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In a statement, China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, hailed his nation’s role as a “good-faith and reliable mediator” and launched a barb in the direction of Washington. “The world is not limited to the Ukraine issue,” the statement read, pointing to the crisis dominating American attention over the past year. “There are many issues related to peace and people’s livelihood that require the attention of the international community.”
Away from the conflict in Ukraine, over which U.S. and Chinese officials have recently locked horns, Beijing laid down a new milestone. Washington has a huge footprint in the Middle East, but — or perhaps because of that — it was never poised to achieve rapprochement between Riyadh and Tehran. The United States picked its sides long ago and hasn’t had diplomatic relations with Iran for decades. In recent months, Iran’s suppression of a major protest movement and acceleration of its uranium enrichment capacities only pushed it closer to collision with the United States and its allies.
China resolutely picked no side and positioned itself as an equal opportunity consumer of hydrocarbons from the Persian Gulf kingdoms, Iraq and Iran. This made Beijing a far more plausible mediator between the Saudis and Iranians, and appears to have allowed it to step into what could be seen as a geopolitical vacuum in the region. “China has truly arrived as a strategic actor in the gulf,” said Kristin Smith Diwan, of the Arab Gulf States Institute, to my colleagues.
Analysts in Washington are looking on somewhat nonplussed at the proceedings. Some viewed Riyadh’s actions in line with other recent perceived snubs of the Biden administration, including a decision last year to cut oil supplies — and thereby drive up the global price of oil — before a U.S. midterm election cycle in which inflation dominated the agenda. Now, the Saudi leadership is effectively gifting the United States’ main global rival a key symbolic victory.
“What is notable … is the decision to hand the Chinese a huge public relations victory — a photo op that is intended to demonstrate China’s newfound stature in the region,” said Suzanne Maloney, vice president and director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, to my colleagues. “In that sense, it would appear to be yet another Saudi slap in the face to the Biden administration.”
Aaron David Miller, a veteran former U.S. diplomat and senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told me that the deal is a “clear sign” that Riyadh “no longer sees a unipolar world fashioned by Washington” and instead is operating in a more “multipolar” context, with “China and Russia playing critically important roles.” He pointed to the “stunning irony” of “China, America’s erstwhile international adversary, brokering a deal with Iran, America’s erstwhile regional adversary, while the U.S. Navy protects the sea lanes in the gulf ensuring Saudi exports of oil to China.”
Some U.S. policymakers have feared this moment, given that the Middle East is a waning interest in Washington and that a growing cohort of lawmakers in Congress publicly resent the nature of old alliances with autocratic monarchies like Saudi Arabia.
“We may now be seeing the emergence of China’s political role in the region and it should be a warning to U.S. policymakers,” wrote Jonathan Panikoff, a former deputy national intelligence officer for the Near East at the U.S. National Intelligence Council. “Leave the Middle East and abandon ties with sometimes frustrating, even barbarous, but long-standing allies, and you’ll simply be leaving a vacuum for China to fill. And make no mistake, a China-dominated Middle East would fundamentally undermine U.S. commercial, energy, and national security.”
That’s a claim that others would argue is overstated on both counts. The agreement forged at the end of last week may have been done under the auspices of Beijing, but it followed at least two years of steady dialogue and talks shepherded by other regional actors, including governments in Iraq and Oman. China didn’t simply swoop in and make the disputing parties suddenly get along; the progress made in Beijing hardly prefigures a major shift in the regional dynamic — at least, not yet.
“China has sought to be a neutral broker in the highly polarized Middle East, but as its interests in the region grow it may prove difficult to defend those interests while remaining neutral,” tweeted Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment, gesturing to the pitfalls and headaches to come for any outside power seeking to exert influence in the Middle East.
And the prospect of de-escalation and peace, even if it’s Beijing-brokered, is nothing to bemoan. On Friday, the White House indicated that a mending of fences between Tehran and Riyadh was in U.S. interests and expressed hope for the end of strife in Yemen, where Iran-backed Houthi rebels have vied against a Saudi-led coalition, backed with U.S. firepower, for the better part of a decade.
“Unfortunately, the United States has adopted an approach to the region that has disabled it from becoming a credible mediator,” wrote Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, which advocates for U.S. restraint on the world stage, in an email.
“Too often, Washington takes sides in conflicts and becomes a co-belligerent — as in Yemen — which then reduces its ability to play the role of peacemaker,” he added. “While many in Washington will view China’s emerging role as a mediator in the Middle East as a threat, the reality is that a more stable Middle East where the Iranians and Saudis aren’t at each other’s throats also benefits the United States.”