China made historic diplomacy win by announcing a rapprochement agreement on March 10. Beijing announced a rapprochement agreement between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran brokered by China.
This agreement holds significant importance for many parties involved, directly or indirectly. Middle Eastern security framework has been mired by proxies and cold tensions between two rival powers, i.e., Iran and Saudi Arab due to their religious and ideological differences.
Iran supports Shiite rebel groups and governments, whereas Saudis support their Sunni counterparts. Their bitter rivalry has shaped the current Middle East’s security dilemma, where resolving any conflict without their involvement is impossible. As such, this rapprochement by China has the potential to pave the way for positive development in their mutual relations and bring about resolutions to various impending conflicts in the region.
Its massive energy imports drive China’s growing influence in the Middle East. After experiencing a boom in the economy in the early 2000s, China’s energy requirement has increased ten folds over the years. China purchased 513 million tons of crude oil in 2021, a 5.4% decline from 2020 due to the global pandemic. Chinese crude oil imports from the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz totaled an astounding $128 billion, $128 billion, which is three times more than what the United States (US) and the European Union (EU) imported. China’s most significant crude oil imports come from Middle Eastern countries, of which Saudi Arabia makes the most essential partner. China has also imported crude oil from Iran despite the sanctions imposed by the US. Chinese industries have developed over the years and require more energy each year. The basic tenet of Chairman Xi’s regime is centered on energy security. With its focus on self-reliance and confrontation with the US, China under Xi has taken reformative measures in its foreign policy.
The Saudi-Iran deal holds much significance for China. Stability in the Middle East is directly tied to China’s prosperity and efficient means to sustain its energy supply lines, preventing violent ventures that could disrupt deradicalization attempts in the Middle East. Since the Middle East represent the core of China’s energy consumption, Chairman Xi visited Saudi Arabia in his first official state visit after the Covid-19 pandemic. This visit held great importance for both Beijing and Riyadh. China’s economy suffered from a lack of oil imports due to a global shortage during the pandemic. Riyadh sought to establish new alliances after a rift with the US. Xi administration introduced the Global Security Initiative to participate in the reconciliatory mechanism of global affairs actively.
The Riyadh-Tehran deal is the result of China’s global diplomatic activism. China already enjoyed good relations with Iran, signified by their purchase of Iranian oil sanctioned elsewhere and their strategic accord signed in 2021 between China and the then President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani.
China is also pouring billions of dollars into mega infrastructure projects in the Middle East, especially in their massive Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), and seeking to establish its influence in different ports across the Arabian Sea. These developmental projects and China’s reconciliatory efforts are not separate ventures but strategic goals envisioned in Chairman Xi’s Comprehensive National Security. China can foster better relations with regional actors and diversify its consumption markets by keeping peace and security in the Middle East. It is also a rare opportunity for Iran to defuse tensions with Saudi Arabia and build better connections in the Middle East that could help its stagnant economy run rife with domestic protests and international isolation.
On the other hand, Saudi Arabia has an opportunity to find an alternative security partner in the wake of strained relations with the US. These developments gave China a political vacuum to assert a more active interest in the Middle Eastern security umbrella to ensure their attractions and safeguard their long-term investment, especially after the US Indo-Pacific polarization with AUKUS and QUAD. To ensure the region’s prosperity and counter the need for higher energy consumption, China needs peace between two powers that hold the reign of political security in the area.
Although it is unlikely to presume right now that rapprochement will bring any objective change to Riyadh-Tehran relations, the first step in this development indicates that China has built preferable background to act as a mediator between the two states. Unlike the US, China had fostered better relations with Iran and Saudis while seemingly enjoying the US-led international trade system. China traded with Iran despite the US sanctions that gave Beijing an advantage over the US, which had declared Iran an “Axis of Evil” during the tenure of the Former US President.
China’s relations also improved significantly with Saudi Arabia as its need for crude oil increased. The sheer trade level of over $65 billion and the rift between the Saudis and the US gave China a more favorable score ground to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
China’s energy crisis and new Indo-Pacific developments also compelled them to take broader roles in global affairs. China will need to take up a more assertive part to ensure this agreement brings to fruition and both opposing powers take this opportunity in a positive direction for future development.
The author is a Graduate of Peace Studies from the National Defence University, Islamabad. His Focus of interest includes developmental studies, social movements & structural violence.