China’s role in Iran-Saudi deal shows Xi’s challenge to US-led order

When Beijing took on the role of mediator in the surprise rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran this week, it signaled a new level of ambition for Xi Jinping, China’s supreme leader, who has been trying to polish his image as a global statesman amid an escalating rivalry with the United States.

China’s top diplomat was quick to credit the success of four days of secret talks in reviving diplomatic ties between the two archrivals to Mr Xi’s leadership, which he said showed “the attitude of a great power”.

By embracing the conclusion of a Middle East peace deal, Mr Xi is capitalizing on waning American influence in the region and presenting the Chinese leadership as an alternative to a Washington-led order he sees as propelling the world into a new Cold War represents.

“This is a narrative battle over the future of the international order,” said Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center, a Washington-based research institute. “China says the world is in chaos because US leadership failed.”

The vision Mr. Xi has outlined is one that wrests power from Washington in favor of multilateralism and so-called non-interference, a word China uses to argue that nations should not meddle in each other’s internal affairs, by criticizing human rights violations example.

The Saudi-Iran deal reflects this vision. China’s involvement in the region has for years been rooted in mutual economic benefits and eschewing Western ideals of liberalism that have hampered Washington’s ability to expand its presence in the Gulf.

In December, Mr. Xi reminded the world of China’s growing hold on Saudi Arabia, a longtime US ally. On a visit to Riyadh this month for talks with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, he was treated to an aviation spectacle by the Royal Saudi Air Force. The hero’s greeting came in stark contrast to a previous meeting between President Biden and Prince Mohammed, remembered as the American leader’s most tense foreign visit, when he tried to avoid a handshake with a no less awkward fist.

Two months later, Mr Xi rolled out the red carpet for Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Beijing and greeted him with a 21-gun salute in Tiananmen Square as a show of respect for Mr Raisi – the authoritarian leader of a nation he secretly accuses will build nuclear weapons – would never have received in North American or European capitals.

“The US supports one side and oppresses the other, while China tries to bring both parties closer together. It’s a different diplomatic paradigm,” said Wu Xinbo, dean of international studies at Fudan University in Shanghai.

If China becomes a more assertive ruler in the Middle East, it would be a major departure from an approach that has largely focused on boosting trade and investment in the resource-rich region, rather than plunging into seemingly intractable conflicts. China dove into Middle East diplomacy in 2013 by offering a four-point plan that rehashed old ideas for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The breakthrough did not succeed.

The settlement of the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia was less challenging. China, given its strong economic and trade ties with both countries, was well placed to use its leverage to bring them to the table.

China is Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner; Saudi Arabia is one of China’s largest oil suppliers. Unlike Washington, China says it is willing to do business with no strings attached. Beijing has accepted Riyadh’s explanation for the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, and the Saudis in return have rebuffed efforts to condemn China’s mass incarceration of Muslim Uyghurs.

China has had diplomatic relations with Iran since 1971 – about two decades longer than with Saudi Arabia. China pledged to Iran in 2021 to invest $400 billion in the country in exchange for oil and fuel supplies, though Western sanctions on Tehran have prevented Beijing from honoring the deal.

Analysts say Mr Xi sees Iran as strategically important primarily as a like-minded critic of the West and as a naturally resource-rich nation with strategic borders, a battle-hardened military and the reputation of a civilization as old as China.

China also has an interest in the stability of the region. Beijing gets more than 40 percent of its crude oil imports from the region. In addition, the Gulf has become an important hub along the Belt and Road trade routes, as well as an important market for Chinese consumer goods and technology. Chinese telecoms giant Huawei is deploying 5G networks in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

Still, Ms. Sun, the analyst, said it was important not to overstate the significance of Friday’s deal.

Saudi-Iranian differences run deep along sectarian lines, and it will take more than renewed diplomatic ties to repair ties. China’s role in brokering the deal may not be as crucial as it seems, either, given that Tehran and Riyadh were already motivated to strike a deal.

“Saudi Arabia and Iran have been talking about restoring their ties for some time. So this isn’t something Beijing made possible overnight,” she said.

What most likely happened, Ms Sun said, was a convergence of interests in which an embattled and isolated Iran gained relief; Saudi Arabia needs to send Washington a message about the cost of reducing exposure to the region; and Mr. Xi could claim prestige as a global leader in the face of mounting American pressure.

“This is not China bringing two countries together and resolving their differences,” Ms. Sun said. “This is China seizing the opportunity of two countries looking to improve ties first.”

After three years of Covid-related isolation, Mr. Xi has been quick to reaffirm Beijing’s presence on the global stage, meeting with dozens of world leaders and deploying its top diplomat around the world to gain an advantage as ties with accusations of Chinese espionage using high-altitude balloons, concerns that Beijing is preparing to arm Russian forces in Ukraine, and growing anti-China sentiment in Congress.

China has denied and pushed back on the gun allegations, claiming it is a peacemaker, and last month presented a proposal to end fighting in Ukraine. That proposal was effectively rejected by European leaders, who have urged Mr Xi to use his influence in Moscow to end the war.

Beijing has also sought to highlight a plan called the Global Security Initiative, first introduced by Mr Xi a year ago, which it describes as an attempt to implement it.Chinese solutions and wisdom’ among the greatest security challenges in the world.

The initiative, which echoes Mao-era language of promoting “peaceful coexistence,” calls for a new paradigm in which global power is more evenly distributed and the world rejects “unilateralism, bloc confrontation, and hegemonism” — a nod to the United States and military alliances such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Some analysts say the initiative is essentially an attempt to advance Chinese interests by replacing Washington as the world’s policeman. The plan calls for respect for countries’ “indivisible security,” a Soviet term used to argue against US-led alliances on China’s periphery.

“A large part of the Global Security Initiative is essentially about delegitimizing security cooperation with the United States,” said Manoj Kewalramani, fellow in China Studies at the Takshashila Institution in India.

Wang Yi, China’s top diplomat who moderated the closing ceremony of the talks in Beijing, said the deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran exemplifies the Global Security Initiative’s focus on promoting dialogue.

In photos released by Chinese state media, Mr Wang facilitates a handshake between Musaad al-Aiban, a Saudi state minister, and Ali Shamkhani, Iran’s National Security Council secretary, both of whom are smiling.

“We will continue to play a constructive role based on each country’s wishes by properly tackling the world’s trouble spots,” Mr Wang said in a note released on Friday.

In a thinly veiled criticism of the United States, he also said that China will help Middle Eastern countries “fend off external interference.”

Chris Buckley And Olivia Wang contributed reporting. China’s role in Iran-Saudi deal shows Xi’s challenge to US-led order

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