In the pantheon of intractable, visceral conflicts, the feud between Iran and Saudi Arabia sits below few: rooted in doctrine, enmeshed in history, and waged via proxies across the Middle East. So, as a way of establishing your peace-building chops, it’s not a bad place to start.
Friday’s agreement signed in Beijing that reestablished diplomatic relations between Tehran and Riyadh after seven years of bitter rancor has cast China in an unfamiliar role as global truce-broker. It’s a development that signifies President Xi Jinping’s new willingness to leverage his economic clout in third-party negotiations, thereby explicitly rejecting former reformist leader Deng Xiaoping’s noninterventionist mantra, “hide your strengths, bide your time.” Xi appears to have personally played a part brokering the Iran-Saudi deal, visiting the Saudi capital in December and hosting Iran’s president in Beijing last month.
The question now is whether China is willing to step up to play a central role negotiating a settlement in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Xi is due to have a video call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky—their first direct conversation since Russia invaded more than a year ago—after first meeting with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Moscow, possibly as early as next week.
“The mere fact that China is involving itself in different conflicts and trying to affect such peace deals is a significant development,” says Jonathan Sullivan, director of China programs at the Asia Research Institute of U.K.’s Nottingham University. “Maybe … China feels the time is right to put its diplomatic and economic clout behind the rhetoric.”
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Until now, rhetoric is all Beijing had to offer. With great fanfare, Beijing announced last month that it would unveil a peace proposal to end the war in Ukraine. But the 12-point plan was a risible mix of platitudes, such as “cease hostilities” and “improve humanitarian conditions” alongside the—by now obligatory—rebuke of the U.S. for its “Cold War mentality.” According to Maria Shagina, a senior fellow specializing in economic sanctions, standards, and strategy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, “China floated the peace plan for its own sake, rather than for some genuine mediation.”
However, the Iran-Saudi deal has prompted a recalibration. The two Gulf countries are historic rivals due to differing interpretations of the Quran and have been especially at loggerheads after Iran’s 1979 revolution ushered in a Shia Muslim theocracy. They severed ties in 2016 after Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Shia scholar, while their competing spheres of influence manifest in bloody conflicts in Syria, Lebanon, and elsewhere. The eight-year Yemen war, in particular, is being fought between Tehran-backed Houthi rebels and a military coalition led by Riyadh in support of the government.
Still, negotiations between Iran and Saudi Arabia had been ongoing since 2021, chiefly in Iraq and Oman, though talks recently broke down. It was during Xi’s December visit to Riyadh, Tehran-based political journalist Saeed Azimi writes for the Stimson Center, that Saudi Arabia asked China to assume a mediator role—a suggestion that Xi and Iran both accepted.
Following Friday’s announcement, China’s top diplomat Wang Yi said the deal demonstrates that Beijing is a “reliable mediator” that had “faithfully fulfilled its duties as the host.” The Chinese Communist Party tabloid the Global Times subsequently talked up the Iran-Saudi deal as evidence Beijing could play a decisive role in Ukraine.
Yet as deeply entrenched as the animosity is between Tehran and Riyadh, the fact that (albeit stalled) talks were ongoing sets the deal apart from Ukraine, where missile attacks and casualties mount daily. True, Beijing does have significant leverage over Moscow as Western sanctions have bitten. China’s trade with Russia hit a record high level of $190 billion in 2022—a 30% year-on-year rise. Whether Xi is willing to use this to force Putin into a corner is a huge question.
Another is whether Zelensky is willing to countenance a settlement that gives up any territory—something the former comedian has repeatedly ruled out. “Xi is indeed best placed to broker a peace if he is willing and able to play honest broker,” says Professor Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London. “The problem is that he is so supportive of Putin that it would be hard for Zelensky to accept what Xi may have to suggest.”
A decisive factor may be Xi’s desire to recast himself as global statesman at the expense of the U.S. In mediating between Iran and Saudi Arabia, China leveraged the fact that it’s by far the biggest customer for Middle Eastern energy exports and the top trading partner for both countries. But it also cannily exploited frictions between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and Riyadh’s ongoing participation in a pandemic-era oil pact with Russia.
Tellingly, Xi’s December trip to Saudi Arabia was welcomed by air force jets spewing lurid smoke, honorary cannon fire, and the country’s foreign minister waiting on the runway. The most recent visit by U.S. President Joe Biden in July, by contrast, was received without pomp at Jeddah airport by the city’s governor.
In a statement on Saturday, China’s Foreign Ministry insisted that, “China has no intention to and will not seek to fill [a] so-called vacuum or put up exclusive blocs.” Yet it’s hard to escape the fact that international coverage of the Iran-Saudi deal has focused as much on waning American influence as Chinese success. On Sunday, Maj. Gen. Yahya Rahim Safavi, the top military adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, said that the Iran-Saudi agreement was “an earthquake” to herald “the post-American era” in the Middle East.
A Xi-brokered peace in Ukraine would certainly amplify that notion of American decline. While Zelensky and Biden remain closely aligned on the necessity of fending off Russian aggression, fissures over the level and nature of U.S. military backing could widen as next year’s presidential election nears. The current Western sanctions policy is aimed at constraining and compelling Putin to change his course by depriving Russia of financial and technological capabilities. But after a year of conflict, there is a clear limit to what punitive economic measures can achieve. “Long term, I think we are looking at some sort of negotiated settlement,” says Shagina of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, “simply because there is no maximalist strategy when it comes to Russia.”
Ultimately, any peace deal requires two things that China possesses but the West does not: leverage with Russia, and a line to Putin. And given the escalating human toll, the fact that it would also fling mud into America’s eye perhaps isn’t sufficient reason for cynicism. Adds Sullivan: “If Putin is looking for a face-saving solution, China is as good a facilitator as anyone.”
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