Posts Tagged ‘China-Middle East’

Another article for South China Morning Post from a month or so back looking at how China’s role on the world stage is changing and its impact. A topic for lots of research and thinking in the future.

China’s Saudi-Iran deal is a clear victory in its global push to be a force for peace

  • It remains to be seen how much China will enforce the agreement, given its dislike of confrontation, but that matters less than others engaging with Beijing.
  • The world order is shifting and the West needs to find a better way to answer the offer Beijing is putting on the table than simply dismissing it.
President Xi Jinping is greeted by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after his arrival in Riyadh on December 8, 2022. China’s recent rise in engagement with the Middle East is part of a larger diplomatic push to portray itself as a force for peace. Photo: Saudi Press Agency via AP

Beijing deserves credit for seizing the opportunity to support Saudi-Iranian rapprochement. While it is premature to say China has displaced the United States in the Middle East through this deal, coming amid reports that President Xi Jinping is to meet both Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin, it does highlight the appeal of Beijing’s approach to foreign policy to a wider audience than is sometimes appreciated in the US or Europe.

As far as can be understood, China came into the process for the Saudi-Iranian deal relatively late. Iraq and Oman also played an important brokering role, one that both Tehran and Riyadh actively sought out as they attempted to tone down their tensions. Even so, it is clear that Beijing played an important role in clearing the final hurdles to the agreement and reportedly offered some critical backstops and guarantees.

It remains to be seen how much Beijing will act as an enforcer and whether it will step in to chide either side if they fail to live up to their responsibilities within this framework. Similarly, we will have to wait and see what, if any, tangible deliverables China can obtain in its attempts to mediate between Putin and Zelensky.

But in many ways, from a Chinese perspective, these details are less significant at this point. This is part of a wider push since the end of China’s zero-Covid policy, one which demonstrates an alternative international order that Beijing can offer. Xi’s travel itinerary since last September has included attending a Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Uzbekistan, the Group of 20 summit in Jakarta, the Apec forum in Bangkok and the China-Gulf Cooperation Council Summit in Riyadh.

These are all platforms where the West has less of a presence and where China gets a warmer reception. They are also replete with powers that appreciate Beijing’s less-judgmental approach to international affairs and how they behave at home. Some also see China as a rich potential investor and important economic partner, which blunts their desire to take a confrontational approach.

At the same time, Chinese diplomacy seeks to push a narrative of positive engagement on the world stage. The publication of the Global Security Initiative white paper in English was an illustration of what a Chinese-led security order might look like.

While China’s peace proposals for Ukraine have received a mixed reaction in the West, they are a way for Beijing to highlight that, unlike other members of the UN Security Council, it is offering peaceful options to end the war in Ukraine. The fact that Xi is now stepping in to engage suggests that Beijing thinks it already has something agreed that will be presented. The clear narrative will be China as peacemaker.

One can be sceptical about how long such moves by Beijing on the big strategic questions of our time might last. A key problem when trying to mediate between two sides is that, when they breach agreements, they need to be held to account or told to do things they do not want to do or hear. These are difficult conversations that Beijing is not usually eager to hold. Peace agreements that need to be enforced can lead to tensions.

In many ways, though, this does not matter. The fact that all these powers are willing and eager to engage with Beijing and use China as an interlocutor is a reflection of China’s growing soft power on the world stage.

It is not necessarily that China is adored or that any of these powers really think this is the end of their problems. It is more that China is stepping in and offering something different. Given the intractable nature of the problems, this is positive messaging that is welcome in a world that appears to be increasingly moving towards a bipolar geopolitical conflict.

It is also further evidence, if any was needed, that the West will find it difficult to paint the struggle it sees itself locked into against China, Russia and Iran through the current binary lens. The reality is that other countries have agency and, as we are increasingly seeing, China does too.

The world order might not have been transformed, but it is shifting. The West needs to find a better way to answer the offer Beijing is putting on the table than simply dismissing it. The deep scepticism many Chinese efforts receive is understandable, but it misses the reality that this is not how the rest of the world always sees things.

Elsewhere, people will look at China’s proposals and its attempts at mediation as evidence of Beijing offering something new which, while not perfect, is at least not simply stoking the flames of conflict. Whether this narrative will hold remains to be seen, but the immediate narrative victory has clearly been won.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London and a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore

Have not been posting for a while, need to catch up. Been very busy with some longer projects some of which will eventually emerge. But for the time being, enjoy this comment for the South China Morning Post on Wang Yi’s Middle East tour following the blow-out in Anchorage.

How China’s Middle East charm offensive succeeded despite affecting little change

  • What Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to the region may lack in material achievements, it makes up for in good optics. China is a major player in the region
  • In highlighting this, Wang has undermined the Western-driven condemnation of the week before and achieved China’s foreign policy goals
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (right) greets Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi after a document-signing ceremony in Tehran on March 27. Photo: EPA-EFE
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (right) greets Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi after a document-signing ceremony in Tehran on March 27. Photo: EPA-EFE

US-China tensions have continued seamlessly into the Biden administration. Beijing’s desire for a reset was bluntly rebuffed in Alaska, however China is trying to spin that story now. The sanctions dispute over Xinjiang will only further strengthen a transatlantic desire to confront China. 

