China takes on a new global position as a result of the agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia 2023

BEIJING (AP) — The reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia has elevated China to the forefront of Middle Eastern affairs, a position usually reserved for long-established global powers such as the United States and Russia. There is more evidence that China’s diplomatic influence is expanding to match its economic influence.

Under the tyrannical leadership of Xi Jinping, Chinese diplomacy has become synonymous with irate outbursts against the West, threats against Taiwan, aggressive movements in the South China Sea, and a refusal to denounce Russia over the Ukrainian crisis.

The agreement reached in Beijing on Friday, under which the parties agreed to reopen their embassies and swap ambassadors after seven years of hostilities, reveals a new facet of Chinese diplomacy. By receiving Iran’s president in Beijing last month, Xi may have had a direct role in the negotiations. In December, he also traveled to the Saudi capital Riyadh for consultations with oil-rich Gulf Arab states vital to China’s energy supply.

The accord was viewed as a huge diplomatic victory for China, especially at a time when Gulf Arab governments believe the United States is withdrawing from the Middle East.

Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat, an Indonesian professor affiliated with the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C., stated, “I believe it is an indication that China is growing more confident in assuming a more active position in the Middle East.”

China is becoming drawn into conflicts far from its borders by its economic interests. Iran is by far the largest market for Middle Eastern energy exports, whereas the United States has lowered its import requirements as it moves towards energy independence.

Chinese authorities have long urged that Beijing should play a more active role in the area, according to June Teufel Dreyer, an expert on Chinese politics at the University of Miami.

In the meantime, U.S.-Saudi tensions have created “a vacuum that Beijing was glad to fill,” according to Dreyer.

China has made substantial investments in regional energy infrastructure. Iran also periodically provided naval vessels to anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia, however since the 1980s the U.S. Navy has been the primary security provider for waterways in the Middle East.

In a statement released on Saturday, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs quoted an unnamed source as stating that Beijing “pursues no selfish interests whatsoever.”

In an apparent allusion to the United States, China stated, “China has no purpose and will not strive to fill so-called voids or establish exclusive blocs.”

During the conclusion of the annual session of the ceremonial legislature on Monday, Xi Jinping stated that China should “actively engage in the reform and creation of the global governance system” and advance “global security measures.”

The diplomatic win comes after Washington has harshly condemned China for failing to denounce Russia’s incursion and for blaming the United States and NATO of inciting the crisis.

Yet, many Middle Eastern nations consider China as a neutral party, with significant links to both Saudi Arabia, China’s largest oil supplier, and Iran, which relies on China for 30% of its international commerce and in which China has vowed to spend $400 billion over the next quarter-century. Iran exports oil to China at a substantial discount due to its limited export markets as a result of nuclear-related restrictions.

The pact “boosts Beijing’s capacity to portray an image of itself as a positive actor for peace,” said Amanda Hsiao, an analyst for the International Crisis Group headquartered in Taipei. This will help Beijing fend off charges from the West that it is helping Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

That illustrates that China is competing with the United States in overseas diplomacy, and not only in its immediate region, according to Wang Lian, a professor of international affairs at Beijing’s famous Peking University. Wang stated that the successful discussions demonstrate that the two countries “put their faith in China.”

In 2002, China established the position of Middle East special envoy, focused on Israel and the Palestinian Authority. China exports drones and other weapons to nations in the area, but on a far smaller scale than the United States and without imposing any political constraints.

Previously, China made a concerted effort to establish connections in the South Pacific by negotiating a security pact with the Solomon Islands that might lead to the stationing of Chinese navy ships and security troops in the region. The United States, Australia, and others moved fast to strengthen connections in the Pacific, but China’s attempts to sign such accords with other island states eventually failed.

Having earned a norm-defying third five-year term in office, Xi looks more combative than ever towards the West, with his foreign minister only days ago warning of impending “conflict and confrontation” with the United States.

China has been “admirably diplomatic” with other nations, according to Dreyer of the University of Miami. China’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy is typically saved for wealthy states viewed as adversaries. China has been eager to establish strong connections with authoritarian regimes ranging from North Korea to Nicaragua, having virtually written off the democratic West.

Notwithstanding China’s participation in U.N. peacekeeping missions, Beijing’s prior attempts at third-party mediation have been hampered by its political baggage. A recent Chinese initiative asking for a cease-fire and peace talks between Russia and Ukraine failed to gain traction.

China’s decision to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia was premeditated, said Yitzhak Shichor, professor of political science and Asian studies at the Israel’s University of Haifa and a leading expert on Beijing’s ties with the region. The two countries are crucial to regional stability, and China seized the chance to “stick a finger” in Washington’s eye.

It is too early to tell whether the agreement will result in enduring changes between the two long-standing foes, let alone increased stability in the Middle East. It appears that none of their basic conflicts have been discussed.

For Saudi Arabia, though, the pact may help its search for an exit from its proxy war against Houthi rebels in Yemen supported by Iran. And for Iran, it might help to regional stability at a time when domestic issues are increasing.

Not everyone was satisfied with the deal.

Under domestic political pressure, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has threatened military action against Iran’s nuclear program, which is enriching at levels closer than ever to the threshold for the production of nuclear weapons. Riyadh’s pursuit of an accord with Tehran eliminates one prospective attack ally.

It was unclear what this trend meant for the United States, whose role in the Middle East has diminished since the conclusion of its departure from Iraq and as its energy independence has grown.

But, the White House objected to the concept that a Saudi-Iranian deal reached in Beijing implies that Chinese influence may supplant American influence in the Middle East. John Kirby, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, stated, “I would vehemently refute the notion that we are regressing in the Middle East; this is far from the truth.”

Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies noted in a note on the purchase that the Saudis are “trying to diversify their security bets and not rely solely on the United States” due to the fact that the arrangement was reached without the United States.

Alterman noted, “The U.S. administration is divided on this issue; it wants the Saudis to assume greater responsibility for their own security, but it does not want Saudi Arabia to act independently and undermine U.S. security plans.”

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