After the deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran, China should be realistic about its power to negotiate deals in the Middle East, says the former envoy to the region

Fully resuming ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran still faces difficulties despite China-brokered diplomatic deal this month, and Beijing should be realistic about its power to broker deals in the region, a former senior diplomat said .

In a move that surprised many, China helped restore diplomatic ties between the two Middle East powers, which were severed in 2016.

Wu Sike, a former Chinese special envoy for Middle East affairs, said the tripartite communiqué issued on March 10 will improve the atmosphere in the Middle East.

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“But it is difficult to say that all problems can be solved. It’s not very realistic,” he said. “But definitely it’s moving towards stability. China will try its best to do what it can, step by step.

“China has always attached great importance to the Middle East. As relations between countries in this region improve, China’s regional reconstruction efforts, including the Belt and Road Initiative, will surely benefit.”

Wu said China was invited as a mediator “because both countries understand the country’s consistently balanced role in foreign policy, which is fundamental to being seen as trustworthy.”

But he added that China should be realistic about pushing for other solutions to problems in the region, including the conflicts between Israel and Palestine, and in Syria, saying those problems are complicated.

“We need to know how much we can achieve and what things can have sustainable results. That’s realistic. You can’t just do everything,” he said.

Saudi Arabia severed ties with Iran in 2016 after its embassy in Tehran was stormed in an escalating row between the two countries over Riyadh’s execution of a Shia Muslim cleric.

The story goes on

The communiqué released last week said Iran and Saudi Arabia would reopen their embassies within two months and resume talks on security, trade, investment and culture.

Diplomatic observers said the deal would make it easier for the nations of China and the Middle East to get involved.

“The signing of the deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran will certainly increase the outside world’s expectations of China,” said Fan Hongda, a professor at the Institute of Middle East Studies at Shanghai International Studies University.

Jonathan Fulton, a senior non-resident at the Atlantic Council, said the deal presented China as an alternative power to solve regional problems.

“It signals Beijing’s willingness to address hotspot issues in a way it has so far resisted, so it could be a sign of things to come in other regions,” he said.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin implicitly criticized the United States’ handling of such issues, saying Tuesday the Saudi-Iranian dialogue in Beijing was a successful exercise in implementing a strong global security initiative.

“The facts prove that ‘draw one faction and fight another’, ‘divide and rule’ and ‘confrontation by camps’ are never the right way to deal with security issues,” he said.

However, observers said that economic considerations, including trade, investment and the Belt and Road Initiative – President Xi Jinping’s project launched in 2013 to boost global trade and infrastructure links – remain at the forefront of China’s support for a more peaceful Middle East stand.

Wu Sike, then China’s special envoy for Middle East affairs, addresses a news conference at the Chinese Embassy in Tehran in July 2014. Photo: Xinhua alt=Wu Sike, then China’s special envoy for Middle East affairs, speaks at a press conference at the Chinese Embassy in Tehran in July 2014. Photo: Xinhua>

“China’s main interests at this stage are still economic,” said Zeno Leoni, a fellow of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London.

“China has recognized that the US is unable or unwilling to stabilize the region’s security, so a more proactive role for Beijing is needed.”

Saudi Arabia and Iran are China’s top sources of oil to power the world’s second largest economy. China has also been Iran’s largest trading partner for the past decade and Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner since 2018, when it replaced the European Union.

According to the US House Foreign Affairs Committee, China invested over $273 billion in the Middle East and North Africa region from 2005 to 2022, with 46 percent of the money going to the energy sector.

In 2021, China’s crude oil imports from Arab countries reached 264 million tons, accounting for more than half of the country’s oil imports.

“The main advantage for China is a less volatile region,” Fulton said. “It does a lot of business in the region and gets a lot of energy from the Gulf, so having a more stable security environment is important for China’s own interests.”

Leoni said China needs to focus more on the Middle East and Global South — nations in Latin America, Africa, Asia and Oceania — because there has been some resistance from Western nations to China since the start of the Ukraine war over suspicion of China relations with Russia.

Fulton said China’s deteriorating bilateral relationship with the US, European anger at China’s support for Russia and Asia’s concerns over cross-strait tensions mean Beijing needs “more positive stories on the foreign policy front.”

But even as Beijing takes on a more ambitious diplomatic role, Wu said its basic diplomatic logic will not change.

“It is China’s basic policy to solve global problems peacefully through dialogue,” he said.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative language coverage of China and Asia in more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP Facebook and Facebook page Twitter Pages. Copyright © 2023 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2023. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.


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