Sensing this, Beijing has launched a diplomatic offensive, first hosting its traditional ally, Russia, followed by a Middle East roadshow by Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

But while the Middle East visit was largely a repeat of what we have heard before and showed the limits of China’s ability to change the region, it did highlight again the world’s desire to not get caught in the middle of a spat between Beijing and Washington – an outlook that strengthens China’s hand.

The one place in which change was delivered was Iran, a country that is struggling for options at the moment in the grip of Western sanctions. For Tehran, the relationship with Beijing is a window onto the world and an opportunity when it is running out of options.

But the 25-year cooperation agreement the two sides signed is not a cheque for US$400 billion as was widely reported but rather a list of areas in which China will engage with Iran during the next two decades.

Given China’s and Iran’s generally negative image and collective confrontation with the United States, there is clear utility to the imagery of striking a loud public deal like this for both countries. It does change Iran’s calculus and position, but the biggest benefits are likely to accrue to China, whose companies will be able to pick and choose the opportunities they want at prices they like, given Tehran’s lack of alternatives at the moment.

The other new – and very contemporary – aspect to this visit was the push on medical or vaccine diplomacy. While in the UAE, Wang oversaw the launch of a joint project between Sinopharm and local firm G42 Medications Trading in the Khalifa Industrial Zone of Abu Dhabi.

Intended to open later this year, the project aims to manufacture Covid-19 vaccines to help the region inoculate against the virus. The project builds on earlier engagement by the Chinese firm in the UAE, which hosted phase 3 trials of the vaccine last year. It is undoubtedly positive that more people will get access to the vaccine as a result.

But much of the rest of Wang’s visit was a repeat of what we have heard before. The overall five-point structure he proposed, advocating mutual respect, upholding equality and justice,  non-proliferation, fostering collective security and accelerating development cooperation are a fairly predictable roster of declarations by a Chinese leader. They are not anything one can disagree with, but it is difficult to see China achieving some of those goals in the region.

Wang proposed China would try to help broker peace between Palestine and Israel. Beijing has declared this goal before and it has always been warmly welcomed, but it seems unlikely that China will be able to deliver. The offer to host another meeting between the two sides is unlikely to break that deadlock.

Additionally, China said it was going to work with Russia to unlock the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran. This is not going to move ahead unless the Western partners are all on board.

The more interesting chasm which Beijing instead managed to navigate is the clash between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Wang did not offer any new ideas here, but more intriguing is that both countries were equally eager to engage notwithstanding the tensions they share.

This is the confusing magic of China’s Middle Eastern relations – its ability to float between adversaries in ways which others cannot.

The extent of Wang’s demands on the visit appeared to be having good optics and statements supporting China’s treatment of its own people at home. Even during his stop in Turkey, where he was confronted with protesting Uygurs, the Turkish government offered no strong criticism and instead, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan praised the Sinovac vaccine his country has received.

Little materially changed in the region as a result of the visit, and it is unlikely anyone expected much to. Even so, the world was reminded once again that China is a major player and has the red carpet rolled out for it wherever it goes.

Wang also sought to ensure that the visit focused on positive aspects – connecting national development strategies, taking advantage of the region’s natural resources and helping the region develop new health care industries. While there was some discussion about Xinjiang, it was largely kept to Chinese talking points and controlled protests in Turkey, a contrast to the sanctions and tone coming out of Western capitals.

The difficulty for Western countries is not so much that China is displacing the United States – it still lacks the means, experience or interest to try to untangle the tangled complexities of the Middle East – or that anyone in the region changed their strategic positions towards the West. Instead, the visit reflects a region that follows China’s brutally realist view of the world, where values come second to interests. In highlighting this, Wang has undermined the Western-driven condemnation of the week before and achieved his foreign policy goals.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London

A slightly limited post just to flag up a chapter I have written in a new book that has been published by my publisher Hurst on Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism in China: Domestic and Foreign Policy Dimensions. The book is the product of an excellent conference hosted by the wonderful Michael Clarke at the Australian National University in Canberra, which brings together a number of the top experts on the topic, covering China and terrorism from a number of different angles. Given the nature of the publication I cannot just repost here, but am sure you can all purchase copies and enjoy the wonderful text in its entirety.

My particular chapter covers the question of how Uighur terrorism has intersected with Middle Eastern jihadism over time, bringing it right up to day with what is going on in Syria at the moment (though it was delivered much earlier in the year). Here is the abstract for it:

Uyghur Terrorism in a Fractured Middle East

What is the relationship between Uyghur terrorism and the current troubles in the Middle East? The aim of this chapter is to explore this question and attempt to define the impact of Middle Eastern jihadist terrorism on Uyghur terrorism. It will look in particular at what is going on at the moment in Syria and Iraq; it will try to understand the nature of the groups that are there; and, where possible, what activities they appear to be involved in. There are three sections to this chapter: first, a historical study of the links between Middle Eastern jihadis and Uyghurs; second, an investigation of the links between Uyghur extremists and the current conflict in Syria; and finally, some conclusions on how this might all impact on China’s future policies.


Undoubtedly a subject I will return to more in the future, especially given the current context around Xinjiang. This aside, spoke to DW about the Huawei crackdown and the relation this has to the US-China clash more broadly which appears to have also been picked up in Polish by Business Insider for those who can read that.