China-brokered Saudi-Iran Deal: Chinese Experts React
Although hailing the deal as a breakthrough for Chinese diplomacy, Chinese analysts often note that the reconciliation was a long time coming and the result of endogenous processes.
Today’s edition of Sinification is a guest post by Jacob Mardell.
Beijing brokered a landmark agreement restoring diplomatic relations between rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran earlier this month. Thomas has kindly lent me this platform to explore the reactions of ten prominent Chinese international relations experts. In keeping with house style, here are the main take-aways:
Most of the experts see the agreement as an inevitable outcome and in keeping with historical trends: Saudi Arabia and Iran have chosen development over conflict.
Many strike a note of caution, remarking that the Beijing-brokered agreement is only a first step.
The experts are in agreement that only China could have brokered this deal, largely because it is trusted by both sides in the conflict.
Naturally, a comparison is made with the US, which, according to these experts, has a record of interference and hegemonic bloc-building in the Middle East.
They claim that China sets the table for peace, while the US tries to set the agenda. China’s respect for countries’ autonomy and adherence to the principle of non-interference are distinguishing characteristics.
In line with official rhetoric, the experts largely see the Beijing-brokered agreement as proof that China’s “new model of diplomacy” works better than that of the US.
The experts do not focus so much on what the agreement means for US power in the Middle East, but they do note the reality of the USA’s decline in the region.
However, some of the authors hint that, if the peace agreement does not work out, we will know who to blame (the USA).
My analysis: Although they provide some valuable insights, the experts do not stray far from the Party hymnbook in exploring the differences between China’s peaceful diplomacy and the “cold war mentality” of the US. The Middle East is the region in the world where this narrative actually rings truest, but Beijing will have a much harder time brokering agreements elsewhere.
Inevitably choosing development
Research fellow at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies (SIIS), Jin Liangxiang (金良祥), describes Iran’s easing of tensions with its neighbours as an “inevitable choice” (必然选择). Although the agreement took much of the world by surprise, the sense provided by most of these experts is that the reconciliation came as the result of a natural and inevitable process.
The rough consensus is that after years of exhausting tensions, Iran and Saudi Arabia have chosen peace and development over conflict. Liu Zhongmin (刘中民), director of the Middle East Institute at Shanghai International Studies University (SISU), identifies “stalemate” and “strategic overreach” (战略透支) as factors pushing Iran and Saudi Arabia towards the negotiating table. The trend in the Middle East, he claims, is toward better neighbourly relations, which he sees as part of an ongoing need for “internal development and external easing” (内求发展、外求缓和) in the Middle East.
Liu sees Saudi Arabia’s emphasis on “internal development” as practice of a lesson learned from the Arab Spring – that “the security of the regime comes from the performance of governance”. Pursuit of performance-based legitimacy and faith that “development is a master key to addressing all problems” is, of course, a core tenet of Chinese Communist Party philosophy.
A fragile peace
Many of the commentaries also strike a note of caution regarding the challenges that lie ahead and the fragility of the agreement that has been reached. Li Shaoxian (李绍先), head of the China-Arab States Research Institute at Ningxia University, and Jin Liangxiang both do this eloquently.
Li refers to tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran with the Chinese proverb “It takes more than one cold day for the river to freeze three feet deep” ( 冰冻三尺，非一日之寒), and warns that the agreement is only “the first step in melting the ice.” Jin cautions that differences accumulated over the years between Saudi and Iran will not disappear in a puff of smoke (往事如烟) simply because of one statement.
Only China can be trusted
Despite these nuanced and relatively sober takes on the agreement, the commentators do, of course, celebrate China’s role in the mediation. Li summarises the qualities that facilitated China’s success in four words: “trust”, “patience”, “wisdom,” and “responsibility.” Niu Xinchun (牛新春), director of the Institute of Middle East Studies at China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR is the Ministry of State Security’s think tank), explains these first two qualities in more concrete terms.
In his article, “Only China Can Do It Right,” (只有中国能做好这件事), Niu claims that “only China maintains friendly and balanced relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran” while also being big and invested enough to exert influence.
The USA is not to be trusted
The quality of “trust” naturally invites comparisons between the USA and China. Niu writes that Europe and the US are too close to Saudi and too distant from Iran to play the role of mediator fairly. As Jin Liangxiang remarks, China’s new security concept is “distinctly different from the Western approach”, which is defined by “divide and rule” tactics and bloc confrontation.
Fudan University's Shen Yi (沈逸), one of China's propagandistic “public intellectuals” (公知), is much more virulent in his criticism of US policy in the Middle East than his colleagues. He claims that the US has stoked conflict in the Middle East while standing by to sell weapons. In one metaphor-packed sentence, Shen likens Washington to “the dragon king [a rain god] selling umbrellas” (龙王卖伞) and also to an arsonist moonlighting as a firefighter. More soberly, Liu Zhongmin observes that although the USA is capable of brokering peace between Saudi and Iran, it has not done so because, “in its logic, Iran is a threat to the region.”
Setting the table, rather than the agenda
Some of the commentators go into more detail on the differences between US and Chinese style mediation. In short: China sets the table, rather than the agenda. Referencing the US-brokered end to the Bosnian war, Shen Yi describes US mediation as “coercive diplomacy” (胁迫式的协调). The US, he writes, does not care about the “free will” of these countries, only that they accept the US-set agenda within a given time frame.
Non-interference is the principle outlined most clearly in Chinese foreign policy rhetoric, and it is the characteristic many of the commentators credit China with in successfully brokering the deal. There is also a firm link drawn between China’s non-interference and its respect for countries’ autonomy.
