China’s Role in Iran-Saudi Deal Shows Xi’s Challenge to U.S.-led Order

When Beijing stepped into the role of mediator this week in the surprise rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, it signaled a new level of ambition for Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, who has sought to burnish his image as a global statesman in an escalating rivalry with the United States.

China’s top diplomat quickly attributed the success of four days of secret talks in reviving diplomatic ties between the two archrivals to Mr. Xi’s leadership, which he said demonstrated “the bearing of a great power.”

By taking credit for striking a peace deal in the Middle East, Mr. Xi is seizing on waning American influence in the region and presenting Chinese leadership as an alternative to a Washington-led order he depicts as driving the world toward a new cold war. 

“This is a battle of narratives for the future of the international order,” said Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center, a Washington-based research institute. “China is saying the world is in chaos because U.S. leadership has failed.” 

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

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

Mr. Xi and Mr. Wang with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia in Riyadh in December, in a photograph released by Saudi Arabia’s state media.Credit…Saudi Press Agency, via Associated Press

In December, Mr. Xi reminded the world of China’s growing clout with Saudi Arabia, a longtime U.S. ally. On a visit that month to Riyadh for talks with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, he was treated to an aeronautical spectacle by the Royal Saudi Air Force. The hero’s welcome stood in stark contrast to an earlier meeting between President Biden and Prince Mohammed, remembered as the American leader’s most fraught foreign visit, when he sought to avoid a handshake with a fist bump that was no less awkward.

Two months later, Mr. Xi rolled out the red carpet for Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Beijing, greeting him with a 21-gun salute in Tiananmen Square in a show of respect that Mr. Raisi — the authoritarian leader of a nation accused of secretly building nuclear weapons — would have never received in North American or European capitals.

“The U.S. is supporting one side and suppressing the other, while China is trying to make both parties move closer. It is a different diplomatic paradigm,” said Wu Xinbo, dean of international studies at Shanghai’s Fudan University.

Understand Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Policy

Restoring Ties: Saudi Arabia has reached an agreement with Iran that paves the way for the re-establishment of diplomatic ties, in what would be a major realignment between regional rivals that was facilitated by China.Naming Its Price: Riyadh has been seeking security guarantees from the United States and help with developing a civilian nuclear program in exchange for normalizing relations with Israel.Forging New Alliances: In December, Saudi Arabia signed a strategic partnership agreement with China during a visit by China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, to the kingdom. The deal underlines the growing ties between Beijing and Riyadh.Narrowing a Rift: Saudi Arabia and Qatar were split for years in a bitter regional dispute. The glare of attention provided by the World Cup in Doha, the Qatari capital, highlighted their complicated reunion.

If China becomes a more energetic power broker in the Middle East, that would be a big shift from an approach that has centered largely on promoting trade and investment in the resource-rich region rather than wading into seemingly intractable conflicts. China dipped its toes into Middle East diplomacy in 2013 by offering a four-point plan that rehashed old ideas for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That failed to achieve a breakthrough.

Mr. Xi with President Ebrahim Raisi of Iran in Beijing in February, in a photograph released by Chinese state media.Credit…Pang Xinglei/Xinhua, via Associated Press

By contrast, easing the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia posed less of a challenge. China was well positioned to use its leverage to bring them to the table, given its strong economic and trading ties with each.

China is Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner; Saudi Arabia is one of China’s largest suppliers of oil. Unlike Washington, China professes a willingness to do business without strings attached. Beijing has accepted Riyadh’s explanation for the 2018 murder of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and in turn, the Saudis have rebuffed efforts to condemn China’s mass detention of Muslim Uyghurs.

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

Analysts say Mr. Xi considers Iran strategically important chiefly as a like-minded critic of the West, and a nation rich in natural resources with strategic borders, a battle-hardened military and the stature of a civilization as old as China’s.

China also has an interest in the region’s stability. Beijing receives more than 40 percent of its crude oil imports from the region. Moreover, the Gulf has emerged as a key node along its Belt and Road Initiative trade routes, as well as a major market for Chinese consumer goods and technology. The Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei provides 5G networks in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

A Huawei store in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in January.Credit…Wang Haizhou/Xinhua, via Getty Images

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 relations to mend ties. China’s role in brokering the agreement also may not be as pivotal as it seems, given indications that Tehran and Riyadh were already motivated to strike an accord.

“Saudi Arabia and Iran have been talking about rehabilitating their relations for quite some time. So this is not something Beijing facilitated 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 got to send a message to Washington about the costs of reducing engagement in the region; and Mr. Xi was able to claim prestige as a global leader in the face of mounting American pressure.

“This is not China bringing two countries together and solving their differences,” Ms. Sun said. “This is China exploiting the opportunity of two countries who want to improve their relations to begin with.”

For Mr. Xi in particular, the deal offered a quick victory on the day he extended his dominance of Chinese politics by securing a third term as president.

A gas condensate refinery in Bandar Abbas, Iran, in 2019.Credit…Ali Mohammadi/Bloomberg

After three years of Covid-induced isolation, Mr. Xi has quickly reasserted Beijing’s presence on the global stage by meeting with dozens of heads of state and dispatching his top diplomat around the world to seek an edge as relations with the United States have deteriorated over accusations of Chinese espionage using high-altitude balloons, concern that Beijing is preparing to arm Russian forces in Ukraine and a growing anti-China tenor in Congress.

China has denied the weapons accusations and pushed back by asserting that it is a peacemaker, putting out a proposal last month to end the fighting in Ukraine. That proposal was effectively dismissed by European leaders, who have pressed Mr. Xi to use his influence over Moscow to stop the war.

Beijing has also sought to emphasize a plan called the Global Security Initiative, first introduced by Mr. Xi a year ago, that it describes as an effort to apply “Chinese solutions and wisdom” to the world’s biggest security challenges.

The initiative, which reprises Mao-era language about promoting “peaceful coexistence,” calls for a new paradigm in which global power is distributed more equally, and the world rejects “unilateralism, bloc confrontation and hegemonism” — a reference to the United States and military alliances like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The National People’s Congress in Beijing on Saturday.Credit…Pool photo by Greg Baker

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

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

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

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

“We will continue to play a constructive role based on the wishes of each country in properly dealing with the hot-spot issues of the world,” Mr. Wang said in remarks published on Friday.

In a thinly veiled criticism of the United States, he also said that China would support Middle Eastern countries in “casting off external interferences.”

Chris Buckley and Olivia Wang contributed reporting.

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