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Is China’s Balancing Approach in the Middle East a Recipe for Success?

Could the great power competition be more collaborative?

Words: Syeda Saba Batool
Pictures: Patrick Fore

The China-brokered deal resulting in the restoration of ties between arch-rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia is a significant diplomatic milestone for Beijing. The deal took place on March 11, 2023. Beijing ultimately achieved détente between the two regional adversaries. Following the deal, Tehran and Riyadh are making efforts to enhance their relations, fostering the emergence of a “reconciliation wave” in the region. 

The success of Chinese diplomacy lies in its balanced approach toward Saudi Arabia and Iran, contrary to the US approach of favoring one state over the other. The United States places a strong emphasis on the  “rules-based order,” and, at least in rhetoric, prioritizing human rights. Consequently, the United States tends to impose sanctions and isolate countries perceived as adversaries in the name of human rights. Chinese foreign policy, on the other hand, focuses on economic considerations and fostering “friendship” or partnerships with various international actors. China places significant importance on respecting the sovereignty of other nations and their respective domestic politics.

In essence, China’s foreign policy can be distilled into a strategy of maintaining a delicate balance by engaging with a wide array of countries and stakeholders. China’s balanced approach and its current success suggest that balance may be key to improving the chances of regional stability.

Tipping Scales

The US approach toward Saudi Arabia and Iran during the Cold War was a balanced one. The United States followed a “twin-pillar” system to guard its regional interests by keeping close ties with both Iran and Saudi Arabia. This period was also marked by cordial relations between Tehran and Riyadh. 

However, after the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the relations between the United States and Iran — and Iran and Saudi Arabia — took a fundamental turn. The US support for the Shah regime was one of the many reasons for the drastic change in their relations. The decade-long Iran-Iraq war also increased tensions as the United States and Saudi Arabia supported Iraq in this war against Iran. A new era of sour relations between Tehran and Riyadh started, marked by competition for regional hegemony and proxy wars.

Because of growing differences with Iran, the United States started hedging its bets on Riyadh. The continuous instability in the Middle East and a regional cold war — that has been a hallmark of the post-Iranian revolution era — can be attributed to some extent to the choices made by extra-regional powers. 

China’s Choices

China currently enjoys cordial relations with both Iran and Saudi Arabia. China’s interests in the region extend beyond traditional energy sources and encompass geopolitical, strategic, and economic considerations. China’s increasing involvement in the Middle East serves two primary objectives. First, it aims to highlight China’s status as a responsible global power, aligning with President Xi Jinping’s vision of “a community with a shared future for humanity” via the Belt and Road Initiative. Second, it intends to demonstrate China’s capabilities to the Biden administration, and show that the United States has no way to stop China’s development. To secure its interest, China has been taking a balanced approach toward Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The success of Chinese diplomacy not only lies in striking at the best of times and taking advantage of waning US influence, but also in its balanced approach toward Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The relations between China and Saudi Arabia have been deepening over the past decades. China is Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner. China is also the world’s biggest crude oil importer, and Saudi Arabia is the top crude oil supplier to Beijing. Xi’s visit to Riyadh in December 2022 was a significant moment in the relations between the states. Xi was given a grand welcome in contrast to the low-key reception given to President Joe Biden on his visit in July 2022. Saudi Arabia has also supported Chinese policy in Xinjiang, and Beijing has no concerns regarding the human rights situation in Riyadh. Recently, China has also offered to build a nuclear power plant in Saudi Arabia. 

The relations between both states are moving from the economic to the security realm, further strengthening the bond between both states. China provides Saudi Arabia with resources and technology, and China’s Saudi-Iran deal also includes Iran’s commitment to stop arming Houthis in the Yemen conflict and maintain regional peace. Regional peace and stability are necessary for Saudi Arabia to make progress toward its Vision 2030, the country’s national plan that centers on increasing economic, social, and cultural diversification. 

Iran is also strengthening its relations with China, particularly in the aftermath of the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018. Formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), under the nuclear deal, Iran agreed to dismantle much of its nuclear infrastructure in exchange for sanctions relief. The US withdrawal from the agreement was another factor that majorly undermined trust between Iran and the United States. 

China has no such baggage. It is the largest trading partner of Iran for the past ten years. In 2021, both countries signed a 25-year strategic agreement to strengthen economic and security cooperation. China also pledged to invest $400 billion in Iran over 25 years in exchange for a steady stream of oil. In February 2023, after more than a 20-year gap, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi became the first Iranian leader to visit China. Raisi wrote in an op-ed for the leading Chinese paper People’s Daily that “Iran and China are friends in difficult situations.”

China has also been expanding its influence through multilateral organizations. In August 2023, Iran and Saudi Arabia were invited to join BRICS — the China and Russia-dominated group. Also, Iran has become a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in the 2023 summit. Saudi Arabia has also joined SCO as a dialogue partner and can become a full member in the future. 

China as the Peace Broker

Beijing has been working to become a peace broker in the Middle East for several years now. In 2021, China provided a five-point plan to improve relations in the Middle East. The plan advocated mutual respect, upholding equality and justice, achieving nonproliferation, jointly fostering collective security, and accelerating development cooperation. On the other hand, in July 2022, the US-brokered deals that continue to isolate Iran through the strengthening of Israel-Gulf ties.

The success of Chinese diplomacy not only lies in striking at the best of times and taking advantage of waning US influence, but also in its balanced approach to both regional powers. This deal shows that a balanced approach by an extra-regional power toward both major players of the region — Iran and Saudi Arabia — may be beneficial to sustain the stability of the region.

Syeda Saba Batool serves as Chair at Emerging Voices Network (EVN), London. She is an author at Modern Diplomacy, CSCR, and Eurasia Review. She is an MPhil student at Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad. 

Syeda Saba Batool

Syeda Saba Batool serves as Chair at Emerging Voices Network (EVN), London. She is an author at Modern Diplomacy, CSCR, and Eurasia Review. She is an MPhil student at Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad. 

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