Chinese Diplomacy In The Middle East: The Road To Regional Stability

Chinese Diplomacy In The Middle East: The Road To Regional Stability
The geopolitical landscape of the Middle East has been characterised by various conflicts throughout the past few decades. Saudi Arabia and Iran are the two major drivers of geopolitical instability in the region.

Both of these countries have long been engaged in a vicious and ruthless power struggle. The proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran has been ongoing for decades and has had significant implications for regional stability and harmony.

Both Saudi Arabia and Iran have played out the conflicts by supporting various opposing parties in various regional conflicts, such as in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Lebanon, among others.

In Yemen, for example, the Houthi rebels, who have been fighting against the internationally accepted government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, were supported by Iran, while the Yemeni government was backed by Saudi Arabia. The conflict caused extensive destruction and an unprecedented humanitarian crisis in Yemen, with thousands of people butchered and forced to flee their homes.

Similarly, in Syria, Iran has backed the Syrian government under Bashar al-Assad, while Saudi Arabia has supported various Islamist and Jihadist groups that have exchanged blows with the government.

In Iraq, both Iran and Saudi Arabia are embroiled in the conflict by supporting opposing sectarian groups. Iran is supporting the Shia militias, while Saudi Arabia is backing the Sunni Islamist groups. This involvement of Saudi Arabia and Iran in Iraq has fueled sectarian tensions, which have caused instability in the country.

Saudi Arabia and Iran have also been involved in Lebanon through various means, including political support, financial aid, and supporting various hostile factions within the country, albeit with different objectives. Iran's involvement in Lebanon is primarily characterized by its support for the Shia military and political organization in Lebanon, Hezbollah. Hezbollah enjoys strong ideological, political, and financial support from the Iranian government.

On the other hand, the Saudi government has sought to strengthen its relations with the Sunni community of Lebanon by providing financial aid to the Sunni political parties. This pernicious involvement of both countries exacerbated the historical sectarian divisions within the country and resulted in social and political instability.

Iran and Saudi rivalries also had an impact on the neighboring region. Pakistan and Afghanistan have experienced the devastating impacts of the proxy conflict played out by Saudi Arabia and Iran. In both Afghanistan and Pakistan, there are different extremist and militant groups working for the interests of either Saudi Arabia or Iran. These proxy conflicts have fueled sectarian tensions and further exacerbated the already unstable and fragile security situation in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

China's role in the Middle East is characterised by its own interests. China faces a complex diplomatic challenge regarding its stance in the Middle East. On the one hand, China recognises the importance of the region due to concerns over energy security, terrorism, economic interests, and the significant role Middle Eastern security matters play in discussions related to sovereignty, intervention, and relations among major powers. On the other hand, China's increasing competition with the United States compels it to prioritize its attention and efforts towards Asia.

Chinese diplomatic involvement in the Middle East is not a new phenomenon, but it has worked to contribute to peace and stability in the region and to settle the most hotspot issues for over twenty years in order to ensure its continuous access to the resources and markets of the region.

In 2002, China appointed a special envoy for Middle Eastern issues. Before last year, China was not interested in publicizing its activities in the Middle East in order to prevent the perception that China was infringing upon the historically established role of the United States in the region, but because of the growing tensions in the past few years in the region amidst US strategic neglect of the region and bitter relations between crown prince Muhammad Bin Salman and President Joe Biden, Beijing started to take Centre stage in Middle East affairs.

After the attack on Saudi Armco oil fields, China felt a chilling warning that the ongoing conflict has the significant potential to endanger its energy security. Saudi Arabia is the largest oil supplier for China, so any threat to Saudi Arabia is considered a direct threat to Chinese interests. Similarly, the Chinese government was convinced that the success of their flagship project, BRI, was totally dependent on the security and stability of the concerned regions. ensuring a safe and stable environment along the BRI project is crucial both for the safety of Chinese companies and workers.

The Chinese mediation in conflicts in the Middle East is also part of the XI's vision to make China a global power by 2049 and to build up an alternative to the United States' dominance in global governance by playing a more constructive role at the global level. Additionally, these efforts will also help China present itself as a responsible global actor working for the benefit of the wider global public and taking credit for successful conflict resolution.

The recent major geopolitical shift in the Middle East in terms of the China-brokered deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran is a big diplomatic victory for China. This shift has been in the making since January 2021, when Saudi Arabia and Iran started to engage with one another. In the same month, the blockade of Qatar was ended as a result of the Al Ula Summit, which was a major breakthrough to mend the rifts within the Gulf Cooperation Council. The United States has long stressed the settlement of regional rivalries in the Middle East but has not orchestrated a successful deal.

The Chinese diplomatic success in striking a deal was mainly due to these two reasons. The first reason is that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries have been looking eastward economically since 2021. According to BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy, Asia will receive around 78 percent of Saudi crude exports in 2021.

Today, China imports more than 50 percent of its crude oil from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. Similarly, Iran also imports more than half a million barrels of crude oil per day from China. By providing a lucrative market to both Iran and Saudi Arabia, China is enjoying the privilege of influencing the policies of both countries. Secondly, both Saudi Arabia and Iran have a sense of respect and goodwill for China. This friendly attitude also enabled China to be a successful and influential mediator.

The recent agreement by which both rivals agreed to restore diplomatic relations by reopening embassies in each other’s capitals. After successful mediation, Chinese officials asserted that they would provide continuous support to both sides in fostering good relations and urged the international community to help the Middle Eastern countries resolve their differences. This deal has the potential to open the way for dialogue and wider discussions among the Gulf Arab states and Iran, which will pave the way for addressing the security issues in the Middle East.

This deal will also have a salutary impact on the war in Yemen, as the major sponsors of that conflict have now agreed to stop their support for warring groups in the conflict. According to reports, Saudi Arabia agreed to curb its support for those media networks that are agitating against the Khomeini regime, while Iran agreed to curtail its arms supply to the Houthi rebels in Yemen.

After the normalisation of ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia, all the other smaller Gulf states that were previously reluctant to engage with Iran due to Saudi Arabia are now in a position to establish healthy diplomatic relations with Iran. This deal will also cool down the sectarian tensions, which are one of the major causes of instability in the region. The main conclusion is that decreasing the intensity of the rivalries will help to avert the political energies and focus them on the major internal conflicts.

The litmus test for the success of the agreement will be whether the two sides uphold their promise of not interfering in the internal politics of the countries in the region or not.