Fan Hongda (范鸿达), a professor at SISU’s Middle East Studies Institute, contrasts China’s approach to peace in the Middle East with that of the US. Fan claims that “one of the distinctive features of China's Middle East diplomacy,” is to oppose “interference” by other countries in Middle Eastern affairs and respect the “strategic autonomy of Middle Eastern countries.” The US interferes where it can and “unites with friendly countries to suppress others”, he says. The result can only ever be “continued confrontation”. Meanwhile, China’s successful mediation “shows that China's approach to the Middle East security conundrum has more merit”, Fan writes.
Official Chinese rhetoric emphasised Saudi and Iranian ownership of the deal and the commentators also celebrate the agreement as a success for Saudi Arabia and Iran’s strategic autonomy.
A new model of diplomacy
Shen Yi writes that tensions in the Middle East are the fault of the “old international political and economic order established by the USA and the West.” In response, says CASS researcher Zou Zhibo (邹治波), “China has created a new model of great power mediation.”
Many of the authors echo official rhetoric to draw wider comparisons between the USA’s hegemonic impulses and China’s “win-win” style of diplomacy. All of them reference Xi Jinping’s Global Security Initiative and, although few explicitly draw the link between the Saudi-Iran deal and a potential Chinese-led solution to the war in Ukraine, most of them frame the agreement as proof that China’s model of diplomacy works better.
Renmin University’s Tian Wenlin (田文林) attributes these contrasting foreign policy styles to historical differences. China’s concept of "Tianxia", he writes, “emphasises cultural integration and mutual respect, rather than pursuing conquest and confrontation.”
Fan Hongda claims that China’s success in mediating the Saudi-Iran agreement will lead the world to “expect more from China as a mediator”, and that “in the spirit of the Global Security Initiative”, China will be making greater contributions to world peace.
This is firmly in line with the official framing of the agreement. Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin calls the “Beijing dialogue” a “robust and successful effort to put the GSI into practice”. Again the GSI is defined by what it is not and with a nod to the USA. Wang remarks in the next breath, “tactics like ‘bolster one and bash the other’ or ‘divide and rule’ or ‘bloc confrontation' have never been proven to work on security issues.”
China up, US down
Most of the commentators note what Liu Zhongmin calls the “one up, one down” (一增一落) in the US-China power balance in the Middle East. However, they are nowhere near as breathless nor focused on this issue as much of the international coverage (e.g. the New York Times article headlined “Chinese-Brokered Deal Upends Mideast Diplomacy and Challenges U.S”). They merely note relative US decline as a reality and, interestingly, as a factor contributing to the possibility of the agreement.
Ding Long (丁隆), another Middle East professor at SISU, posits that US decline and thus the increased security responsibilities of its allies in the region had the effect of boosting the “strategic autonomy” of these countries and necessitating reconciliation.
Ready with the fall-guy
Despite the US’ decline in the Middle East, the experts convey a sense that if the agreement were to fall through and conflict resume, the US and its ally Israel will be to blame. Qin Tian (秦天), from CICIR, writes that there “should not be any opposition from the US to the resumption of Saudi-Iran relations.” (对沙伊复交应当也不至反对). This phrase could be read as an optimistic statement, or it could be interpreted as an attempt to preempt US opposition and prepare the ground for the USA to take the blame in the event that the agreement turns sour.
The sober note struck by many of the commentators – pointing out the agreement’s fragile nature and the fact that it was long in coming – also demonstrates a reluctance to confer on China too much responsibility for peace in the Middle East. It is also worth noting that in the agreement itself, Beijing made no security commitments, nor provided any assurances that might hold the agreement together in the event that either side violated the truce. None of the experts even hinted that the deal signalled greater Chinese security involvement in the Middle East. They simply reiterated Xi Jinping’s 2016 promise that China would not step into fill any security vacuum in the region.
Although they contain a good measure of nuance and worthwhile insights, the experts cited above do not stray far from the Party hymnbook in exploring the differences between China’s peaceful diplomacy and the “cold war mentality” of the US.
“Community of common destiny”, the “Global Security Initiative” – such Chinese foreign policy concepts are defined almost exclusively by what they are not; and what they are purported not to be is hegemonic and American.
I have always found it ironic that on the one hand, Chinese foreign policy rhetoric is defined by denying realist conceptions of power dynamics, while on the other, Chinese foreign policy is so deeply driven by opposition to the US.
However, the Middle East is the region in the world where the CCP’s narrative actually rings truest. The US does have a fairly solid record of bloc-forming and intervention, while it is simply true that China is the only large, invested country friendly enough with both sides to broker this deal.
I would note that I do not think that China is in this position because it is inherently peaceful. I think that China simply has not been powerful enough yet to experience hegemonic impulses in the Middle East, and if it ever gets there it will behave in the same way as the USA.
Also, what is true in the Middle East, is certainly not true in Eastern Europe. Only one of the experts above (Zou Zhibo) actually discusses the Saudi-Iran agreement as a model for Ukraine and Russia. While China can claim to be fairly equidistance between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the anti-Western basis of Beijing’s support for Russia makes it too involved to act as mediator in the Ukraine war.
As the experts above stress repeatedly, the Saudi-Iran agreement was the result of endogenous processes. As with any successful negotiation, success depended on both sides being ready to come to an agreement. Solving disputes through consultation and dialogue is not exactly a novel concept, and Beijing’s “new'' diplomacy is not a panacea. I do not want to detract too much from Beijing’s diplomatic success in this instance, because it is a real win, but I am not holding my breath for a Chinese solution to the war in Ukraine or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
For more on China’s diplomatic strategy and US-China rivalry in the Middle East as viewed by senior Chinese specialists of the region:
Well done, China. If Saudi-Iranian rapproachment was only a matter of time, I suspect it's because they both want to join BRICS, and it would be odd for them to join BRICS without first patching up their differences. In my humble opinion!