The New Normal/La Nouvelle Normalité/新常態: From the Resumption of Diplomatic Relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran to Xi’s Visit to Russia – The Strategic Game Between China and the US Behind the Scenes

Severus Xisheng Wang 王希聖
Source: The Guardian

On 10th March 2023, Iran and Saudi Arabia announced in Beijing the resumption of diplomatic relations, ending a seven-year break in relations between the two countries. Diplomatic resumption has aroused global attention. For one thing, Iran and Saudi Arabia have been at loggerheads for many years, accusing each other of interfering in their internal affairs and staging high-intensity proxy conflicts in the war zones of Syria and Yemen. Second, China and the Middle East have never been actively involved in political affairs but have instead focused on economic and infrastructural cooperation. This time China was able to mediate the resumption of diplomatic relations between the two powers in the region and it was indeed a shock to many political experts. Even though the US response on March 10th, for example, showed that Washington had failed to grasp this development, and even though it may have known about the meeting between Saudi and Iranian officials in China, it certainly did not expect that the two countries would be able to resume diplomatic relations. On the first anniversary of the Ukraine war, the Chinese government published The Global Security Initiative Concept Paper. Article 4 states that “Humanity is an indivisible security community. Security of one country should not come at the expense of that of others.” Other than realists’ balancing and bandwagoning strategy, China’s global security initiative aims to jump out from the mentality of the Cold War or bloc confrontation and support mankind as a “Community of Common Destiny.” China’s role in the resumption of Saudi-Iranian diplomatic relations can be seen as an implementation of this concept. The security of Iran and Saudi Arabia should not come at the expense of each other.

For Beijing, there have been concrete achievements, but there are still many challenges to such an accomplishment. The biggest one is Iran’s bona fides of “good neighbour policy” remain to be tested over time. As Daniel B. Shapiro pointed out: although Iran has oscillated between escalating and de-escalating tensions with neighbouring countries, there is no evidence of a shift in Iran’s strategic objectives. These goals comprise regional hegemony supported by an expanding nuclear program, the widespread propagation of influence through terrorist proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen, and overt animosity toward Isreal. As part of the Iranian-Saudi Arabian deal, Iran has agreed to halt covert weapons shipments to its Houthi allies in Yemen. Therefore, whether the Yemeni civil war will be stopped can be viewed as a touchstone for the outcome of the China-brokered deal. Second, China’s influence in the Middle East is growing with the development of shale oil in the US and the emergence of China as the largest oil importer in the Middle East. However, China’s role in the Iranian-Saudi Arabian rapprochement should not be overestimated because all Beijing has done was to finalise a deal that has been in the making, mediating by multiple Middle East countries, for at least two years. Third, China has always been strong in the Middle East in terms of economic power but not as strong as the US in terms of military deployment and intervention. As Al Jazeera analyzed: It is unlikely that China will intervene directly in Middle East security issues or intervene militarily in the near future, but will focus on its economic plans under the Belt and Road Initiative. Because of this reason, it cannot be ruled out that the hardliners of the two countries who disagree with the diplomatic rapprochement will nevertheless clash within their borders or in proxy countries and Chinese influence may not be powerful enough to maintain order. The US and Isreal’s attitudes and reactions, diplomatically and militarily, to the rapprochement are also still remaining to be seen. Today, the US still operates at least 30 military bases in the Middle East. It is hard to imagine that the US will sit back and watch China’s influence in the Middle East grow.

Saudi national security official Musaid Al Aiban meets with his Iranian counterpart Ali Shamkani, hosted by Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, on March 10, 2023, in Beijing. Source: Franceinfo

Despite many challenges, the resumption of diplomatic relations shows that China has a certain degree of influence on Saudi Arabia and Iran, based on the huge trade volume generated by the crude oil market. In light of this, this resumption of affairs sparked discussion of China’s role in mediating the conflict between Russia and Ukraine and using its influence on both sides to bring peace from the war. Last month, China issued a 12-point statement, “China’s Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis,” which proposed respecting the sovereignty of all countries, abandoning the Cold War mentality, ceasing hostilities, resuming peace talks, and resolving the humanitarian crisis. This statement is interpreted as a sign of Beijing’s intention to become a mediator. From March 20th to 22nd, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Russia. International public opinion generally considers the mediation of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine to be a major focus of this state visit. In addition, The Wall Street Journal has quoted sources as saying that Xi also intends to have a video call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, possibly after his visit to Russia, and that Beijing may play a more active role in brokering an end to the war between Russia and Ukraine. However, as I mentioned in my previous article, there are still many sceptical voices internationally for Beijing to play the role of mediator in the Ukraine crisis.

President Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin have agreed that China and Russia are driving changes not seen in a century. Source: South China Morning Post

First, China views today’s global order as a US-led hegemonic order. Under this global order, the US uses its domestic laws to perform long-arm jurisdiction to interfere with other countries internal affairs and support so-called “justice.” For this reason, the Joint Statement between China and Russia on March 21st emphasizes the opposition to hegemony and unilateralism, and it is unacceptable to replace the UN principles and norms of international law with a “rules-based order.” Thus, the US views China and Russia as long-term challengers to its global order. From the Trump administration’s trade war to the Biden administration’s tech war, the US foreign policy shows that the US views China’s challenge to the US as more comprehensive than Russia’s. The US, of course, not only will not accept China as a mediator in the Ukraine war but also view the war as a strategic opportunity to call upon the international community under its leadership to weaken China. To achieve this strategic goal, the US is shaping an international public opinion campaign that China is on the side of Russia on the issue of the Ukraine war. On March 18th, Kyodo News quoted a US State Department official as saying that the US had confirmed that Chinese-made ammunition had been used on the battlefield in Ukraine, but it was not clear whether the ammunition had been supplied by China. “Russia would be free, then, to use a ceasefire to only further entrench their positions in Ukraine. To rebuild, refit and refresh their forces so that they can restart attacks on Ukraine at a time of their choosing. We do not believe that this is a step towards a just and global peace.” said National Security Council Coordinator John Kirby on March 17th. Kirby made it clear that the US “does not support China’s call for a ceasefire at this time.”

John Kirby, National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications, answers questions during the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, US, February 17, 2023. Source: Reuters

The US campaign in the West was successful to a certain extent. The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, once also questioned China’s position, as the statement of Sino-Russian “unlimited friendship” was made earlier last year. Nevertheless, there is not a complete lack of consensus and cooperation room between China and the EU on the Russo-Ukrainian war. The Prime Minister of Spain, Pedro Sánchez, will visit China on March 31st to discuss with President Xi the issue of the Russo-Ukrainian war. He said on March 24th that China is a global player and the world must listen to its voice in seeking an end to the war in Ukraine. Emmanuel Macron, the President of France, once met Wang Yi, Director of the Office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission, and stressed that in the face of an increasingly complex international situation, France and China should world together to maintain stability and balance, uphold multilateralism, oppose bloc confrontation, and avoid the division of the world. In other words, both China and France have a consensus to avoid turning this world into a “New Cold War” in terms of the Russo-Ukraine war or the US-China competition. This echoes China’s view about abandoning the Cold War mentality. On the first day of Xi’s visit to Russia, March 20th, President Macron just survived two major votes of no confidence in the National Assembly. President Macron, with his ambitious vision of “EU Strategic Autonomy,” is expected to play a more representative and influential role in the Russo-Ukrainian war. Just after the first anniversary of the war between Russian and Ukraine, President Macron publicly stated that he expected to visit China in early April this year. Unlike last year’s visit by Scholz, which was more business-focused, Macron emphasised China’s role in promoting peace during the Russo-Ukrainian war, saying that it was good that China had joined the peace effort, that it had helped Europe to pressure Russia not to use nuclear weapons, and it could further pressure Russia to accept an end to aggression as a precondition for negotiations. After the EU summit on March 24th, President Macron also said he had invited President von der Leyen to join him on his visit to China in order to make a “united voice” to the Chinese government”. Macron argued that the EU must do everything possible to get China on its side, to put pressure on Russia to prevent the use of chemical and nuclear weapons, to stop the conflict, to return to the negotiating table, and to have international law and Ukraine’s territorial integrity respected.

Chinese President Xi meets with European Council President Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen via video link at the 23rd China-EU leaders’ meeting on April 1st, 2022. Source: Global Times

Given that the fundamental decision of the Russia-Ukraine conflict lies in the US and Russia, the key to the success of China’s mediation also lies in the US and Russia. The US’s strategic plans for Ukraine are not something China can reverse, or the EU can dictate. If China can persuade the EU and put pressure on the US and Russia to act prudently over Ukraine, it will be for the best. It is unwise and over-optimistic to talk at every turn about China’s meditator role in the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

Suggest Readings:

Chinese-Brokered Deal Upends Mideast Diplomacy and Challenges U.S. by Peter Baker, The New York Times

Israel: Former Mossad chief urges rapprochement with Iran: The Saudi-Iran deal shows that “unlikely shifts in power and relations are possible,” says analyst. by Elis Gjevori, Middle East Eye

Saudi-Iran reconciliation: How China is reshaping the Middle East. by Wissam Saade, Middle East Eye

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The New Normal/La Nouvell…

by Severus Xisheng Wang 王希聖 time to read: 8 min