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The Game Plan

China has played an unfamiliar global role, as it has helped broker a diplomatic deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the two belligerent neighbours in West Asia. Usually, the Asian Giant maintains a distance from global political issues, and concentrates only on trade ties. However, such an initiative has hinted at a change in Chinese Foreign Policy.

In the third week of March 2023, Tehran and Riyadh announced that they were all set to restore bilateral diplomatic ties, suspended since 2016. The two Islamic nations also admitted that China played the role of a mediator between them. The Foreign Policy experts have interpreted the development as a sign of Beijing’s increasing role in West Asia, and an attempt to show its ability to match the influence of the US in the Middle East. It may be noted that Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Riyadh for a state visit in December 2022, before hosting his Iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raisi in February 2023. These events were followed by the recent announcement by Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Foreign Policy experts are of the opinion that the Xi Administration rightly sensed an opportunity to interfere in West Asian Politics amidst the Russia-Ukraine War going on in Europe. They believe that the US’ 2018 withdrawal from the multilateral Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) deal on the Iranian Nuclear Programme (signed in 2015) has encouraged China to make an attempt to influence the regional security environment. China’s move to establish cordial neighbourly relations between the two regional Powerhouses (Iran and Saudi Arabia) would certainly irk Washington DC, which could not openly support Beijing’s move due to its internal dynamics and ideological rigidities.

Of course, China has made the move with a certain game plan. Beijing has already increased its influence in the Indo-Pacific Region, as well as in Africa. Now, a peaceful atmosphere in West Asia shall allow China to boost trade ties with the West Asian nations. In the trilateral statement, Tehran and Riyadh clearly mentioned that they were ready to resolve their disagreements and outstanding issues through negotiations. The two countries had discussed various aspects of bilateral ties in Iraq and Oman between 2021 and 2022. However, the discussions failed to break the ice. Riyadh also kept Washington in the loop, although it had declared its interest in restoring the relationship with Tehran.

During his recent visits to Moscow and Paris, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud stressed that Riyadh would keep other major powers informed about the development in an attempt to guarantee durability of the deal with Tehran. Meanwhile, Beijing mentioned in the trilateral statement: “Saudi Arabia and Iran also expressed their appreciation and gratitude to China.” Interestingly, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) made no comments on whether Beijing would play a similar role in the case of other countries. It shows that China’s motivations (in case of the Saudi-Iran deal) are not entirely altruistic.

While referring to the Iran-Saudi deal, the MOFA statement has repeatedly mentioned the UN Charter, stating that resolution of disagreements could be reached “through dialogue and diplomacy”. According to Beijing, each country should respect the sovereignty of others. Although the essence of the statement sounds neutral, the references clearly show Chinese characteristics, which are aimed at undercutting US dominance. China suggests the West Asian countries “to take the future into their own hands”, and to “get rid of external interference”.

Issuing such a statement, China has also made an attempt to cover up the Authoritarian Nature of the top Political Leadership in Beijing, as well as the lack of genuine political role “for the people” in West Asia. With this, Beijing has further promoted the ruling Communist Party’s ideas of establishing an illiberal alternative to the Western Liberal, Democratic Political Systems in Asia.

It’s All About Dominance
India has concentrated on West Asia in recent times while shaping its foreign policy. However, China was ready with a different plan for this region. Within a couple of weeks after becoming the President for the third consecutive time, Xi Jinping made a solid move to resolve the outstanding issues between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia had executed Shia cleric Ayatollah Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr (June 21, 1959 – January 2, 2016) seven years ago, along with 46 others. Immediately after the death of al-Namr, protesters in Iran attacked members of a Saudi diplomatic delegation in Tehran. The attack prompted Saudi Arabia to snap diplomatic ties with Iran. After seven long years, China managed to convince officials of the two belligerent nations to hold talks in Beijing. Iran and Saudi Arabia not only agreed to restore diplomatic ties, but also decided to re-open their embassies in the next two months.

Initially, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs has said that New Delhi considers dialogue and diplomacy as ideal ways to resolve crises. According to sources close to the Indian Ministry, the Narendra Modi Government in India has realised that neighbouring China has increased its influence in West Asia (at least for the time being) by doing this seemingly impossible task. This development is extremely uncomfortable not only for the US, which is hostile to Iran, but also for India. India has lowered the import of petroleum products from Iran in the past three years because of US sanctions on the Islamic Republic. Although India has strengthened ties with other West Asian countries (including Saudi Arabia) during this period, it has failed to get closer to Iran. Meanwhile, China has utilised this opportunity to boost ties with both Iran and Saudi Arabia.

For long, the Asian Giant has been claiming that it would never interfere in the foreign policy of other countries. However, China has started increasing its influence in various regions in recent times. The Asian Powerhouse is also playing the role of an active mediator in global conflicts. A seasoned diplomat, who wished to remain anonymous, has stressed that China is encouraging West Asia to dump the US by playing a constructive role in that region.

The New World Order
West Asia is still called by many as the Middle East. The term Middle East originated from the capital of the British Empire in the 19th Century. However, the US naval admirals popularised the term in the early 20th Century. Henceforth, this Western philosophy of East highly influenced Global Politics. The balance of international power has changed over the past few decades, and now the post-Soviet Unipolar World exists. However, the US, with the help of Britain and Western Europe, managed to influence West Asia until recently. The importance of the US, especially in resolving conflicts between different countries in this region, was unquestionable. Washington DC has made a serious attempt to maintain regional balance of power, apart from creating and nurturing unrest, as well as conflicts.

President Xi Jinping has achieved a major breakthrough by establishing China as an alternative of the US (as an influencer in West Asia). It was not an easy task for him. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia have always tried to increase their political influence in the region, and the Shia-Sunni division is part of the rivalry between them. The conflict between Tehran and Riyadh became particularly intense after the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini (born Ruhollah Mostafavi Musavi; May 17, 1900 – June 3, 1989) as the Supreme Iranian Leader. By imposing economic sanctions on Iran, the US wasted its chance of mediating between Tehran and Riyadh. In such a situation, China has been continuously trying to mediate between the two belligerent parties for the past few years.

In a rare first, China has virtually played a crucial role in West Asian diplomacy. Most importantly, the US had no role in this entire phase of understanding and agreement. It is evident from these two events that the possibility of a change in the diplomatic arena of West Asia has become obvious. According to foreign policy experts, the US would not give up or lose its importance in West Asia anytime soon. China, too, is fully prepared to act as an important State-actor in West Asia. It is not an isolated incident, as Beijing has strengthened ties with Riyadh in recent times. On the other hand, Iran is all set to become an associate member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). China is moving fast to establish itself as an alternative power on the larger stage of global diplomacy.

President Xi announced the Global Security Initiative in 2022, and the objective is quite straightforward. The global community is waiting to see how US President Joe Biden would deal with this new equation. It may be recalled that one of his predecessors (George Herbert Walker Bush; June 12, 1924 – November 30, 2018) had announced the New World Order three-and-a-half decades ago. The current US President is experiencing another New World Order. It is difficult to predict whether this New World Order will be good for the international community. The Communist Party-ruled China and the global ambitions of its strongman Xi have raised grave concerns. It is also not possible that the powerful Western World will divide the East into different parts, and the rest of the world will accept it.

Meanwhile, there is no guarantee that the Iran-Saudi deal will last, as the volatility and record of upended agreements might jeopardise Beijing’s plan. In that case, China would have an option to blame the US and its Western allies for the failure. It has already become a standard practice for Chinese Foreign Policy for anything that goes wrong anywhere in the world.

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