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Iranian-Saudi detente and "Asianization" of the Persian Gulf: China fills the gap

After an intense round of secret negotiations between Iranian and Saudi representatives, facilitated by Chinese mediation, Tehran and Riyadh announced in mid-March that they would resume diplomatic relations following seven years of regional antagonism. In the wake of the reconciliation deal, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud officially invited President Ebrahim Raisi to visit Riyadh. Iranian Vice President Mohammad Mokhber revealed that Raisi has accepted the invitation, and Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian has said Iran will reciprocate and send a similar invitation to the Saudi king. It is unclear if the Saudi-Iranian détente will last, but at least for now, China’s role in resolving this diplomatic stalemate between two major regional powers seems to indicate the beginning of a multi-faceted de-Westernization process in the region.

In December 2022, Chinese President Xi Jinping traveled to Riyadh to participate in the first China-Arab States Summit, and in February 2023, President Raisi visited Beijing at the official invitation of his Chinese counterpart. These high-level diplomatic meetings represent China’s political approach in the Persian Gulf: building partnerships with all major regional powers and filling the political vacuums left by the West.

De-Westernization in the Persian Gulf

The world is becoming less Western as the rise in geopolitical competition between great powers, the growing multiplicity of interlocking crises worldwide, and the diminishing engagement of Western powers in various conflicts outside of Europe have paved the way for a return to multipolarity. In Xi’s words, “The world today is going through profound changes unseen in a century.” A central characteristic of this post-Western world order is a fluid and situational web of strategic relations between global and regional powers mainly based on pragmatic rather than ideological considerations. China, unlike the United States, has established good relations with all Middle Eastern countries. Representing the flexibility of its no-alliance diplomacy, Beijing has signed several comprehensive bilateral strategic partnerships on both sides of the Persian Gulf.

The China-brokered deal between Riyadh and Tehran reflects regional actors’ increasing willingness in recent years to benefit from the emergence of alternative global powers to the detriment of the U.S. and the wider West. The U.S. had for decades been the primary external actor in the Middle East, but its more recent reluctance to involve itself in regional crises provided additional impetus for local governments to seek engagement with other available outside powers, especially in Asia. As a symbol of the Gulf’s turn toward a more Asian-focused policy, Saudi Arabia and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have drastically increased their trade with the Asia-Pacific region — this trade is expected to grow by about 60%, to $578 billion, by 2030. Moreover, Riyadh is also reportedly considering accepting the Chinese yuan rather than the U.S. dollar for oil sales to China, which led to a harsh U.S. response.

The perception among Arab leaders that Washington has stopped prioritizing the Middle East — especially after the Obama administration announced its “Pivot to Asia” strategy — has also had consequences in the defense and security sphere. Namely, Arab countries have embarked on a path to reduce their reliance on the U.S. as a security provider by building up their domestic defense sectors. And they have repeatedly turned to China to help achieve those objectives. Saudi Arabia, for example, has started manufacturing its own ballistic missiles with the help of China, and the United Arab Emirates allowed Beijing to develop a military facility at an Emirati seaport, although construction stalled after U.S. officials warned Abu Dhabi about the consequences of a Chinese military presence in the region.

Iran welcomes “Asianization” in the Persian Gulf

For Iran, greater “Asianization” in the Persian Gulf is a blessing. Iranian leaders, and especially the conservative decision-makers, interpret the expansion of China’s political and economic role in the region as detrimental to the United States. Thus, contrary to many analysts’ earlier expectations, Tehran supports the expansion of ties between the member states of the GCC and China as well as Beijing’s growing political influence in the region. The Trump administration’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal (the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) and uncertainty over whether the Biden administration will ever seek to return to it have led Tehran to conclude that the U.S. and its Western allies are unwilling to recognize or respect Iran’s regional interests and concerns. In contrast, Tehran believes that Beijing acknowledges Iran’s status as a regional power, as illustrated by Chinese backing for Iran to become a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) later this year. The China-led SCO is a symbol of Asianization and Saudi Arabia’s recent decision to join this organization as a dialogue partner would solidify the trend of Asianizing the region.

