Wang was likely to have some frank discussions around ‘peace in the Middle East’ during his trip to the region.

China has sufficient base and motivations to have such conversations.

First, Saudi Arabia and Iran are among the most important countries for Chinese commercial activity in the Middle East. Besides the oil trade, Saudi Arabia and Iran are the largest and third largest recipients of Chinese capital respectively in the region. So, instability in the region, including from the Iran–Saudi Arabia rivalry, would adversely affect China’s business interests.

Second, China has the means to engage with Riyadh and Tehran on a substantive basis. China’s stated commitment to non-interference gives it the air of an honest broker. The two countries have also been elevated to the same level of importance — in 2016 China signed comprehensive strategic partnerships with both Iran and Saudi Arabia. This is the highest form of diplomatic recognition and cooperation it can bestow short of a formal alliance. Such partnerships seek to expand ties beyond the economic sphere to include political interaction and exchange at different levels.

A Chinese word would not be ignored. For the Saudis, Biden’s approach is narrowing the gap between US and Chinese positions in the Gulf. For the Iran, its geopolitics has become heavily weighted towards China and Beijing has shown that it is prepared to leverage this, for example by previously persuading Iran to accept the JCPOA.

But while China has some advantages over the United…

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