China’s Assertive Diplomacy: From Saudi-Iranian Rapprochement to the Ukraine War

By Chat Kai Wong— Correspondent

From brokering a rapprochement deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia to meddling in the Ukraine War on behalf of Russian President Putin, China is continuously adopting a more assertive diplomatic approach on the world stage with the goal of reshaping the international relationships landscape in its vision.

Over the last several decades, Chinese President Xi Jinping has been burnishing his image as a leading diplomat on the world stage. By presenting himself as a benevolent alternative to American supremacy in international institutions, he has appealed to other authoritarian leaders. In early March, to the surprise of many western analysts, an abrupt rapprochement agreement was announced by the Saudi, Iranian, and Chinese governments, highlighting China’s further entanglement with Middle Eastern politics.

Ever since the largely unsuccessful Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China has been contemplating ways to augment its regional presence in the Middle East. When it comes to brokering international treaties, China has a unique advantage due to its normal diplomatic relationships with many authoritarian countries that the U.S. does not have. Iran and Russia happen to be both on that list of countries. “The success in reaching this landmark agreement has the potential to transform the Middle East by realigning its major powers, replacing the current Arab-Iranian divide with a complex web of relationships, and weaving the region into China’s global ambitions,” said Maria Fantappie, an Associate Fellow at the Istituto Affari Internazionali in Rome.

As the dominant force in the Middle East for the past decade, the U.S. has found itself speculating on the sidelines for the first time in recent history during a moment of significant change. After all, U.S. diplomats have become accustomed to the role of deal-brokers in the Middle East. Meanwhile, China, who have traditionally held a minor role in the region, have emerged as the new influential player. “There is no way around it — this is a big deal. The United States could not have brokered such a deal right now with Iran specifically, since we have no relations. But in a larger sense, China’s prestigious accomplishment vaults it into a new league diplomatically and outshines anything the U.S. has been able to achieve in the region since Biden came to office,” said Amy Hawthorne, deputy director for research at the Project on Middle East Democracy, a nonprofit group in Washington.

Although the importance of the treaty can hardly be understated, some experts have questioned the practical significance of the rapprochement treaty during its implementation and the durability of the treaty during a volatile period of rapid geopolitical changes. “The agreement was transactional, not transformational. The two will remain at daggers drawn, as they were before 2016. China’s participation is more interesting, but still overstated: the deal dropped into its lap. Iran and Saudi Arabia have good reasons to praise its role. But it is unlikely to become a new regional peacemaker,” an article in The Economist wrote.  

But for most Middle East watchers, the symbolic meaning of the deal is the most important aspect of it. For Iran and Saudi Arabia, the treaty was a statement to the U.S. that they are both independent countries and will act on the best interests of their countries, instead of the best interests of the U.S.-led world order.

For China, the treaty proved that the country was capable of using its economic ties to impact international relations. “It’s a sign of Chinese agility to take advantage of some anger directed at the United States by Saudi Arabia and a little bit of a vacuum there, and it’s a reflection of the fact that the Saudis and Iranians have been talking for some time. And it’s an unfortunate indictment of U.S. policy,” said Daniel C. Kurtzer, a former ambassador to Israel and Egypt.

The Middle East is not the only theater China sets its eyes on. Right before President Xi visited Russia about two weeks ago, Chinese state media propagandized that China could become the pivotal peace broker in the Ukraine War. “The mere fact that China is involving itself in different conflicts and trying to affect such peace deals is a significant development. Maybe China feels the time is right to put its diplomatic and economic clout behind the rhetoric,” says Jonathan Sullivan, director of China programs at the Asia Research Institute of U.K.’s Nottingham University. 

A lot of analysts are nonetheless doubtful that China’s diplomatic ambition in Ukraine can be as successful as it has been in the Middle East. “Saudi Arabia and Iran actually want to talk and improve relations, while Russia and Ukraine don’t, at least for now. However, Xi could act as a backchannel, which could start momentum towards talks that for now seem unlikely with both sides hardening their stances in the grinding war,” said Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Washington-based Stimson Center. 

In the meantime, Ukrainian President Zelenskyy showed his willingness to engage in diplomatic talks about a potential peace treaty with China. He has spoken publicly about that he had also asked China to get involved in talks but was waiting for an answer. “The motivation could be that Ukraine does not want to torpedo the chances of Chinese support for its reconstruction, or that China expanded trade with Ukraine after Russia invaded Crimea in 2014 and did not recognise the annexed territory as Russian. Most importantly, Zelenskyy does not want to provoke China so much that they start arming Russia,” said Samuel Ramani, a Russia expert at Oxford University.

The assertive diplomatic stance is overall an instrumental step in President Xi’s plan to reshape the current global power balance from a unipolar to a multipolar world with multiple great powers. “Change is coming that hasn’t happened in 100 years. And we are driving this change together. Please, take care, dear friend,” said Xi as he held Putin’s hand warmly before being waved off by the Russian President.

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