Chinese involvement in the Persian Gulf

Beijing’s diplomatic mediation between Tehran and Riyadh is in line with China’s desire to take on an active role in international politics and reshape the global order based on a proclaimed vision of common, comprehensive, cooperative, and sustainable security as part of China’s grand strategy of rejuvenation after 2012. Thus, in stepping in to host the signing of the Saudi-Iranian diplomatic rapprochement, China saw an opportunity to establish its role as a proactive and responsible global actor in conflict resolution through diplomatic means. That mediator role notably came on the heels of China’s 12-point position paper, released in February, for settling the Russo-Ukrainian war. More recently, Xi visited President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, where the subject of the conflict came up, and he reportedly plans to soon hold talks with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Collectively, these initiatives are designed to demonstrate China’s developing role as a global peacemaker that would stand in contrast with the U.S.’s reputation as the world’s policeman.

On Feb. 21, 2023, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs released the “Global Security Initiative” (GSI) concept paper, which declares that Beijing will promote the political resolution of regional conflicts by encouraging the countries involved to resolve their disputes through dialogue and communication. GSI has also reiterated China’s adherence to its five-point proposal for advancing peace and security in the Middle East. In this regard, the Iran-Saudi Arabia rapprochement indicates a practical acceptance of the GSI and reaffirms the security discourse China aims to consolidate through that initiative.

China’s economic and strategic interests in the Middle East, such as energy security, are more concentrated in the Persian Gulf. As such, China has signed three comprehensive strategic partnerships and four strategic partnerships with Persian Gulf states. Safeguarding China's extensive interests in the Persian Gulf depends on reducing tensions in the region and ensuring maximum stability and security. Accordingly, Beijing has also pitched the idea of hosting a high-level summit between Iran and GCC members in 2023. Such an initiative would further consolidate China’s role as a peacemaker in the region and potentially herald the launch of a new security framework in the Middle East based on principles enshrined in the Chinese GSI, forming a clear dividing line with long-lasting U.S. narratives and attitudes toward security in the region. Giving credence to such expectations, following the Saudi-Iran deal, Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, met with the president of the UAE, Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed Al Nahyan. During the visit, the two sides notably discussed opportunities to strengthen bilateral relations and enhance regional security.

While the U.S. administration has cautiously welcomed the deal between Riyadh and Tehran, Beijing’s role in this diplomatic breakthrough in the Middle East is worrying for Washington. Since the end of World War II, the United States has been the central global power involved in the Persian Gulf. And following the end of the Cold War, the U.S. was instrumental in helping finalize every important diplomatic deal in the region. The China-brokered deal and Beijing’s comprehensive strategic partnership agreements with both sides of the Persian Gulf represent the first serious potential alternatives to the American-led regional order based on alliances and a strong U.S. military presence in the region.

De-Westernization of the Middle East is the result of the U.S.-led West’s repeated failures to prioritize diplomacy, be impartial, and show flexibility in dealing with regional conflicts. Indeed, in the post-Cold War era, the West has frequently sought to resolve regional disputes through coercive means, be it military intervention, economic sanctions, and/or political pressure. China, by contrast, is attempting to present itself as the antithesis of the U.S. and its Western allies. Beijing has cast itself as an outside power capable of managing conflicts through mediation and diplomacy, with a greater focus on business, stability, and shared interests, without seeking regional dominance, while simultaneously guaranteeing the protection of its main interests in the region, including energy security, investment, and trade.

It remains to be seen how far China’s involvement in the Middle East will go and what implications it will have for the security architecture of the region. Nevertheless, the power vacuums resulting from de-Westernization are leading to an Asianization of the Persian Gulf. China is seeking to fill the gap with strategic precision. As the two main regional powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia are now aiding China in that endeavor and, consequently, helping to potentially reshape the regional order.

Zakiyeh Yazdanshenas is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Middle East Strategic Studies in Tehran.

Alam Saleh is a lecturer in Iranian studies at Australian National University’s Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies.

Second publication by courtesy of The Middle East Institute , Original-Text


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